Absenteeism and a Cooperative-Learning Attendance Policy for ESL

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A black and white picture of an empty chair

By Smash the Iron Cage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are plenty of good reasons to skip class: if you have a contagious disease or have a doctor’s appointment that you cannot reschedule, if car trouble or bad weather interferes with your commute, or if you are flat broke and need to work an extra shift to make rent and avoid eviction. Most people would understand if you had to miss a lesson under these circumstances.

Surprisingly, these are not the reasons most university students give for cutting class. Students at one university rated low-quality lectures as the most important reason, followed by deadlines for other academic work, the lecturer’s inability to entertain, a lack of sleep, and attendance being unnecessary due to the availability of lecture notes outside of class (Clay & Breslow, 2006). These are the reasons students will admit to. But what about hidden reasons?

Absenteeism and Anxiety

If students skip their English as a Second Language (ESL) class frequently, it could be a sign of language anxiety. Other indications of anxiety related to learning a second language include coming to class late, arriving unprepared, avoiding speaking in English, not volunteering, and the apparent inability to answer even very simple questions (Oxford, 1999). Research has shown that speaking provokes more anxiety than any other form of communication (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991; McCroskey & Richmond, 1982), with some speaking tasks provoking more anxiety than others. Koch and Terrell (1991) report that most students find oral presentations to be the most anxiety-inducing activities in an ESL course. With that in mind, teachers can reduce language anxiety by assigning fewer oral presentations, by employing ice-breakers, where students learn each other’s names on the first day, and by including lesson-warmers, such as a game to help students relax at the start of a lesson (Dornyei & Malderez, 1999). Students can reduce their own language anxiety just by coming to class. Greater frequency of language use is linked to lower levels of language anxiety (Baker & MacIntyre, 2000).

Absenteeism and Failure

Reducing anxiety is only one good reason to attend your ESL course on a regular basis. There is another good reason: you might fail. Two studies (Colby, 2004; Newman‐Ford, Fitzgibbon, Lloyd, & Thomas, 2008) found that 80% attendance—attending only 12 classes in a 15 week semester—produced a 50% chance of failing lecture-based courses. A 70% attendance rate—attending 11 classes in 15 weeks—produced a 66% chance of failure. For interactive ESL courses, missing a single week made ESL students 3 times more likely to answer a content question incorrectly and caused a 7-8 times greater chance of getting the target structure wrong during a test (Fay, Aguirre, & Gash, 2013). These are compelling statistics for going to class, so why do rational-minded students miss class? The truth is that it is difficult to be rational when comparing the immediate benefit of getting more time away from class and the remote danger of one missed lesson (Romer, 1994 as cited by Koppenhaver, 2006).

Collaborative Learning

A more immediate reason is that your classmates need you. They need you to come to class so that they can get to know you, and they need to get to know you before they can trust you. Only after they know you and trust you will you be able to work together efficiently and productively as a group. In other words, group productivity depends upon group cohesiveness (Evans & Dion, 1991), and the cohesiveness of the group depends upon the amount of time group members spend together (Dornyei & Malderez, 1999). Cutting class reduces the overall productivity of the team, reducing the ability of group members to learn from each other in collaborative learning environments.  Reseach shows that not only do absentee-prone students perform worse on their exams and homework assignments, their absence causes the other team members to score lower on their exams and homework as well (Koppenhaver, 2006).

Oral Exams

The problem becomes much more acute during interactive speaking exams, evaluations that require the active participation of one or more partners. English Second Language courses often employ collaborative speaking exams, where students are required to exchange information with each other using the target language. The interactivity makes for a more valid exam since competence in a second language is the ability to participate effectively in an exchange of meaningful and appropriate messages. However, since absentee-prone students come to the exam knowing less and producing more errors, their noticeably ill-prepared, ill-informed answers and incorrect grammar during the exam make them less effective conversational partners.

Implicit Learning

Research into implicit learning reveals another, less obvious way that absentee-prone students make exams more difficult for their partners. There is a tendency for people to reproduce a structure encountered in recent discourse, even if they do not notice that it was used (McDonough & Mackey, 2008). In other words, what you hear, whether you consciously notice it or not, activates the area of your brain where related sounds, concepts, and structures are stored, creating the tendency for you to want to repeat what you heard. This phenomenon is called priming, and you can see it at work in this fun experiment  (as suggested by Dornyei, 2009). Ask your friend to say the word “silk” five times and then ask him immediately afterward, “What do cows drink?” Most likely, your friend will say “milk” because the sound of the word “silk” and the concepts “cow” and “drink” activate the concept “milk” in your friend’s brain. A more logical answer to the question is “water” since that is what cows drink most, but that is not what people tend to say. Now imagine that the target is not the word “milk” but a sentence containing the Present Perfect Progressive such as, “I have been studying Diagnostic Imaging for two years.” In the context of an exam, absentee-prone students are less likely to prime their partners to remember the complex grammar and specific vocabulary needed to pass the interactive exam.

Attendance Policy

Seeing how absenteeism negatively affects classmates’ explicit and implicit learning opportunities and performance on interactive exams, what policies should teachers and colleges put in place? If you think about the effect of absenteeism on individual students only, it is tempting to emphasize students’ right to self-direction, trusting in their capacity to make wise choices. Students will learn through trial and error that their attendance affects their success. However, in light of research into cooperative learning environments where students learn from each other, we know that cutting class is a bad choice for both the individual and the group. It would be irresponsible for teachers to adopt such a laissez-faire attitude, knowing how absentee-prone students reduce group productivity and negatively affect their partners’ performance on interactive exams. A collaborative-learning attendance policy would require the student who misses multiple cooperative learning activities in an English course to be ejected from the course permanently because of the negative effect their absence and subsequent return has on the group. Instead of saying, “You are an adult now. Do what you want,” ESL teachers should make it clear that cutting class is highly uncooperative behavior that harms the other students. To be consistent, if teachers are going to use collaborative-learning activities and evaluations in their classrooms, they should also set a collaborative-learning attendance policy. They should tell students on the first day of the semester, “If you intend to cut class, do us all a favor and don’t come back.”


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