Where have all the students gone?

I’m sitting in a classroom waiting to start a workshop. I’m all set up, it is just about time to start. According to the list of registered attendees, there should be 20 people in the room this time. So far only 5 have turned up. I give it another 5 minutes before I start, by now we are up to 10 people. 50% attendance. So where are the other students? Why have they not turned up? Is it just me? Maybe they just don’t like my workshops?

Occasionally, a student will get in touch to explain – bus strikes, illness, emergency in the lab – but often there is no way of knowing. This causes great frustration in terms of planning – you never know how many will be there and whether your planned activities will actually work. And for those sessions where food is being provided, large amounts of food regularly goes to waste due to lack of attendance.

Discussions with colleagues, both here at Liverpool and outside, suggests that this is a common frustration and concern among those of us delivering professional development workshops. Events are regularly fully booked ahead of time, but only a small proportion of those registered actually turn up on the day. I even spotted this comment in a recent paper by Fong et al. (2016) “While registrations for workshops and webinars has been at record highs, typically only a small percentage of registrants actually attend”. I’m not the only one feeling frustrated!

But how bad is it really? Maybe most of the time students do turn up, I’m just noticing the times when they don’t? Before starting a research project investigating the motivations of PhD students for attending workshops, I set out to discover the scale of the issue. How many registered students do attend on average? And are there any patterns that can give me clues as to their motivations?

I got hold of our attendance records for the last two academic years (a total of 3217 recorded registrations). This database includes information on who has registered for each workshop, and who has actually attended. I coded workshops into one of 4 themes: career development, presentation skills, productivity and professional development, and academic writing. I then compared attendance rates across month, workshop themes, and delivery formats using a simple analysis of variance.

Are students more likely to turn up at certain times of year?

figure 3 month
The figure above shows the mean proportion of registered students who actually attended (letters above the bars indicate significant differences between months, < 0.05). Time of year does seem to matter (F = 10.37, df = 10,  p < 0.001), with attendance lowest in spring and highest in autumn. But why would that be? Are all PhD students particularly busy in March/April? It is a time when they are expected to submit their annual reports, which could add extra pressure on their time. But there are other deadlines throughout the year, which similarly might impact on their time. Of course time of year is inevitably confounded with workshop theme and format, as not all workshops were offered in all months. Time of year might not really be the issue here, so I next looked at workshop themes.

Are students more likely to turn up to certain workshop themes?
The proportion of registrations which resulted in actual attendance varied considerably between workshop themes (F = 9.36, df = 3, p < 0.001). Themes which see the highest proportions attending, writing and productivity, mirror those themes identified elsewhere as being seen to be most valuable by PhD students and may therefore be given higher priority when balancing the many conflicting demands on their time. Career development and presentation skills had significantly lower proportion of students attending, despite often being mentioned by students as being important. Students are generally pragmatic, and will focus on those activities that directly relate to their primary focus of completing the PhD on time. For students early on in their PhD, career planning may be a little too far into the future to seem relevant when there are more immediate demands associated with data collection and thesis writing. Or perhaps something else is at play here? Workshop theme is to some extent also confounded with delivery format, so that was the last comparison I made.

For time strapped students, are shorter workshops easier to attend?

figure 2 writing format
In this figure, the data is sorted by delivery format and includes only data from writing related sessions to limit the number of confounding factors. Interestingly, the expectation that students would find attending shorter sessions (i.e. BiteSize) easier does not seem to ring true. The proportion of students attending the BiteSize sessions was in fact significantly lower than for half day sessions (F2,459 = 4.28, p = 0.014). But why would shorter workshops have lower attendance? Is it perhaps easier to forget about when it’s not blocking out a large part of the day in your calendar? Or perhaps it seems less important when there is less time dedicated to it? Or perhaps there are other, more important explanatory factors which I have not considered here?

So what do I do now?
Clearly attendance can be an issue. This summary of attendance data over the past two years, confirms initial anecdotal evidence that although interest in development workshops is relatively high a considerable number of those registered choose not to attend on the day. But what can we do about it? What do developers in other institutions do?

The data presented here, only shows that indeed a large number of students choose not to turn up on the day, but doesn’t give a good explanation as to why. I am now exploring these issues further using a combination of a brief survey and small focus groups. The aim is to explore PGR students’ motivations for engaging with professional development and their prioritisation of development among all the different demands on their time. A report from this project is due to be presented at the Pedagogical Research conference in January, and prepared for publication soon thereafter.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from others out there. What is your experience of delivering workshops? How do you encourage attendance? And how do you deal with low attendance rates?

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