For academic instruction, the times have changed – for better and for worse. For better becau we now have a wider array of, mainly digital, means of instruction. For worse because older but nonetheless highly advantageous instructive tools and methods are losing ground. Specifically, less and less students feel the need or desire to physically attend classes, a change not lost on the growing number of lecturers, who understand the significance of classroom interaction and so regret the steady decline of attendance in their lectures. Yet there are ways to boost both attendance and participation – ways which, ironically, rely partly on digital means of instruction.
Lectures do not have to be based on an active speaker and passive listeners, but on interaction. Such interaction may be achieved through debates, pair and group work, and small in-class tasks. Thanks to digital tools, moreover, the latter have now become both more effective and more manageable. Wooclap, for example, is an app embedded in Moodle which offers in-class, interactive activities, such as surveys, multiple-choice questionnaires and brainstorming, to name a few of the options the app offers. What is more, Wooclap activities are done via phones, tablets or computers, putting students' devices to better use than social media or online shopping (yes, they do that in class, a lot...). In addition, the activities are not done in isolation, as the results may be projected live yet anonymously. This allows even the weaker or more shy students to take active part in the lesson and engage with their peers, not to mention allowing the lecturer to evaluate understanding on the go.
Last but not least, while each in-class activity is anonymous, the app requires a Moodle account to participate, and each activity is only available as long as the lecturer keeps it on, so that lecturers may later account for student attendance and participation. Conducting Wooclap activities in class, therefore, offers an innovative method to ensure attendance, check for understanding and engage students, all at a fraction of the time and effort usually required to perform these functions.
Division of Labor
Academic courses often have a clear set of parts and functions: lectures for content, tutorials for practice and homework for evaluation or preparation for the following set of lecture/tutorial/homework. It is therefore hardly surprising that students easily pick and choose which aspects of a course they wish to invest in, especially if their final goal is to succeed on assignments and/or tests. The solution is to redivide the course resources and intermix their functions: include practice in the lecture, offer additional materials in the tutorials (if allowed by faculty/department rules), include in-class assignments and quizzes. Students should know and see that the various parts and aspects of a course are complimentary, not interchangeable.
Students talk, share and research, so that, by the time they arrive at a given course, they usually know quite a lot about it: what the lecturer is like, what the difficulties and shortcuts are, what to invest in and what to disregard. Especially when a course repeats every year, students have no problem gaining access to previous materials and, post- Covid, recordings. To avoid giving students the sense that everything they need to know is already out there, it is important to make yearly changes to course requirements and especially content. Add new materials, remove older ones, offer new challenges, update or upgrade exams, change the means of evaluation. Not all of these have to be done all at once, of course, but some changes are necessary to ensure that students approach a course afresh. It is likewise necessary to inform students about the differences between previous courses and the current one. In other words, let them know that you are aware of what is out there, but that numerous aspects have changed.
Know Thy Students
In classrooms both large and small, but especially in large ones, students may feel insignificant and so less committed to the lecturer and the course. After all, if they feel (or know) that their presence makes no difference, they have only technical reasons to attend the course and these, we have seen, may be easily mitigated. To avoid giving students this feeling of insignificance and to strengthen their sense of commitment, it is important to show them that they are “seen:" ask and use their names when they speak, note their expressions and call on a student – if appearing baffled, angry or bored – with a casual question, make small talk before class, and refer back to students' questions, comments or work when an opportunity arises. It does not mean that lecturers should actually know and remember all of their students, but a few personal interactions with a few students per lesson can make a huge difference. Students who feel missed when not there, are more likely to come to class and participate in it.
Although these ways of boosting attendance are meant to induce students to come to class by means other than rational persuasion, these should not suggest manipulation or trickery. It is still important to let students know how important attendance is both for you and for them. The times have changed. What has not changed is that students may still greatly benefit from instructors' knowledge and experience, and if these beckon that students are misguided in relying too much on technology and former students, it is not amiss to structure courses and lectures in ways beneficial both to the needs of students and to the capabilities of instructors.