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I Intend to Attend: Enhancing Students’ Lecture Attendance

Mark A. Elliott, Allan McGroarty, and David J. Robertson of the University of Strathclyde introduce their findings of their latest work on boosting students’ attendance.

02 February 2024

'To attend or not to attend' is the age-old question of many university students. We refer, of course, to lecture attendance, which research has shown boosts academic achievement as well as providing a host of social benefits. 

Despite this, lecture attendance can be low with sporadic rather than sustained levels of individual engagement across the academic year. The problem is often not one of lack of intention on the part of students, but rather an inability to translate good intentions into action. Interventions are therefore required to enhance engagement, which in turn supports student performance and well-being. 

With that in mind, new research has been published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, by the University of Strathclyde's Social Cognition Group, which just might make a difference. 

The research team developed an intervention based on the well-established 'implementation intentions' framework, which has its origins in social psychology. This approach pairs a series of IF-THEN statements to enhance the likelihood that a person will choose the right action to reach their goal (e.g., increased lecture attendance). 

For example, 'IF I am tempted to miss a lecture because I have a university deadline approaching', 'THEN I will remind myself that attending lectures should help me get a higher mark'. 

The intervention exploits the automaticity of human behaviour. By creating simple goal-directed plans in the form of mental representations, people can better pay attention to opportunities to act in a productive manner, shield themselves from competing temptations, and act automatically in line with their best intentions.

This type of approach has been shown to be effective in smoking cessation, reducing alcohol consumption, lowering rates of mobile phone use while driving, and positively impacting intentions to self-harm. In this study, the researchers found that this approach was also effective in enhancing attendance at online synchronous lectures. 

The findings showed that a group of students who received the implementation intention intervention attended a greater proportion of lectures, and importantly, they maintained that level of engagement for longer than a control group. In the first week, 76% of those who set implementation intentions attended lectures, compared with 66% of the control group. This gap widened over coming weeks, and by the end of week 11 (though attendance in both groups had dropped) the rate of attendance was nearly five times higher in implementation intention group (14%) than the control group (3%).

Dr Mark Elliott, lead author on the study said, "these findings are really encouraging. They show that asking students to engage with a clear and simple goal-focused planning exercise at the start of term can have a positive impact on their level of engagement with lectures throughout the semester." 

Taken together, the findings point towards a promising, practical, and cost-effective intervention which might just make students more likely to attend, and benefit from, their lectures. Work is now underway to examine whether the findings extend to on-campus learning. 

Read the paper in full: