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Author: Philip T. Giles

When students ask us, as they occasionally do, “I wasn't in class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?” most of us feel at least a bit of disrespect and some aggravation. If we take the question at face value, it implies that the student thinks at least some of what we do in class might not actually be important. Judging from a search of online forums, instructors' responses range from genuine interest in helping students understand what they missed and how to make up for it, to contempt exemplified by sarcastic comments such as, “No, since you weren't present we just filled time until the class was over.” The former response was illustrated in a 2014 article in The Teaching Professor,by Rocky Dailey, who also noted that some absences may be considered more legitimate than others (e.g., due to a student's participating in an institution-sanctioned activity rather than just deciding not to show up). In those cases, I may feel more inclined to give the student some of my time and effort to help make up for the absence. My focus here is neither on deciding how to respond to the student nor on the plethora of reasons that students give for missing a class. Instead, I want to turn the question around. Why do students ask this question and, more important, what does it say about my course when they do? I'm particularly concerned about students who still ask the question even after they've attended several class for sessions. By that time students have experienced what goes on in my classes, and I take asking whether anything important happened in class as a sign of one or all of the following:
  1. Even after several class sessions, it is still not clear to the student that attending my classes is important, regardless of what specific activity occurred or what topic is addressed. For example, if I deliver a lecture with a PowerPoint presentation and also post it online, am I doing enough in class beyond displaying and discussing the slides? I may think I have presented information and offered analysis beyond what was on the PowerPoint slides, but that is apparently not evident to students. Increasingly, students expect class presentations to be posted online, a position that makes sense given the amount of information I include and the pace I settle in to when using PowerPoint. However, what I add beyond what's on the slides needs to be clear to students.
  2. Sufficient information about the importance of what will or did occur in each class has not been provided to the students. A brief topic heading in the course syllabus is not enough. Some other options work better. Students can be assigned work that needs to be completed in advance of the class, or they can do assignments after the session. I can also provide more detailed information about the importance of class activities in relation to broader learning objectives via the syllabus or a course management system.
  3. It's an indication the student believes that only activities that are part of or explicitly related to the evaluation scheme are important in my course. Underlying the question, students could be asking whether they missed an unannounced quiz or exercise that counts towards their grade or whether specific information or hints were given to help prepare for an upcoming test or exam. I may need to consider how to help students better appreciate the joy and value of learning on its own. This should help them to understand that what takes place in class or what material is examined can be important in a greater context than just whether they will be evaluated on it.
I know that in my case too often I haven't done enough in class beyond a straightforward, non-interactive PowerPoint lecture presentation. My students have been justified in wondering whether they really needed to be in class or if they could get almost the same learning by viewing the slides on their own. The impact of a PowerPoint-dominated teaching routine is especially serious in the early stages of a course when I'm creating expectations for how the course will be taught. So although I feel the aggravation when I'm asked whether anything important happened in a class, it triggers a re-examination of my teaching methods and consideration of how I can better make class time an essential part of learning the content and succeeding in the course. I accept that students will, for various reasons, not always attend class. Instead of having a casual attitude with regard to attendance, I want students in my courses to appreciate by default the importance of attending class and the drawbacks of not attending. Therefore, instead of students' asking, “Did I miss anything important?” I want to change their question to, “By missing your class I know I missed [something important]. Is it possible to make up what I missed, and if so, what do I need to do?” To achieve this, I need to reflect upon why students in my classes do not always understand the importance of attending every class. Philip T. Giles (philip.giles@smu.ca) is an associate professor at Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.