People tend to fall into habitual ways of doing things and feel that those repeated habits or beliefs are the one and often the best ways to do things.They may not be the most effective and best behaviors to accomplish goals but people become comfortable in their ways and believe the habits are right. They also provide us a sense of stability and balance in our activities even if they are not beneficial or helpful
Habits can be hard to break. As a result they can appear to be difficult to change so we throw up our hands and say things like “that’s the way it is” or “That’s just how administrators think”. We accept habitual behavior and stasis in what we do. We may not like the culture on campus and not want to accept some of its shortcomings but we do because we believe they are too difficult to change. For example, when speaking to a senior college administrator about the attrition rate at his school he told me “I’d like to get it down but with the way students are and the way faculty act towards them. It’s tough to make changes so why try?”
In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg discusses the concept of the keystone habit which he describes as “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organiza-tion”. He uses the example of Alcoa’s past CEO Paul O’Neill using worker safety as a keystone to changing other habits on the work floor and throughout the company. Duhigg writes “So how did O'Neill make one of the largest, stodgiest, and most potentially dangerous companies into a profit machine and a bastion of safety? By attacking one habit and then watching the changes ripple through the organization. By targeting Alcoa's keystone habit.”
By focusing on safety in the way people acted and behaved on the shop floor, O’Neill caused other habits people at the company had to change in reaction. The changes that came about through focusing on increasing safety flowed through the company and changed the culture and its success as it did. People in the company believed that O’Neill and Alcoa cared about them. They wanted to work harder for a company that cared. They came up with ideas to make safety better. But even more importantly, they came up with ways to make the company more efficient and effective. When O’Neill gave out his telephone number and said to call him with ideas or issues, they believed he really did want them to call and they did. And they had some great ideas to make Alcoa better.
The focus on safety caused the entire organization to change. It also altered the attitudes of the workers toward the company and their work. It took the habits that people had prior to the safety focus and altered them for new, better ones. That is the power of a keystone habit; to make a difference in the way that people think and behave within a culture by changing other habits. Even in what had been thought to be a rigidly fixed, union company like Alcoa which had resisted change for many, many years and numerous CEO’s the keystone made change in its culture happen.
In many ways Alcoa was like many colleges and universities. Set in their ways and beliefs. Doing things because “we always do it that way.” Performing and carrying attitudes out of habit; not reason. Treating students the way we do because, well, because they are students and we have always acted toward students as we do. If a faculty person is like one of my heroes, Taffi Tanimoto and goes out of his way to help students succeed, then that faculty member will always do that. If however someone is like too many faculty and feel that students and teaching are “an impediment to getting my important work, my research done” as a professor told me recently, they will habitually treat students and teaching poorly. They do not see the classroom as that important after all. But then we do not do much to break their habitual behavior and attitudes. We endure them because we think we cannot change them and the culture that permits such attitudes.
As a result of some faculty’s habitual behavior which denigrates classroom importance, students tune into that and also start to believe the class is not that important. They in turn develop bad habits such as not attending, napping or texting during class. This only re-affirms the faculty belief that students do not care since they show all the signs of not caring.
But I have also noted that in classes in which the faculty member says that attending class is important enough to be required and what she has to say valuable enough to listen to the paradigm changes. Students attend not only because it is required but because the faculty member is instilling a new habit in them through class attendance. Students also learn more not just because they show up but because they take the class more seriously. The faculty member also takes the class more seriously and prepares more because she is making the students show up with the promise that what goes on in class is important. She teaches better and they learn better.
I suggest that a keystone habit that can ripple out and alter the culture and its habits could well be taking attendance in class. If a school requires everyone to take daily attendance it would be a new behavior, a new habit that could change the culture over time.
When a school adopts a requirement that attendance is not just important but important enough to be mandatory it sends out a message. It states “we believe that what goes on in class is significant enough to make you go”. The school-wide requirement to attend also places greater emphasis from the college on the classroom saying it is so important that we require students to go to hear from you, the faculty.
Furthermore, if required attendance is rolled out to prepare students for the world of work where absences are a cause for termination then attendance becomes part of the training students will need to succeed. What is one of the biggest complaints of businesses about new workers? They do not show up to work or are late. Having required attendance will instill a good work habit in students and provide the new requirement some practical initial purpose to justify it. Making students attend classes begins to create a good habit in students that can carry into their lives after school and increase their success.
