Lectures are an efficient way to deliver a large quantity of complex information to university students. But classes, which are traditionally thought to be crucial for reinforcing this material and exploring it in greater depth, lack the returns to scale of lectures and are therefore relatively costly. Since some of their functions are also potential substitutes for private study, it is worth trying to assess their effectiveness.
To evaluate the benefits of small-group tuition, we conducted an experiment with second-year undergraduates in a leading UK economics department. The students were randomly assigned to classes for each of their three compulsory papers: microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics. With 444 students over three cohorts (students starting their second year in 2004, 2005 and 2006) in each module, we have data consisting of 1,332 observations.
We analyse these data to find out, first, what determines students’ decisions about whether to attend class, and second, the effect of absence from class on their performance in each module. Addressing the second question requires correcting for the influence of factors such as ability and effort on both absence and performance.
Missing class has an adverse effect on performance only for more able students
Although attendance at lectures tends to be seen as optional, attendance at classes is regarded as compulsory – in part because it is more easily monitored. In practice, student absenteeism from classes is often a problem. It is this absenteeism that leads to variation in class attendance and allows us to establish the effect of classes on attainment. Tutors used an online class register to record attendance, which made it easier to compile the data accurately.
Our analysis reveals that students tend to conform to their stereotype: morning classes have higher rates of absenteeism than afternoon classes, with classes that start at 9 o'clock proving especially problematic. We also find that female students miss fewer classes than male students, and overseas students miss more classes than home (European Union) students. And students who have performed well in their first year tend to have lower absenteeism rates in their second year.
Morning classes, notably 9 o'clock starts, have higher rates of absenteeism than afternoon classes
What about the effect of absence on student performance? We find that missing class has an adverse effect, but only for ‘high ability’ students: missing 10% of classes is associated with a 1-2 percentage point lower mark for this group of students. There seems to be no effect of missing class for lower ability students.
Our results suggest that class attendance is a productive activity: the effect of missing class on performance is negative, at least for the more able students. This suggests that there is no over-provision of classes and that compulsory attendance is worthwhile.
The fact that missing class is costly for more able students suggests that classes are more productive for these students. In view of this, it might be appropriate to reflect on how the effectiveness of class teaching and learning can be enhanced for weaker students. Alternatively, additional voluntary classes might be organised for more able students given that, for them, absence is low and the returns are relatively high.
"Am I Missing Something? The Effects of Absence from Class on Student Performance," by Wiji Arulampalam, Robin Naylor, and Jeremy Smith, is published as Warwick Economic Research Paper No. 820.
Wiji Arulampalam, Robin Naylor, and Jeremy Smith are professors of economics at the University of Warwick. Wiji Arulampalam is director of undergraduate studies and Robin Naylor is senior tutor of undergraduate students in the department.