At Bronx Community College (BCC), faculty are required to include the following statement on their course syllabi: Class participation is a significant component of the learning process and plays an important role in determining overall student grades. Attendance, one may argue, is a key component to participation (online courses notwithstanding).

It is logical to assume then, that a policy of attendance would work to the ultimate success of students in that class.  This established the basis for the question the Dean of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment asked of the authors: Can you retrieve attendance data for a recent semester for First Year Seminar (FYS) and examine it. There is interest in seeing the correlation between attendance in FYS and grades in FYS – as well as attendance in FYS and overall Grade Point Average (GPA).

Before we address these areas of investigation, some context is needed.  FYS grew out of a college-wide effort to improve the first-year experience of BCC students. Full-time faculty are assigned to facilitate a two-hour per week course in coordination with a student peer mentor and a dedicated academic advisor. Topics of discussion include financial aid, study habits, technology, library, and program plans, among others.  The course grew from 150 incoming new students in Spring 2012 to over 1,200 in Spring 2019.  During this same period, BCC had embarked on a CUNY-wide initiative to increase Accelerated Study in Associates Programs (ASAP) enrollment that integrates the way students are advised and supported over their college career at BCC. FYS has played an integral role in this effort. In fact, over half of first-semester students participate in ASAP and/or FYS and one-semester retention rates are considerably higher for these students: 70%-80% compared with 50%-60% for non-participants.

Now back to the question on attendance. The first thing we needed was data on attendance. Fortunately, the Associate Director of First Year Program maintains attendance data on each FYS enrolled in electronic format. The attendance data was then combined with the data on first-semester GPA.  Once an analytical data set was in place, we wanted to see the nature of the attendance variable. In other words, what does attendance look like in FYS? Surprisingly, it was not as good as we had anticipated. Four out of ten FYS enrollees in Fall 2018 were absent from FYS four or more times.  Many students were absent more than five or six times.

Another question concerned the relationship between first-semester GPA and attendance. We presume there is one but what does it look like quantitatively?  Unsurprisingly, the data shows that no absences show the strongest GPA, at around 3.07. What follows is a textbook example of a negative correlation whereby as one variable increases, the other decreases: one absence (2.76 GPA), two absences (2.63), three (2.38), four (1.98), five (1.66), six (1.25), seven (1.17), eight (1.09), nine (.53) and ten (.40).

The implications of these findings are critical to the way the first-year program plans to update FYS professional development for faculty, advisors and mentors, utilize technology, and communicate student expectations.

Currently, attendance is monitored in all FYS classes by peer mentors and recorded in Starfish– a Retention Management Tool that facilitates early alerts. The program has a progressive multi-level intervention process. Peer mentors serve as the first level of contact for students who are absent. After each missed class, students are contacted by a peer mentor who provides class updates, checks to see if student is ok, and reinforces the  attendance policy.  At the second level, three absences automatically raises a flag in Starfish. This flag then triggers an email to student and corresponding alert to the caseload advisor. The caseload advisor is then responsible for contacting the student and communicating the findings to the instructor, thus closing the communication loop. Usually these conversations between advisor and students will reveal the reasons for non-attendance. Given that this is a pilot procedure, we are in the process of reviewing the data and identifying early implementers to share best practices.

Why do students miss class?

A student misses class for a variety of reasons: work schedule, using time to complete assignments for other classes, completing assignments for the current class (and thereby opting not to attend), or feeling disconnected or uninterested in the course content or professor’s teaching style. Closer to the end of the semester, some students seem to lose steam and become overwhelmed as final papers, exams and presentations cluster.  FYS, a one-credit course, is not considered as important as their other classes. In addition to these more common reasons, faculty and mentors also uncover more serious issues.  A student might be struggling with homelessness, hunger, legal issues, mental health or other serious well-being issues, and class attendance is only of secondary importance. One of the benefits of FYS is having multiple members in the success network. Students have a peer mentor, faculty support, and an academic advisor who all work together to “envelope” students in care.  Collaboratively, the success network identifies  in-time interventions and connects students to personal, financial, and academic resources.

Given our understanding of the factors that contribute to absenteeism, we know that some are unavoidable. Nevertheless, there are areas that as an institution we can address, which may impact some of the underlying issues of absenteeism: (1) Instituting a shared commitment to increase student sense of belonging; (2) Increased faculty development opportunities that support improvement in pedagogical practices; (3) Promote unbiased but realistic understanding of our student populations; (4) Further assessment of needs and available resources, which entails understanding our student population, the challenges they face and identifying shared values, expectations, experiences and a commitment to how we engage and support students in and out of the classroom.

BCC is currently is in the early stages of crafting its new strategic plan and exploring the integration of growth mindset training for faculty, mentors and students, and utilizing other pedagogical practices that support the development of resiliency and an increased sense of belonging for students. The FYS faculty development seminar, a semester-long initiative, is the ideal place to integrate these practices. FYS faculty coordinators are revamping FYS faculty development to incorporate training on how to use constructive formative feedback within a “growth mindset” environment.  The training will also include the integration of trauma-informed pedagogical practices to support student well-being in context of a supportive learning environment while maintaining academic rigor. By participating in high-quality FYS faculty development and teaching FYS, faculty will reflect on their own practices, understand the realities of our students, and support the retention of our most vulnerable students in their first year.

Author(s)

Chris Efthimiou is the Director of Institutional Research and Testing at Bronx Community College, CUNY.

Tica Frazer
 is the Associate Director for First Year Programs at Bronx Community College, CUNY.

References

  • Friedman, P., Rodriguez, F., & McComb, J. (2001). Why Students Do and Do Not Attend Classes: Myths and Realities. College Teaching, 49(4), 124-133. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27559057
 

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