Moreover, requiring attendance retention will increase retention almost immediately because we know that attendance is a key indicator of whether or not students drop out of school. If students miss classes, they often realize they are behind and instead of trying to catch up, the give up. By making them attend, they cannot help but be up-to-date at least on classroom activity which is paramount to success.
In too many schools, attendance is a very unimportant thing. The schools let faculty decide if they want to require attendance or not and most do not. Most faculty take the position that the students are adults who should make their own decisions even though they are not yet adults but in college getting the knowledge and learned behaviors training to become one. Most faculty who do not require attendance require the students to take the tests and do assignments but not be in class to learn from them. In so doing these faculty are denigrating their own value. They are saying that what they have to teach is not that important; certainly not important enough to make you show up to hear it. They are also sending out a message that it is possible to pass the course while not being taught by me at all. Just read the books and you’ll pass. In so doing, the faculty member is saying that he or she really has no value. If a student can pass the tests without faculty instruction, then that in-class teaching and that teacher have no value. They add nothing to the students’ knowledge or skills. This is a terrible message to send out. It devalues the university.
Required attendance reinforces the importance and value of what goes on in class. It says “we believe that being in class and learning from professors is so valuable that we are going to require you to be there.” This is a strong value statement. Thus the view of instruction would rise in importance on campus making a most significant statement. This will cause a shift in some of the values of the campus culture as well. It will not relegate research to a lower position in the cultural value system. But it will elevate teaching in that same system.
This is also stating that the professor and teaching are appreciated. By making teaching and learning more imperative on campus, it sends a message that they are important and thus need even greater attention. The college is stating that the classroom is one of the most vital places on campus. It makes a case for faculty that if the classroom is important enough for the administration to make attendance imperative, than what goes on in there needs to be of the highest quality to justify making attendance required. This in turn puts additional pressure on the teachers to perform at a high standard to justify the requirement that students be in class. Faculty could well pick up on this message and focus more on what they say and do in the classroom since students must and will be there to learn from them.
This in turn could create a request from some faculty for workshops in classroom procedure and instructional approaches to increase their teaching abilities.
There is also a statement made in requiring attendance be taken that comes from the administration that says it is focusing on the classroom. By making attendance required, it also says that the administration is tuned into the importance of teaching and learning and not just looking at the budget as many faculty believe. To make that decision it has to have thought about what is best for the learning and teaching environment.
Making attendance required it leads to the next question of what do we do with the attendance sheets? This could lead to a decision that there needs to be a system in place that records student absences. Since faculty may not want the responsibility of doing something with the attendance sheets outside of the class, these could go to a central group which would then contact the students to see why they were not in class. These people could also resolve student issues before they become problems for them as has been done at a number of schools. This would have an immediate positive impact on retention by the way.
If someone contacts the student to see why they were not in class and helps resolve an issue or make arrangements to have the work made up, this makes a strong case that the school cares about the students which will also help with retention. Contacting students is a key to engagement. This is because we know that the major reason students drop out is they believe the school does not care about them.
It may even happen that some faculty will realize how important attendance is and try to find out from students themselves why they missed class. This would also be a statement of caring about the students if not done in an accusatory manner. Getting faculty more involved with students is key to engagement and would be a cultural shift for many schools.
Granted some faculty will complain since they believe that attendance is a prerogative of the classroom instructor. Perhaps the rollout at your school will be to require attendance in required classes at first to show the benefits that accrue. After all, we say that these courses and the knowledge they impart are so important that we make them required so we ought to also require that students be in them to gain the value they provide. To do otherwise would be saying these classes are important enough for to take but not attend? That makes no sense when one gives it a bit of thought. Moreover, so many of the classes are taught by lower status faculty and adjuncts that there will be little pushback from the faculty at large. These two teaching groups are not all that well empowered or even a part of the fuller culture after all so they are least likely to complain. But when the benefits of required attendance are provided, they will build the case of required attendance across the institution and that will be the start of a cultural shift in itself.
There will be other cultural changes as a result of requiring attendance across the institution that will arise from the keystone habit being implemented. Just as with O’Neill in Alcoa, the keystone habit brought forward many unanticipated cultural changes, so will the keystone habit that will be implemented when attendance is required. It will cause a chain of reactions that will ripple through the culture and change it. For the better. For increased retention.
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