Debate: Checking Lecture Attendance

LIZ ELDER and JUAN ZOBER DE FRANCISCO look at the pros and cons of checking lecture attendance.

attendance Cambridge Cambridge University Exams lecturer Lectures revision notes supervision university


Exams have started, and prompted many of us to question whether we should have attended more lectures this year. We asked two of our writers to weight up the pros and cons of universities checking lecture attendance.

Liz Elder argues that lecture attendance should be optional and unmonitored.

Should Cambridge be checking lecture attendance?

Enforcing lecture attendance would ostensibly seem advantageous. Many universities, such as Sheffield and Southampton, are beginning to put into place registers and other similar systems to check attendance. The principle behind this is that going to lectures will make everyone learn all their entire course properly, and thus they will perform well in exams, giving the university a nice position in The Times’ university list the next year.

However, this rests upon the assumption that lectures are the best way to learn courses. This may well be the case for some courses, like vet med, that involve following a close syllabus, where the lectures involve going through each section over the term. But, even then, almost all of my vet-med friends pick and choose their lectures. This proves that there are clearly other options available to help you learn for exams.

One particular favourite, which I am slightly jealous of, is the science departments’ decision to give their students comprehensive lecture notes at the beginning of the course. While this is done to support the lectures and make them more useful, after week two, when your resolution to ‘go to, like, all the lectures; even the 9ams’, has fallen through with that tenth VK in Cindies, all these notes seem to do is to save everyone the trek to the lecture rooms.

So, when it comes to lectures, all we are looking for, is the course made clear. While some people may find the lectures stimulating (you know the ones: they lead the clapping in lectures), any notes that follow the course – be they lecture notes, text books, supervision handouts, or Wikipedia – are just as useful in helping you learn the material.

As an arts student, I struggle to find lectures useful. Firstly, only about a third are relevant to any of the supervision work I do. Secondly, there is the issue of lectures themselves: most are delivered by monotonous, tweed-wearing men in slightly- too-warm-rooms. Inevitably, five minutes into a lecture, I start looking around. It’s Sidgwick, so I take mental fashion tips from the people in the rows around me and admire that hot guy from Sidney. Then comes the glance at the clock. And so it begins. Forty minutes of staring blankly at a clock that doesn’t seem to move, gradually losing the will to live. No matter how interesting the subject may be, unless there is a supervisor waiting to ask me a question, I can’t remain interested.

For me, the best way to learn about tragic potential in Hamlet is to read up about it and form my own opinion; not to be told what to say by a lecturer, giving me the exact same arguments as the other two hundred English students that I will be examined with.

I’m not saying lectures aren’t useful. Some people love them, and they should go to any and all that they find useful. However, they aren’t the only way to learn a degree course. Forcing people to attend them won’t necessarily improve results. The halls will be full of people like me, staring at attractive classmates and texting under the table. So, I say: let lectures be optional, and be full of attentive, interested students, and let everyone else curl up in the corner of their JCR with a theory book, if that’s what works for them.

Juan Zober de Francisco suggests that lecture attendance should be monitered.

I have the harder side in this debate, not least because I’ve been to just two lectures this term. And both were a waste of time.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of lectures for an arts student: the first is where the lecturer dryly goes through the books on the reading list, the second where the lecturer attempts to inject some element of interactivity and so opens the floor to questions. With the former, your time is infinitely better spent actually studying the books on the reading list; with the latter, lectures inevitably degenerate as students ask idiotic questions, such as ‘In an exam, is it better to use more examples in less depth, or fewer examples with more depth?’

Auto-asphyxiation sounds more fun than having to listen to the answer, as the lecturer usually spends five to ten minutes rambling on in an attempt to give an answer. So, why should we check attendance at lectures?

Because, while not all lectures are worth it, some definitely are. In Cambridge we’re lucky to have a powerful supervision system, but lectures nonetheless remain a great way to teach 300 medics the theory behind how to remove an appendix from a patient without killing him, for example. Or 80 SPSers the history of the Tiananmen movement for democracy. We shouldn’t let the fact that we’ve all been to some lectures that are a waste of time devalue the importance of lectures in general.

Our university should provide full support to lectures and should see them as one of the many ways in which Cambridge students are taught. Support cannot be given unless problem areas are identified. An easy tool that the university could and should use is to check attendance.

If attendance for a lecture starts large and diminishes over time, this can be indicative of many things: perhaps students aren’t engaged with the subject matter or the lecturer. If attendance increases over time, then this might be a sign of students spreading information about a good lecturer through word-of-mouth, and perhaps the university should have put more thought into the way in which the lecture series was publicised.

The biggest problem with this system is that it could encourage the ‘popularisation’ of education, which is undoubtedly a bad thing; we don’t want lecturers feeling they should entertain instead of teach, as they might do if they think that their performance is being rated by attendance. Similarly, we don’t want poorly attended lectures to be cancelled. Steps would have to be taken to ensure neither of these things happens.

We should, however, ask why some lectures are poorly attended (or why some lectures have diminishing attendance over time). If there’s a reason behind it that the university can do something about – say, provide greater resources to lecturers who need them – then the university should do so. Alternatively, the reason may lie with the lecturer himself (or herself). In which case, sometimes even the teachers need teaching.

Ultimately, checking attendance at lectures could be part of a collection of tools that the university should use to be more responsive to providing excellent education. Provided it’s done properly, very carefully, and for the right reasons, I see no problem with it.