Why and how FASoS should stay on top of attendance in PBL

By Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University) and Arjan Schakel (University of Bergen)

The abolishment of minimum attendance requirements at FASoS just over two years ago has been a recurring topic of discussion. Literature on students’ persistence and results often highlights attendance as important, because absenteeism would increase the risk of dropout. Intuitively, one would expect attendance to be even more important in programmes with an active learning environment, such as PBL. Research finds that active learning environments have a positive effect on students’ study success, yet few studies have looked at the importance of (non-)attendance in such learning environments. In 2018, we published an article in Higher Education that addresses this gap. In this blog, we provide new data to contextualise the discussions on attendance, and present options for further research and refinement of the faculty’s attendance policy.

Compulsory attendance and study success

In our 2018 article, we investigated the effect of course (non-)attendance on study success of three BA ES cohorts (2012/2013, 2013/2014, 2014/2015). We looked at two forms of study success: retention, namely differences in attendance between students who passed the threshold of 42 ECTS of the binding study advice (BSA) and those who did not; and grades, namely the effect of attendance on students’ grade point average (GPA). We divided the 1059 students enrolled at the start of the three years in three sub-groups: (1) 650 students who attended all courses; (2) 548 students who also passed the BSA threshold; (3) 326 students who also attended the minimum number of required meetings at the end of the year.

Controlling for a range of factors, including gender, age, nationality, pre-education and GPA of the previous period, we found that attendance has a clear additive impact beyond “active engagement” or “commitment to PBL”. Doesn’t this depend on the nature of PBL or on students’ overall commitment? Could certain rules, like minimum attendance requirements, stimulate desired behaviour? Or could the results be due to some level of endogeneity, given that the best-performing students tend to attend more meetings? Our data enabled us to differentiate within the group of students. Even among the committed students – those who met the minimum attendance requirements in all courses – we found that higher attendance has a substantial impact on the amount of ECTS obtained and the end-of-year GPA.

Non-compulsory attendance and study success

We have continued to collect data on attendance and study success since the abolishment of minimum attendance requirements, superbly supported by the exam office. Below we present data for all first-year BA ES and BA AC students in the academic year 2018/2019. Figure 1 shows cumulative attendance of students for period 1 until period 5. BA ES students attend more than 80% of tutorials, while BA AC students attend just below 80% after period 2, 79% in period 3, and 78% in periods 4 and 5. But overall, attendance among FASoS students is quite good.

However, the number of students who miss one or more courses increases dramatically for BA AC students. Figure 1 displays cumulative attendance for those students who attended allcourses. Yet, whereas of the 276 BA ES who started in period one, 227 students (82%) had attended all courses by the end of period 5, of the 103 BA AC only 42 students (41%!) had done so.

We believe that the low cumulative attendance of BA AC students is worrisome, because our research clearly reveals that attendance is strongly associated with GPA. Figure 2 displays the impact of cumulative attendance at the end of period 5 on the GPA at the end of the year.

Figure 2 shows that students who attend 80% or more of the total meetings receive a cumulative GPA above the passing grade of 6.0. The whiskers indicate the 95 confidence intervals around the average, meaning that we are pretty sure (95% confident) that the estimate lies within the boundaries of the whiskers. The lower bounds of the whiskers do not cross the 6.0 line when cumulative attendance surpasses 80%, except for BA AC students, as the number of students on which the estimates are based is quite low: 25 instead of 143 for the BA ES.

Final thoughts

Our new results strongly indicate that FASoS should strive for at least 80% attendance among students. As Gump writes “[s]tudents who wish to succeed academically should attend class, and instructors should likewise encourage class attendance”. We do not claim that attendance per se has an impact on study success, because our findings may very well be driven by intrinsically motivated, well-prepared, and therefore well-performing students who also attend more tutorials.

Can we stimulate students to attend without resorting to external incentives such as obligatory attendance? Other policies are possible, including incentive schemes and showing students how (non-)attendance affects their results. During the past two years we used the latter in the BA ES, presenting attendance data during meetings of the mentor programme. However, this data was not always available. Pursuing this policy would require faculty commitment to rigorous data collection and analysis.

In addition, it is not just attendance that matters in PBL, but also preparation and participation. Since FASoS data is administrative in nature, we cannot reflect on these and other factors, including motivation, self-efficacy and whether or not we sufficiently tap into students’ intrinsic motivationto attend tutorials. The faculty should therefore also commit to a thorough qualitative study regarding students’ perspectives on the importance of attendance.

About the authors

Patrick Bijsmans teaches European Studies at BA and MA level, as coordinator and tutor in several courses, and as supervisor of BA and MA theses. His research interests include issues related to teaching and learning in PBL and European Studies. Patrick also is coordinator of the teaching staff training programme Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

Arjan Schakel taught in the BA, MA, and RMES European Studies and he was Director of Studies of the BA ES in the academic year 2018-2019. Currently, Arjan is based at the University of Bergen, Norway where he works on the research project ’Strengthening Regional Democracy’. One of Arjan’s research interests concerns factors that impact study success in PBL.