By Levin Stamm
Online education, cancelled lab courses, mask mandates: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on AUC’s learning environment has been drastic during the last two years. Great was thus the relief when the Dutch government lifted almost all COVID-19-related measures at the end of February; a sense of normality finally returned to the hallways and classrooms of the academic building. One remnant of the dark COVID-19 times, however, is still in place – to the displeasure of many AUC lecturers as they stare at empty desks during their lectures.
While students would previously automatically fail a course with more than five absences, AUC decided to not enforce its attendance policy anymore at the start of the pandemic. The reason: to accommodate for the exceptional circumstances straining students’ mental health during the pandemic and to disincentivise students from attending classes with COVID-19 symptoms.
Dr. Michiel van Drunen, Director of Education at AUC, clarifies that the attendance policy has technically never been suspended, but that the management team decided not to enforce it anymore starting from March 2020. “Hence students have still been required to attend all their classes, but they have not been penalised if they do not,” van Drunen says.
The requirement without enforcement seems to fall on deaf ears among students. Dr. Marianne Riphagen, Head of Studies Academic Core, states that she has heard about poor attendance in classes from several colleagues – both in the autumn 2021 semester and the current spring 2022 semester, when classes took place either partially or completely in the academic building.
According to Riphagen, a coordinator of the Advanced Research Writing course lamented that often only half of the students would attend classes. “In sum, […] I am very concerned about the lack of attendance in Academic Core courses,” Riphagen says.
Riphagen names another example: Last autumn, lecturers of the course Big Questions in Bioethics arranged a series of guest lectures, including researchers from the renowned Amsterdam UMC. “These lectures played an important part in teaching students about interdisciplinarity, yet the classes were poorly attended,” Riphagen says. Additionally, with the lifting of COVID-19 measures, lecturers again have the chance to take students for excursions or special workshops outside of AUC. But Riphagen says, “I have heard from lecturers that students do not turn up.”
Dr. Maarten Boerlijst, Head of Studies Sciences and until recently Interim Head of Studies Social Sciences, seconds Riphagen’s sentiments, but believes that absences in classes of the three majors have been less pronounced. Still: “[Poor attendance] certainly has been an issue, and many lecturers would like to return to our attendance policy as soon as possible,” Boerlijst says.
Riphagen and Boerlijst’s impressions are further confirmed by Dr. Michael McAssey. He teaches several statistics courses at AUC and has recently examined class attendance for his course Basic Research Methods II before (autumn 2018 and autumn 2019 semesters) and during COVID-19 (autumn 2020 and autumn 2021 semesters).
McAssey found that students missed on average 3.6 lectures without the attendance policy being enforced, compared to prior 2.4 lectures – a 50 percent increase in absences. What he also observed: The difference to pre-COVID-19 times can mainly be attributed to a comparatively small number of students that missed more than ten classes, while most students remained at around five absences or less.
Do the empty classrooms even amount to a loss of academic achievement? Opinions are divided.
Riphagen has noticed that students increasingly struggle to grasp the structure of courses and thus state that they find communications about their courses unclear. A trend that she attributes among others to students missing classes during which assignments are discussed and instructions given. This would increase the risk of “students not meeting the learning outcomes once the course concludes” – in other words, of them failing.
McAssey, in return, observed that many students with more than five absences still performed well and that the non-enforcement of the attendance policy did not lead to more failing students. At least for his courses, as he adds. “There were as many as 15 absences for a single student who still passed the course,” McAssey says.
As a consequence, the COVID-19 pandemic has apparently triggered a broader discussion among AUC faculty on the use of the attendance policy.
Riphagen considers it “very important that the attendance policy is reinstated as soon as possible” and states that “at AUC, where our students thrive in an environment focussed on small scale, intensive education, poor attendance has a big impact on classes”.
Boerlijst, in contrast, believes that the AUC attendance policy is “counterproductive in stimulating maturity in students, [thus] taking responsibility for their own learning” and states that he would be in favour of investigating alternatives.
According to van Drunen, there is still wide consensus among the extended management team that the attendance policy “is at the heart of our programme”.
A re-enforcement of AUC’s attendance policy is currently subject to discussion – van Drunen mentions June or September as possible dates. A decision is expected to be communicated before the end of the month.