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Monday Master Class: To Go To Class, Or Not To Go…There Shouldn’t Be Any Question

July 7th, 2008 · 20 comments

“The following are valid excuses for skipping class: I have a fever of 105 degrees; I need to fly to L.A. to accept an Academy Award; today in class we are reviewing a book I wrote; my leg is caught in a bear trap. The moral of this exercise: Always go to class!

– from How to Win at College

Debatable AttendanceLecture Hall

A lively discussion has broken out in the comments thread of last Friday’s post. The topic: whether it’s necessary to attend class. On one side of the debate is the idea that some professors don’t offer any new information in lecture, ergo: you can skip these classes. The other side of the debate says that there’s more to lecture than just raw information. The professor, for example, might indicate which material is most important for an upcoming test. As a more straightforward concern, it’s also possible that a professor might note your absence, and then penalize you appropriately.

This is a great question and a great debate, so I thought I would weight in. Actually, I already have weighed in on this topic, in chapter 57 of my first book: How to Win at College. As the excerpt above reveals, my advice is unambiguous: always go to class.

Why to Attend

When I first wrote about this topic in How to Win, I gave three main reasons for attending class:

  1. As mentioned in the comments thread from Friday, professors often give indicators (sometimes subtle) about which material is worth really knowing and which you don’t have to sweat.
  2. You concentrate better in a lecture hall, listening to the professor in person, surrounded by your solemn peers, then you do trying to read notes or the textbook in your dorm room with the TV blaring. In short: it’s a quicker way to learn material well.
  3. Finally, if you skip any class even once then this suddenly becomes an option for all your classes. You now have to endure this debate before every lecture, and that’s a hard battle to win, especially during a tired (read: hungover) morning — which occur often. You’re much better off keeping class attendance mandatory, always, and take the skipping option off the table.

I want to add a fourth argument that was not originally included in How to Win. It goes as follows: attending class is a sign to yourself that you’re taking your academics seriously. Even if you could review the material on your own, to get up and drag your ass to the lecture hall is like callisthenics’s for your willpower. If you’re worried about wasting time in a lecture that presents no new material, then study the material during class; it’s the best study location on campus! But just make sure you get there.

20 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: To Go To Class, Or Not To Go…There Shouldn’t Be Any Question

  1. jw says:

    Here’s a note of support from the other side of the lectern: I have never had a casual- or non-attender earn an A in a class I’ve taught. Never. Of course I do teach literature, which tends to be very heavy on the discussion-side of things, so much of my test material comes from class discussions.

    Occasionally a student will try to tag-team with a friend, and take turns coming to class. I suppose they’re planning to fill each other in later. But a discussion class is like a lab: students get to try out ideas without penalty in class that would cause them to lose points on a test or a paper. It’s nice to hear students wrestle with ideas in class that later appear in a more polished form later. By coming to class, the student can avoid pitfalls in thinking early in the process.

  2. nic says:

    I was an (almost) straight-A student and going to class was all I did. Sometimes I would study the readings, sometimes I wouldn’t – but I would always attend each and every lecture, no matter how time-wasting it seemed to be. As you write: you can always study the material during class. I had more free time than any of my friends who would skip classes all the time and then had to muster all their self-discipline to study on their own! Great advice.

  3. Finja says:

    How about the classes where the professor is more confusing than teaching?

    I face this question once a week, and sometimes I just can’t drag me there… NO ONE gets what he is talking about (even his assistants say that), no structure at all, and the slides are a complete mess.

    And what nic is suggesting works only, if you can study with noise in the background. I can’t.

    Any suggestions?

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Here’s a note of support from the other side of the lectern…

    It’s useful to hear the professor side of the equation, thank you for that added insight.

    I was an (almost) straight-A student and going to class was all I did. Sometimes I would study the readings, sometimes I wouldn’t – but I would always attend each and every lecture, no matter how time-wasting it seemed to be

    This seems to be a recent theme on Study Hacks: understanding is key, and attending lecture and (this is the important part) really paying attention, is the first step toward understanding.

    How about the classes where the professor is more confusing than teaching?

    The first strategy is to avoid these professors. I would usually suggest using the period to catch up on your studying for the subject and ask a few questions. But if you really can’t do any review with someone talking at the front of the room, well, then I guess there’s not much you can do.

  5. Finja says:

    Thanks… and, maybe I should mention: it’s not the angloamerican system of lectures – it’s a German lecture, which actually means that there are up to 400 students in the lecture hall, and you’re not supposed to ask questions.
    (Sucks pretty much, I know).

    And, I got another question:
    If you have two equally important, mandatory lectures at the same time – how do you decide which one to attend?

    (PS: I really enjoy Study Hacks, it’s providing so much important input and tips… I wish I had found it in my first semester!)

  6. Don’t forget that professors are human beings too. If you’re borderline between an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ and you’re the student that skips lectures, you can pretty much count on getting a ‘B.’ What does it matter to the professor? He/she doesn’t know who you are, so he/she can give you a ‘B’ w/o flinching.

    However, if the professor knows you from lecture (AND office hours) it will be MUCH harder for him/her to not give you the benefit of the doubt.

    Don’t underestimate the power of the borderline. It can move from a few tenths of a percent to a few whole percents.

    Cheers!

  7. Study Hacks says:

    And, I got another question:
    If you have two equally important, mandatory lectures at the same time – how do you decide which one to attend?

    That sounds like a situation that really shouldn’t happen! I’m not sure what is best. Alternating? Attending the more coherent one? It’s a sucky circumstance all around.

    However, if the professor knows you from lecture (AND office hours) it will be MUCH harder for him/her to not give you the benefit of the doubt.

    From my own experience as a TA (and helping with grading), I definitely agree with this observation.

  8. aawk says:

    I agree that attendance is important, but sometimes you just have to take the day off. I try to attend most classes, but I’ve had some rough semesters and gave myself priority. It’s usually quite refreshing.

  9. carol says:

    And another note from the other side of the lectern: review what the professor says about attendance in the syllabus. I teach theatre courses, usually acting classes, and I treat them like lab courses – the material is experiential, and if you’re not there, you can’t make it up in any way. I state this very clearly in my syllabus (along with the percentage of the final grade that relies on class participation), and I still have students that blow off class and are then surprised when they don’t do well. If you don’t take what I say in the syllabus seriously enough to follow it, I can pretty much promise you that I won’t take you very seriously as a student.

  10. Carl says:

    Adding to this post, the textbooks, although comprehensive, don’t always teach the skills necessary to get the A. One of my teachers once said “I could give you this book, and theoretically, you would all come out with As, but that isn’t the case is it?”.

    This is because there are additional skills, such as exam strategy, additional background content, that makes it easier to get the A and boost your grade.

  11. Rob says:

    The only excusable absence from my school was death. If you weren’t dead, then you had to be in class.

  12. Chris Yeh says:

    If you don’t show up in class, you can’t really take advantage of office hours. It will be obvious to the professor that you aren’t in lectures, both because you won’t know what was said in class, and because professors do recognize their students.

    Even if getting to know your professors didn’t practically guaratee higher grades (though it does), you’re really not getting your money’s worth out of college unless you get some direct interactions with your professors.

  13. Mike says:

    It’s harder to learn on your own specially from a text only source. Much more energy has to be spent understanding the subject material, with the added cost of uncertainty in your interpretation.

    I’m just finishing up a fairly technical summer course (so its fast paced) and the teacher was a mediocre grad student. Despite having to spend considerable time and energy clarifying poor instruction after every class, I found it much more economical then doing the work myself. The one day I missed class (car, not bear trap) still remains my weakest material, despite (re)reading the book, getting the notes, and asking questions. Physically not experiencing this knowledge in a first hand manner was much more costly then clarifying his lecture, in straight hour terms.

    But I’m not sure even if each hour of work was equivelent – 6hrs to 9hrs doesn’t really describe the amount of vagueness I have about the material, despite being able to recall it through rote. My economic self wants to measure this and chart it.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    I agree that attendance is important, but sometimes you just have to take the day off.

    Assuming you don’t want your grade to decrease, my experience is that every hour of missed lecture translates to 2 – 4 hours of solo review down the line. Notice what Mike said in his comment (#13): “The one day I missed class (car, not bear trap) still remains my weakest material, despite (re)reading the book, getting the notes, and asking questions.”

    In other words, skipping class because you are tired one day is, in effect, screwing over your future self!

    And another note from the other side of the lectern: review what the professor says about attendance in the syllabus.

    Adding to this post, the textbooks, although comprehensive, don’t always teach the skills necessary to get the A. One of my teachers once said “I could give you this book, and theoretically, you would all come out with As, but that isn’t the case is it?”.

    If you don’t show up in class, you can’t really take advantage of office hours. It will be obvious to the professor that you aren’t in lecture

    …all excellent additions to the list of why you should attend class. Thank you all!

  15. I have a different reason for attending class. Even if you could read all the text books on a given subject, and you are the most knowledgeable student in the class. It doesn’t matter. Because education isn’t what you know, but what you share with others.

  16. Han says:

    I have a question about attending classes: For some courses, the materials covered are something I have learned in high school or past college courses (sometimes, for more than once). I can deal with all the problem sets and exam questions without attending the lectures or even reading the lecture notes/textbooks. Do I still have to attend these classes? It’s really grinding listening to a professor teaching something I have known for years and even capable to teach probably.

    Besides, of course I crave for taking a pretest and therefore drop such courses. However, as some such courses are core, I do not have the advantage to make the choice.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Do I still have to attend these classes? It’s really grinding listening to a professor teaching something I have known for years and even capable to teach probably.

    Use your time in the classroom to review material — it’s like a super-effective study hall.

  18. Claudine Dologuele says:

    Dear Cal Newport,

    I have a couple of questions for you. First, I know that your minor at Darmouth was art history, and according to your book How to win at college, I took an introductory class in art history. The problem is I don’t know how to take notes and the QEC format is hard to do. Also, I don’t know how to review these notes since I don’t have a QEC format. Concerning the issue of coming to class, I had this crazy idea to sit in classes that I am not enrolled in, with a subject matter that bores me to death, and do my readings. Since the subject matter bores me to death, I don’t feel tempted to listen to what the professor has to say. My problem is, when I work at the library, I end up reading a book ( I am a compulsive reader). My other solution is to go study into deserted halls, or libraries specialized in subjects that I am not likely to read (chemistry).

  19. Study Hacks says:

    The problem is I don’t know how to take notes and the QEC format is hard to do. Also, I don’t know how to review these notes since I don’t have a QEC format.

    I didn’t understand your other questions, but we can focus on this one. Let me ask *you* two questions.

    (1) What type of information/knowledge will you be required to recall to do well on the exams?

    (2) What format for storing this information would most simplify note-taking?

    Once you answer these two questions, the solution of how best to take notes for a specific class becomes clearer.

  20. Vincent says:

    There is a typo here:

    You concentrate better in a lecture hall, listening to the professor in person, surrounded by your solemn peers, then you do trying to read notes or the textbook in your dorm room with the TV blaring. In short: it’s a quicker way to learn material well.

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