Do Policies That Encourage Better Attendance in Lab Change Students' Academic Behaviors and Performances in Introductory Science Courses?

Article excerpt

Reducing the number of allowable absences from three labs to two labs per semester improved students' lab attendance, lab grades, and course grades in an introductory biology course.

Science courses with hands-on, investigative labs are a typical part of the general education requirements at virtually all colleges and universities. In these courses, labs that satisfy a curricular requirement for "lab experience" are important because they provide the essence of the scientific experience - that is, they give students hands-on experience with designing experiments, handling and studying organisms, learning laboratory skills, analyzing data, and communicating results. To help ensure that students obtain this experience, most introductory courses have attendance requirements for lab (e.g., students can miss no more than 20% of the laboratory periods per semester).

Although there have been many studies of students' overall performances in introductory science courses (Burchfield & Sappington, 2000; Congos, Langsam, & Schoeps, 1997; Friedman, Rodriguez, & McCombs, 2001; Grisé & Kenney, 2003; Moore, 2003; Sappington, Kinsey, & Munsayac, 2002), there have been virtually no studies of students' performances in the laboratory portions of introductory science courses. This lack of research regarding students' performances in lab probably results from the fact that students' lab performances are usually embedded in students' overall coursegrades (e.g., lab usually accounts for 25% to 50% of students' grades in introductory science courses). Given the importance of lab experiences to the integrity of introductory science courses, as well as the fact that these courses are often characterized by significantly higher rates of absenteeism (Friedman, Rodriguez, & McComb, 2001) and failure (Congos, Langsam, & Schoeps, 1997) than other courses, we wondered what an analysis of students' lab performances could tell us about students' overall performances in introductory science courses.

This paper reports a study of students' academic engagement in labs of an introductory biology course. Class attendance is the leading indicator of academic engagement (e.g., students' course-related effort and activities) because it requires a consistent and ongoing effort that is directly related to students' academic success (Moore, Jensen, Hatch, Duranczyk, & Koch, 2003; Rumberger, 2001). Students choose to attend class. Despite the importance of attendance to success in science courses, absenteeism in introductory courses often exceeds 25%, even in classes taught by award-winning instructors (Friedman, Rodriguez, & McComb, 2002; Thompson, 2002). Romer (1993), who notes that absenteeism in introductory courses is "rampant," describes the situation this way: "A generation ago, both in principle and in practice, attendance at class was not optional. Today, often in principle and almost always in practice, it is" (p. 174). Many students skip lectures because they believe they can "make up" their absences by downloading or copying notes, reading the textbook, or talking with a classmate (Moore, 2003). However, students usually cannot "make up" a missed lab because of the logistical problems associated with offering the lab experience (e.g., the restricted availability of equipment, reagents, and specimens).

For many years, we noted that students who missed three of a semester's fourteen labs earned disproportionately lower grades in both the lab and lecture portions of the course and had only about a 20% chance of passing (Moore, in press). We concluded that although a policy of allowing students to miss three labs during a semester complied with the minimum standard set by the university for a laboratory experience, most students who missed two or three labs earned a D or F in the course. Since there is little consolation for a student who meets a university requirement yet still fails a class, we wondered if raising the laboratory attendance requirement would improve students' attendance in lab. …