Is Student Absenteeism a Growing Problem at Colleges, Too?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of children regularly miss elementary, middle and high school.

Is the same pattern of absenteeism playing out at colleges, too? If so, what’s driving the trend? And what can professors and higher ed leaders do about it?

To find out, EdSurge interviewed Terri Hasseler, a professor in the Department of History, Literature, and the Arts at Bryant University in Rhode Island. She’s also director of the Center for Teaching Excellence there, which provides faculty with support for instruction, edtech, course design, classroom management and grading.

That vantage point gives her insight about what’s keeping students from feeling fully invested in showing up for class ready to truly participate in the learning process. She believes contributing factors may include a lack of ‘academic stamina’ among today’s students, changing parenting practices and inadequate explanations from faculty about why showing up actually matters.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Why is student disengagement or absenteeism something that you’re thinking about?

Terri Hasseler: One of the things that I spend a lot of time with faculty on is things that they’re seeing in the classroom. And over the last year, as we see things that are happening nationally in other institutions as well, we’re seeing higher levels of absenteeism [and] greater elements of disruption and distraction in the classroom that are manifesting in all sorts of different ways. And in my position, I’ve been working with faculty to find ways to navigate those problems.

Is absenteeism a problem in college as well as at the K-12 level?

In terms of measuring absenteeism in college or university settings, it’s harder because most schools don’t have university-wide policies on absences. Some schools do, but a lot of schools generally leave absence management up to individual instructors. And so, much of the information that we find about whether people are engaging in classes … is primarily anecdotal — though I will say we hear this pretty broadly across the United States, but in my own institution as well, we hear that students are absent from class.

And then when we talk about absence or distraction — and I would argue that distraction and disengagement is still very much an issue, and we can talk a little bit about why that may continue to be the case post-pandemic — but distraction, absenteeism manifests itself perhaps differently.

So a student may not come to class or a student may come to class and then walk out of class five minutes into class and then be gone for 20 minutes and return sometime within the midst of that. They may disengage by being physically in the classroom, but on their phones or their laptops feigning attention, feigning participation in class, but they’re really in their Amazon cart or they’re in their email or they’re someplace else.

So this kind of absenteeism may not be just not being physically there. It might be also the disengagement we’re talking about, of not being mentally or emotionally available or present in the classroom.

Do you find that professors take attendance? Do they count that as part of a grade or is it more like if you choose not to show up, you’re not going to learn?

It depends. I think some professors have very clear absence policies. I have an absence policy in my class. Though I think many people’s absence policies are more lenient of late because of what the pandemic did for thoughts about health and well-being in the classroom. We don’t want students in the classroom when they’re not physically well. We don’t want them getting other students unwell or getting us unwell. So the definition of being in the classroom, or the leniency of coming into the classroom because of health, has I think changed a lot. The pandemic did a lot in that way — in some ways in a good way — because I think people dragged themselves to places they didn’t belong because they were unwell. And now we have more humane guidelines around that.

To your point though, more broadly, I think one of the issues is that we can no longer assume that it’s a shared belief structure that we all think being in the classroom is the thing to do post-pandemic.

I mean, from the pandemic we’ve learned, ‘Oh, I can get lecture notes, I can get slides, I can get a video of the classroom, I can get all of the content that I need outside of the classroom, so why do I go to class?’ And a lot of that material that you can get outside of the class is really important for lots of reasons. It’s good to support learning, it’s important for accessibility, it’s important to address accommodations for students. So that stuff is really important.

But faculty have to do a much better job of articulating why do you show up in the classroom now? What is the reason that you come to the classroom?

And for me as an educator, I always really subscribe to Paolo Freire’s thoughts on the idea that you build knowledge together in the classroom with students. And the idea that 50 percent of the knowledge, 50 percent of the content enters the classroom when the students enter the classroom.

Students may not necessarily see it that way. It has to be articulated to them. They have to learn that a lot of the learning happens in context. A lot of the learning happens in relation to peers, the exchange of ideas, the importance of practicing ideas in a classroom and trying them on with your peers, with your instructor, the immediate access to the instructor that you get in the classroom and hearing ideas articulated in new ways that may be different from the external materials that you might get [from] the lecture slides or the PowerPoints. You can hear those articulated in different ways in the classroom. The iterative process of learning; the fact that you can’t just read one thing once and know it, you have to go through it over and over again.

And I think some other things that we need to be better at communicating with students are the intangibles. Just showing up somewhere, practicing being present, practicing being on time, establishing a sense of responsibility to your peers that you are there being with other people.

Can you say more about that?

So I asked my students. I was thinking a lot about this kind of work and related to the question of how does physical absence affect other students in the classroom? If your classmate doesn’t show up, how does that affect you?

