28 Feb 2023

Universities want more students back in lectures as attendance remains low

7:26 am on 28 February 2023
Conference and Presentation. Audience at the conference hall. Business and Entrepreneurship. Faculty lecture and workshop. Audience in the lecture hall. Academic education.

File photo. Photo: 123 RF

Universities are encouraging students to attend their lectures in-person in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last year's often-deserted lecture theatres.

The pandemic forced universities to greatly expand the practice of recording lectures and posting them online so students could continue learning through lockdowns or if they were in isolation.

But as Covid restrictions eased, academics were surprised and disappointed that lecture attendance did not bounce back.

The change had repercussions beyond lecture-attendance. Earlier this year, a bookshop and cafe on Victoria University's Kelburn campus announced it would close because there were fewer people on-campus.

Most students spoken to by RNZ this week said they preferred to attend lectures in-person, but sometimes it was not possible.

They said they watched online lectures due to ill-health or disability, but also if assignments were due or if their lectures clashed with paid employment.

Third-year student Arden said attending lectures was the ideal, but often it was more enjoyable to go to campus and watch lectures with a group of friends.

"We'd just find a little corner and we'd watch our lectures online".

Another third-year student, Peter, said he intended to go to lectures last year, but sometimes it was easier to go online instead.

"The decision was definitely to attend as much as possible but the reality was different because it's 'all right we're not going to lecture because we're working on an assignment' or 'I'll just watch it later and then you never watch it later'," he said.

"The end of last year, I did wind up going to a lot of the lectures, but there were three other people in the room and the energy of the lecture and the room was shit. It kind of felt [like] it wasn't worth going to the lectures when there was so few people in the room."

Victoria University students Arden Lou and Halle Richards.

Victoria University students Arden Lou and Halle Richards. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Halle Richards said sitting in near-empty lecture theatres could be awkward.

"When there is less people, it's really funny because for some reason we all still spread out across the entire lecture hall. It would be five people in an ampitheatre of 200 students and the professor would be like 'why don't we all come down to the first row' which makes it a little bit weird," she said.

Victoria University of Wellington Students Association president Jessica Ye said universities were misguided if they thought students would flock to lectures just because Covid restrictions had changed.

In many ways, traditional lectures were better suited to online viewing than face-to-face delivery, Ye said.

"They are ultimately an incredibly passive learning experience and they have been for so long. If anything, it's a learning experience that is almost best served under a lecture recording," she said.

"If you want to have students come in person, actually ask them to come in person for more student-centric learning opportunities, because there's no point asking them to come in person if they don't get a chance to speak or anything like that."

The issue had become highly charged, Ye said.

"Lecturers sort of see lack of attendance as a personal attack on them, and so it's difficult to get to a point of [considering] how that impacts student success and what you might do differently, especially because staff have been very burnt out by doing dual-mode throughout the pandemic and they need resources really," she said.

The co-president academic of the Auckland University branch of the Tertiary Education Union, Barry Hughes, said he personally experienced a class of 400 drop to just 50 regular attendees.

"It's a little disorienting when you're scheduled to be in a very large lecture theatre but you only see a scattering of students. But I remember that the recording is going to all students who choose to access it," he said.

He did not take the lack of attendance personally and his biggest worry was that many students did not use the online lectures well, Hughes said.

"They will wait until the end of the semester and then jam as many recordings as they can in before the exam, so that's where problems arise for students and where what they get out of the course is seriously diminished."

The 15 students who got A-plus grades for his course all attended lectures in person, but also had other habits in common like taking notes by hand and rewatching recorded lectures later to make sure they understood difficult concept, Hughes said.

Lecture attendance began falling more than 10 years ago when the university started recording lectures and providing them online, but it had grown since the pandemic began, he said.

Many academics were trying to find ways to make their lectures more interactive to encourage attendance, he said.

University of Canterbury teaching and learning senior leader professor Catherine Moran said lecture attendance started at about 66 to 75 percent last year and declined from there.

"For the lecturers, it has been tough. I know for many it has been somewhat demoralising."

The university created a working group to share ideas for encouraging students to turn up, Moran said.

Some courses now had more small group learning or interactive workshops and others scheduled extracurricular activities immediately after their lectures to encourage attendance, she said.

It was worth turning up, she said.

"I've been using the analogy of going to the gym and going to a gym class versus trying to do your workout video at home. There's something about being in a context and in an environment that really switches your mind and motivates you to engage in what you're supposed to be engaging in," Moran said.

Victoria University said since Covid regulations had relaxed it was keen to reinvigorate its campus and welcome students back to in-person teaching.

"The majority of our courses are being offered in-person in 2023, and in addition a range of in-person events will take place throughout the year, including rainbow and inclusion activities, student club expos, cultural and recreation events," it said.

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