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Why you should teach live (if you can)

Given the massive emphasis and push from university administrations for teachers to digitally record their (pre-pandemic) lectures and make the recordings widely available to the class, it never occurred to me that a large majority of students actually prefer to come to live sessions.

And this majorly benefits them compared to other students who solely rely on asynchronous lecture recordings (most of which go unwatched too!).

In-person lecture attendance through time

For me personally, I have seen a historic downward trend in attendance rates in face-to-face classes. In my now 10+ years of university teaching, anecdotally, the drop in in-person attendance rates ranges from around 80% to 20%. This may also partly be discipline-specific.

Am we lecturers getting progressively worse as teachers? Is this what is driving the drop? Perhaps. But I think what the consensus of my colleagues will say is that the push to make all classes digitally recorded and available online is the causative factor.

Many students won’t come to class if they think they can just learn asynchronously with lecture recordings / pre-recordings, and PowerPoint slides. But it really doesn’t help them.

An interesting experiment

A few years ago pre-COVID, I took a live in-class roll for students in my second year course, Palaeobiology. Students would sign a sheet indicating that they were in the classroom in each lecture. I never told the them that this was not mandatory. Average attendance that semester was around 80% of the enrollment. The average mid-semester exam score was approximately 70% of the available marks.

The following year, I abandoned the roll and noticed that in-person attendance had dropped dramatically. Only around 40-50% of the class would turn-up. The average mid-semester exam score dropped to 52%. For strikingly, around 30% of the class failed that particular exam versus 6% the previous year (it was the same exam in both years).

In the following year, I brought the roll back and attendance and mid-semester exam scores returned to normality. Students generally indicated to me that they felt they might be in ‘trouble’ if they missed a class. It was not unusual for me to receive emails from random students apologising if they did not make a lecture (I hope that the roll didn’t stress the students out too much!).

The most clear benefit of live attendance

I trialled this approach to-and-fro for a couple of years and always saw the same result. Greater in-person attendance is directly correlated with higher scores in exams.

In an ideal world, one would hope that a tertiary education student would have enough of a self-drive to want to come and engage in class. It really shouldn’t be a professor’s fault if students choose not to come to class.

But at the same time, the average age of these students is somewhere around 18-22 years. They’re not long out-of-school and are still finding their feet in the world. Perhaps we teachers should expect low attendance rates given these demographics.

I was very pleased with little strategies like the in-class roll thing in that it consistently led to better learning outcomes overall. It does take a lot of your time though, so I don’t necessarily recommend that other professors adopt the approach.

Live online lecture attendance rates

I didn’t expect it, but transitioning to online in the mid-pandemic world of teaching has seen similar results as to when I would take the roll.

In my COVID-19 teaching time, I don’t ask students to sign a roll in live Zoom classes, but they are aware that their names appear on the respective list of attendees in the classroom. I don’t bother to record these details, but it does strike me that a greater majority of students will make the effort to attend and be engaged with online live class content than if asked to watch pre-recorded classes later (generally <10% of the class).

So attendance rates are still pretty good. Engagement rates are through the roof. And this is something that I love about online teaching: a greater proportion of students feel more comfortable to interact with the teaching staff and rest of the class in general, again, leading to better learning outcomes for everyone.

There is a great social benefit with this too. Students can still chat together, discuss ideas, and generally get to know each other in a way that would not be possible with standalone pre-recorded classes. At a time when students have been socially isolated due to COVID-19, these live online classes have been able to breakdown the fourth wall and it’s been fantastic to see ongoing student cohort building.

Challenges of teaching live

I totally get that some of my teaching colleagues can’t teach live on Zoom. They might have children to care for (and have to also teach them remotely themselves from home if they’re in COVID-19 lockdowns), elders to look after, restrictions in travel, or any number of other problems that affect their ability and time to commit to online live classes. But if you are one of the lucky ones that can teach live and online, I’d highly recommend it.

About The Author

Dr Gilbert Price

...or Dr G to his students, is a multi-award winning lecturer at The University of Queensland, Australia. He teaches introductory Earth Science and second year Palaeobiology, as well as supports several other courses behind-the-scenes. He teaches by instinct and knows what works to inspire and engage students. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, his teaching has thrived in the digital classroom and he is pleased to be able to share his experiences with other educators.

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