Attendance matters!

By Merijn Chamon

As course coordinator and tutor for the only mandatory law course in the Bachelor in European Studies, I typically start the course with a clear message to students: Law as a discipline has its own language and logic and you can only get the hang of it by doing it. This means attending and participating in the tutorials. Since other course coordinators probably tell students the same thing, I emphasise this point by giving students a solemn guarantee: you will not pass this course if you don’t show up for the tutorials. Like in other disciplines, without a prior background in law, it is very difficult to master legal reasoning through self-study.

However, after having given this solemn guarantee, a nagging feeling typically takes hold of me. Yes, my gut feeling tells me that students who do not attend also typically do not pass, but which empirical evidence do I really have for making this statement? None of the students challenged me on the empirical soundness of my guarantee, so I decided to do so myself. When starting my course Ordering Europe this academic year (260 students), I decided to link students’ final results to their class attendance.

The methodology of my enquiry was rather rudimentary. The six tutors were asked to check attendance for each tutorial. Those data were only aggregated after the exam was corrected (to exclude possible bias during correcting). Once the exam results had been compiled, I added a column in my Excel sheet with each student’s percentage of attendance. The chart below shows the anonymised results.

The chart itself and the coefficient of determination (R²) seem to speak for themselves but still merit further discussion. Clearly there is a strong and positive correlation between a student’s final grade and their attendance during tutorials. The green encircled corner in the top right is heavily populated with students that passed the course and that attended 60% or more of the tutorials.

Yet, correlation is not the same as causation. Since I did not control for other variables, I cannot positively say that the students in the top right corner scored better on the course because they attended tutorials more. The real independent variable might for instance be the degree of motivation of individual students, explaining both attendance and final grade. Research by Patrick Bijsmans and Arjan Schakel shows, however, that (non-)attendance still makes a difference even for highly motivated students.

Also interesting parts are the outliers (the red encircled areas in the top left and bottom right). These are students that did not attend more than one tutorial but still passed the course (four in total) and students that attended 80% or more of the tutorials but that did not pass the course. The first group requires me to qualify the guarantee that I gave the students, but does not detract from its message: Yes, they can pass the course without attending, but only if they believe they are part of the 1,5% of students that manage to pull this off (which includes students doing the course a second time).

The group in the top left then is more problematic. Although my guarantee does not a contrario imply that attending all tutorials ensures you will pass the course (although a contrario arguments are a favourite in legal reasoning), this second group of outliers still is remarkable. At least some of the outliers are due to students attending tutorials but not being able to sit the exam in October.

Another explanation could be the quality of participation during tutorials, which is also an important caveat of my impromptu research. I only measured attendance, which means that a (hypothetical, I should stress) student that attends every tutorial without actively participating or without even preparing the materials would still get a perfect score on this indicator. We can assume, however, that between two students that participate in all tutorials, the one who properly prepares each meeting and who actively participates should in the end score better on the course than the passive, unprepared student.

I don’t have empirical proof for this, but quality of participation is also more difficult to measure without resorting to questionnaires. In essence, at least in my course, participation boils down to ‘thinking along’, honing your skill in legal reasoning. That may well be done in total silence, meaning a student may be fully participating without uttering a word (conversely, actively engaging in the discussion does not necessarily mean that a student is also properly participating).

These are important considerations for the debate on the (non)sense of mandatory attendance (which was in place until a few years ago). For this debate it would be interesting to know what the precise effect is of attendance as an independent variable compared to other variables such as student motivation or quality of participation. In any event, when next year I stress the importance of attending tutorials in my course, I will not simply have to rely on my gut feeling but instead I will be able to show students the chart presented above which makes one thing very clear: Attendance matters!

About the author

Merijn Chamon is Assistant Professor of EU law at Maastricht University and coordinator and tutor for the Bachelor in European Studies course Ordering Europe.