Thursday, August 27, 2015

Registered Students Who Don't Come to Class....

....benign manifestation, registration gaming, or a sign of some real underlying trouble?

I've finished teaching my first two class sessions.  There has been some weirdness regarding attendance and students not showing up.  I've got three students who have been registered since the get go but who have missed both of the class sessions.  In all my years of teaching, that has never happened.  I've got one more student who added the class on Tuesday but didn't show up for the class on Wednesday.  Then there are many who came Monday, are still registered, but didn't show up on Wednesday.  In this last group, that is closer to the usual pattern for kids who end up not coming to class regularly during the semester. (I don't require attendance but I did encourage them to come in my syllabus and in what I said in class on Monday.)  But in the recent past attendance has been high the first two weeks and then trails off after that.  This time around, the honeymoon period seems too brief.

I want to first cover the possible explanations for students not coming to class.  Then I want to review the scant evidence I have that speaks to the matter (information about individual students from Banner) and offer up my guesses as to which explanation best fits the situation here.  I will conclude with a brief discussion of the impact on my motivation and the possible impact on the motivation of the other students who have shown up so far.

Where I used the expression benign manifestation in the extended post title, I meant benign in an ethical sense.  If the students were sick with the flu so missed classed for that reason, obviously that would not be benign for them.  But missing class for health reasons is in accord with how the system should work and does not otherwise pose a challenge to how the system is structured.  In this case, we'd all wish the students a speedy recovery and I'd hope to seem them in class next Monday.  I do think this is the least likely possibility.  Given that, I'm listing it first, for otherwise I'd be apt to not consider it a possibility at all.

The registration gaming I mentioned comes in the form of course hoarding, by which I mean the student registers for more courses than the student plans to take, and will ultimately drop one or more courses in the current portfolio.  The extra class or two serves as a kind of self-insurance in case one of the planned classes doesn't pan out.  The university frowns on course hoarding but really can't block it effectively.  Indeed, it may inadvertently encourage the practice.

This can happen when a student earlier in their time on campus gets closed out of a course the student wants to take or is required to take.  I have no idea how prevalent being closed out of a course is, but I've had some of my former students tell me it can happen regularly in some minors, where the majors have registration priority and the minors only get to pick at the left overs.  And I know that it used to be the case in Econ that intermediate microeconomics had enrollment caps below demand, even though it was a core course for the major (and for Business students and other majors as well.)  Course hoarding can then be seen as a kind of tit for tat student behavior in response to having prior experiences with being closed out of other classes.

If this is what is going on, it needs to be understood that course hoarding is a learned behavior in response to inequities that the system itself produces.  In thinking about this I'm reminded of the closing scene in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  Paul Muni plays a once innocent man who is imprisoned on false charges and then becomes subject to a brutal penal system.  He ultimately escapes.  When asked how he survives as a then fugitive on the run he responds, "I steal."

To belabor the point, ethical lessons tend to be learned not so much within classes but rather by finding ways to cope with the system as it presents itself.  Do we really want to be sending students the implicit message that when they have the opportunity to do so they should hoard courses?  Such behavior makes them indifferent to concerns about other students, who might be closed out of a class as a consequence of their hoarding.   If instead we want students to be aware of the social consequences from their actions, we should be asking: how can we send a credible message as to the alternative?  The campus jaw boning on the matter is not credible and indeed may contribute to student cynicism, which I suspect is already deeply entrenched.

If I really wanted to market the third explanation, I'd refer to those kids who don't come to class as SINOs.  The implication is that such kids lack sufficient commitment to be referred to as students.  This is not a new issue.  The expression, a Gentleman's C, certainly predates when I was an undergraduate back in the early 1970s.  But what may be comparatively new, is the kids not bothering with any pretense to the contrary.  And if that is true, one needs to ask why.  Is it because these kids don't believe their delinquency will be of much consequence?  Or is it because these kids don't care, no matter what the consequences are?  And then we need to ask, is this behavior still confined to under achieving rich kids?  Or has it spread much wider than that?

Let me turn to the evidence about the registered students.  Each of those who missed both classes is male.  (The class as a whole has a substantial male majority, which is a bit unusual.)  Two of the three are transfer students.  (Most of the rest of the class started as first semester freshmen.)  Two of the three are from richer suburbs of Chicago.  Two of the three are Econ majors.  The third is majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability.

I don't recall any of my students previously having that major.  It is conceivable that economics would be quite useful to this major.  But I don't think this major is "close" to economics in the way that Political Science is or in the way the various Business disciplines are.  For those reasons, my guess is that this particular student is practicing course hoarding with my class.  The other two students, the Econ majors, I suspect are SINOs.

My purpose in the previous paragraph is not to elevate my personal speculation but rather to indicate the type of thinking that would be required to look at this situation far more systematically, from a campus perspective.  Indeed, I'm writing this piece to encourage a campus investigation into the matter.  I believe that is warranted.

Finally, I want to take on the criticism aimed at me that I'd expect to arise from some reading this piece.  To wit, stop being a priss, take attendance in your class, and make it required.  That speaks to the subject matter of the course, the Economics of Organizations.  And one of the messages I want to deliver to my students is that sometimes private performance incentives don't work very well.  What works better is an appeal to social norms of good behavior.  In the economics literature this idea is articulated by George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner, in his paper on labor markets as partial gift exchange.  This is the economist writing about the role of collegiality in the workplace.  Collegiality can trump performance contracts, especially when doing well at work is hard to measure quantitatively, but also otherwise, because people often perform better when trying to do the right thing as distinct from performing when trying to advantage themselves materially.

Given this, I really don't want to take attendance in class.  That would cave into an approach about performance at work that I want to de-emphasize. So I find this lack of attendance a challenge, because it is a direct threat to one of the core messages my class should provide.  I am bothered a great deal by that.  Partly this stems from the realization that a great deal of student behavior is driven by social norms.  When the norm is that the other students do come to class, each individual student is inclined to attend as well.  If what I am seeing is happening broadly in other classes, it signifies a change in the social norm.  We should then attempt to understand the causes for this change and we should try to resist it, if we possibly can. 

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