Columns

Fatima Aqeel ’12: To go or not to go (to class)

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, November 30, 2009

Several high schools, mine included, have a requirement for the number of days of school a student attends. The student’s failure to meet this requirement is ultimately recorded on his or her transcript, and this then finds its way to the colleges to which the student applies.

Why did the school think attendance was important? This may have had to do with the fact that if students didn’t attend school, it worked against the whole point of a school. If the institution was spending so much money on teachers, yet the students were not bothering to be taught, then that investment was being wasted. Students might as well have been home schooled. They would read textbooks at home and come to school only to turn in assignments.

That was high school’s way of dealing with falling attendance. However, this situation is not unique to high schools. Many classrooms at Brown are never as full during the course of the semester as they are during the first few days. Some students complain that what is done in class is straight out of the textbook and that they would rather just do it on their own. Moreover, while I was stuck in the building all through high school, in college I can decide to go to sociology in the morning and take an extended power nap during Macro. (This can obviously also be done in class, but going home is preferable.)  

This, however, leads to the question of whether going to class in college is as important as it was in high school. Students have the choice to make the most of their day. If they find what is being offered in class less useful than what they can do on their own, then they have a choice. A lot of the time, students (myself included) go to class simply out of respect for the teacher. If a professor can make the effort to wake up and teach a 9 a.m. class, I think I should make the effort to attend it. But with the vast range of facilities being offered in college than in high school, there is probably not a net waste of the University’s resources. Even if students don’t turn up for math class, they will probably use the math resource center, group tutoring or the libraries.

Looking from the student’s point of view, however, there are ways to make classes more useful and increase attendance. Should colleges have an attendance quota like high schools do? No, they should not. For one, enforcement would be impossible in many classes, but more philosophically, this would defeat one of the key principles of college life and of growing up: the power to make your own decisions. The answer lies instead in somehow making students gain something different in class than what they can gain by reading the course material by themselves.

There are still plenty of courses at Brown, especially in the humanities, that manage to do this, and some social sciences do as well. For example, in Sociology 0150: “Economic Development and Social Change,” a course I am currently taking, course readings complement what is done in class, but can never replace the notes I take on what the professor says. Sometimes the readings are so erudite that students need to listen to the professor explain them just to get a sense of what’s going on.

But what about classes where what is explained during lecture can’t really be very different from how the book explains the same concepts? After all, the authors of the book obviously also went to some lengths to explain well and be lucid, and there may not be too many other ways of explaining those same ideas. This would be the case for some economics or math classes. There are only so many ways to explain how GDP can be calculated, and these are usually all in the book.

What can be done, then, is to make classes more helpful for preparing students by emphasizing application. Not only will that be what’s on the exams, but it will also be what students will use if they use these subjects in the real world. Sure, application problems appear in textbooks, but not everyone can attain the same level of understanding from a textbook that they can from a professor.

Granted, not everyone can attain the same level of understanding from a textbook chapter, either. But there needs to be more balance, so that all types of learners can benefit.


Fatima Aqeel ’12 is an economics concentrator from Karachi, Pakistan.