Meaningful Attendance and Belonging in the Face-to-Face Classroom

Course: HIS 243H and HIS 401

Department: History

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor: Dr. Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 17 and 12; in the first course they are almost exclusively non-majors; in the other they are advanced majors

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: minimal; mostly Blackboard

Author Bio: Liz Lehfeldt is Professor of History and has been teaching at Cleveland State since 1995. At Cleveland State, in addition to her role as a faculty member, she has served as Chair of the History Department and Dean of the Mandel Honors College. She is the former Vice President of the Teaching Division of the American Historical Association.

Abstract: This case study seeks to identify and explore strategies to enhance student engagement in the face-to-face university classroom. Instead of attendance as a requirement in and of itself, the case study experiments with approaches designed to encourage more engagement and a sense of belonging.

A Case Study

In July of 2023 the Teaching Newsletter for the Chronicle of Higher Education addressed what many have acknowledged is one of the most vexing teaching challenges in higher ed right now: class attendance. They interviewed Dr. Lindsey Masland, Director of Transformative Teaching and Learning at Appalachian State University. She offered her thoughts about various strategies, but she also made a striking observation: “our needs around supporting engagement are outpacing the research right now. Everything I am seeing as a consulting editor for teaching journals focuses on the assessment of motivation and engagement of students in the early years of the pandemic. We have almost nothing that is evidence-based about right now, at least not yet.”

In other words, we are navigating a new landscape in our face-to-face classes when we seek to encourage attendance and engagement. We know that attendance and engagement are critical elements in student success and retention. Further, in face-to-face classes that rely upon the classroom experience to enhance learning, we need to move beyond attendance for its own sake. Thus, this case study proposes to examine this issue in more detail by (1) evaluating the strategies I used in fall semester 2023; (2) refining my fall 2023 strategies; (3) examining the results of an informal survey I will administer to my fall 2023 students; and (4) identifying and implementing new strategies for Spring 2024.

Fall Semester 2023: What I Tried

During the first week of class I used various inclusive teaching strategies to set a welcoming and collaborative tone using ideas outlined in Sathy and Hogan’s Inclusive Teaching. In particular, I employed two deliberate strategies to cultivate attendance and engagement. First, during the first week of the semester I led the students in discussions about their expectations for, and understanding of, the significance of face-to-face (hereafter F2F) classes. We talked about what F2F classes can add to the student experience that cannot necessarily be accomplished online. We explored the significance of what it means to show up for each other—for example, class discussions are better and richer when as many students as possible are there to participate. And as the instructor, I underscored this conversation by clearly stating my goal of having as many voices as possible in the room and how much I value everyone’s presence and engagement. And I emphasize that in-person participation is part of my instructional design.

The second strategy was to work very deliberately to build community among the students during the first weeks of class. Each class began with a light-hearted icebreaker (posing a funny but engaging question at the start of class like “is a hot dog a sandwich?”) or check-in with the students. My intention was to help the students become more comfortable with one another and me and to foster a sense of belonging in that particular classroom environment. There is a robust literature for doing this online, but perhaps because F2F classroom instruction was the norm for so long, there is less material on how to foster this in-person. I have been largely inspired in this work by what I have read through informal pedagogy networks on Twitter and Bluseky.

I employed these two strategies alongside more customary features of my course that are meant to encourage a relaxed classroom atmosphere that values student attendance and engagement. These include breaking students into smaller groups for discussions, in-class opportunities for workshopping papers and projects, and sending weekly emails that detailed specifically what we would be doing in class each day which emphasized the value in attending.

It is worth noting, in addition, what I did not do in fall semester 2023. I did not have an attendance or participation requirement. I did this in the interest of extending grace and flexibility to the students.

Fall Semester 2023: What Worked, What Didn’t

Despite employing all of the above strategies, attendance in my two Fall 2023 upper-level courses averaged out at about 50% over the course of the semester. I have students who had not attended in over a month (this despite reaching out to them individually). Many of those who stopped attending or attend erratically did not discussed their circumstances with me. I am not expecting them to divulge anything personal, but I would have been willing to work with them (something I have indicated on Blackboard and in email communications) if I were aware of extenuating circumstances that were impeding their attendance and/or progress in the course.

All of this prompts an evaluation of what I tried in fall semester 2023.

I would still use both strategies outlined above: (1) a discussion about the value and significance of F2F classes and (2) activities to promote engagement and belonging. I would refine them as follows:

  1. Value and significance of F2F classes: This is not only a discussion for the first day. I plan to extend it to be over the first two weeks of class. Additionally I will share research with the students about the value of attendance and engagement. Discussion will be as a whole class AND in small groups.
  2. Engagement and belonging activities: I lost the thread on these and stopped doing them consistently after the first few weeks. I can remedy this by having more of them prepped before the semester starts. I was often scrambling right before class to design them. In so doing, I would like to orient more of them towards the students checking in with themselves and their classmates about assignments, progress in the course, time management, etc.

Fall Semester 2023: Student Survey

All of the students in both of my courses were invited to complete this anonymous survey. While none of the questions required an answer, I sought feedback about what impeded their attendance if they were unable to attend regularly (though students were not required to divulge anything they were uncomfortable sharing). It invited them to share suggestions about what might have encouraged them to attend more. And finally, it invited all of them, including students who did attend regularly, to offer feedback and suggestions about the classroom experience that would enhance their engagement and learning.

Spring Semester 2024: New Strategies

As outlined above, I will continue with many of my strategies, refining some of the newer ones as discussed. New strategies will include the following:

  1. While I will not have an attendance policy, I will structure each course so that there are low-stakes, in-class activities that further student learning. I will drop a certain number of these to allow for occasional student absences and to reduce the need to deal with excuses, makeups, etc. I am considering activities like this one-sentence writing assignment from the German Studies Collaboratory. I am resistant to the notion of attendance for attendance’s sake, and want to work more deliberately and with more attention to structure to ensure that exercises that advance student learning are taking place in class. I have always done this, but am realizing that I need to do so with more structure, intention, and transparency.
  2. I will also be doing a deep dive into this resource by Emily Pitts Donahoe of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi to identify additional strategies. I am particularly struck by the distinction that she makes between participation and engagement. I plan to do a variation on her engagement goal-setting exercise that will include a midterm check-in and a final assessment.
  3. Finally, I am excited to discuss this and other proposals with colleagues and our Arts & Sciences Student Influencers. I welcome feedback and conversation about this issue and look forward to learning more.

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