And some of the things that I was thinking about and observing and seeing in my work and having a lot of faculty talk with me about this too, is that if students are distracted or physically present but not mentally present — they’re on their laptop, for instance, and they’re shopping in Amazon and you’re sitting next to them as a student and you see this other student is clearly not there — that’s very distracting. It’s hard to focus if the person next to you is distracted, it distracts you. And it takes a while to get yourself back into the conversation. And there may be feelings about that, like ‘this is unfair, and why do I have to be there?’

And there’s also a permissiveness about that. If it happens, it gives other students permission to think, ‘Well, maybe I should be on my Amazon account,’ or ‘I should be shopping.’

And I asked my students about that just recently. What do you think about students who don’t show up? And it was really interesting because they got into a conversation about it, and they’re very aware that others are not there, and they’re very aware that some students who show up aren’t there either.

And they immediately wanted to write those students off. They were frustrated with them, they wanted nothing to do with them. Some of the phrases were, ‘I’m glad when they don’t come because they don’t participate, and they just make it worse.’

And as I reflected on that, I thought it was sort of an interesting reaction because it seems to me it’s almost a sense of betrayal, that their classmates have betrayed them in the learning environment. And if you’re going to betray me, I don’t want you here, just go away.

So students recognize this social contract — of the importance of being in space and learning together. But they’re still trying to learn to articulate why it’s important. And I think that’s why faculty need to be better at articulating: You come to class for these reasons. This is why we spend time together in a room.

For students who don’t show up or who don’t engage, do their grades suffer?

My previous position was as an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and I will say that our DFW numbers [the percentage of students in a course who get a D or F grade or who withdraw] do increase across areas where students aren’t engaging. But I can’t put exact numbers on that.

Logically it follows that if you don’t come, you’re more likely to fail. You’re more likely to not do well. You fail to establish your relationship with your instructor that could be your support system. If you’re not doing well in the classroom, you lose access to the information that would prepare you.

Presumably higher education is voluntary. You’ve signed up to go to college. You’ve paid money to be there. You think there might be an economic prompt, if nothing else, to maximize this experience, but it sounds like that’s not the case for everybody?

You would think. Certainly my background, where I came from, a lower-economic, rural farming community, I thought about the money that was invested and involved in the process of going to college. And I think our students do too. I mean, I think they’re very aware of the economic reality. They see the student loans and the financial obligation of all of this.

And at the same time, we have students who are still disengaged.

Now, whether this is also something that can be tracked socioeconomically, I think that’s an important question to ask.

Is disengagement a product of privilege? Possibly.

People who have more access to wealth, more opportunity to fail because financial support structures are there to help them if they fail, they may be more disengaged because of the product of that privilege. I have no evidence to support that, but it’s certainly a reasonable question to ask.

Parenting practices have changed across time, too. … We’ve talked about helicopter parents for a long time. Now we’re in that phase of talking about snowplow parents, too — parents who remove all obstacles for students. And we’re talking about that in my own Center for Teaching Excellence right now. We talk about that within the framework of the problem of kindness. How do you build a kind environment but don’t interpret kindness as doing the work for them — doing the snowplow that removes all the obstacles — and still keep the necessary stress and discomfort of learning in place in ways that are supportive for students to manage that stress and discomfort? And I think that there’s some arguments out there that because there’s been so much work to remove some of those obstacles for students, they’re less equipped to manage them.

A colleague in the CTE that I work with, Mary Boehmer, she uses the phrase ‘academic stamina.’ They haven’t built the academic stamina because of the pandemic, because of, perhaps, parenting structures that move obstacles out of the way of students. And so we’ve done a disservice to students in not giving them the opportunity to fail. … And I think schools see that at this time of year especially, they really start losing that ability to get themselves through to the end.

Is there also an uptick in people not doing their academic work, not turning in assignments and expecting infinite extensions?

That could be a product of that sort of snowplow conversation we just had. And also the necessary part of teaching during the pandemic, which is giving people multiple opportunities, making space for them to do it at their own pace because who knows what trauma they’re dealing with in their family or in their home, and trying to build a space that gives them the time to do what they need to do.

And I would add that, we talk about being outside of the pandemic, but we’re not outside of this heightened state of unrest, right? We are dealing with declining enrollments, the precarity of the world, the sense of people questioning the utility of education. So it may be that we’re outside of the more formal frameworks of the pandemic, but we’re still in discomforting times, and that’s a part of the angst that students are in and that faculty are in, and people who work in academic settings are a part of the world, and they’re experiencing that too.

So there is definitely noticeable anecdotal evidence to suggest that students are not coming to turn work in.

One of the things we noted in the fall is that we saw students coming back, they were more engaged, they were really excited. We thought, ‘OK, maybe we’ve turned the tide.’ Students were participating in much more events on campus, so we saw an increase in activity.

But then as the semester went along, that academic stamina issue arose. Less papers coming in. Students not following up. They would disappear. So there was sort of this performance of engagement that diminished as the semester went along because the stamina wasn’t there to keep it.

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