Parkville Station

I don’t want to lecture you, but…

Dear students,

I’ll let you in on a secret. This secret will increase your chances of being successful in this increasingly competitive modern world. Knowing this secret might even have a profound impact on your career trajectory for the rest of your life.

When you graduate from the University of Melbourne and seek employment, it is mostly people like me that you will have to impress in an interview. When I mean ‘people-like-me’, I mean the ‘type-A’ 30- to 50-somethings of the world.

In talking with a large number of my friends and colleagues in leadership positions, across a variety of disciplines, from both genders, and from around the world, there are a few things that we converge upon when considering the attributes that set interviewees apart.

What will distinguish you is unlikely to be your intellect, resourcefulness, ability with technology, your institution, or even your grades. Of course these things matter. But it is increasingly hard to today’s world to be unique in these aspects. There are plenty of smart, resourceful, technologically savvy graduates from strong institutions with great grades out there.

Here is the secret.

What will set you apart is your ability to connect with and impress your interviewer. The way humans most typically do this is through verbal communication. Being a good communicator depends upon your ability to strongly, convincingly, charismatically and succinctly represent yourself in an interview. This requires both excellent verbal representation of yourself and the ability to listen respectfully and intently.

Guess what? My colleagues constantly grumble about the poor quality of verbal communication skills of today’s graduates. A typical comment is that there is an overt lack of enthusiasm for possessing the little things that make the big differences in communication. These include professional appearance, making eye contact, initiating conversation, and engaging in the listening and discussion process. So possessing these skills as a graduate gives you a competitive edge.

Effective communication and engagement can be learned and continuously improved upon as part of your daily practise at the University of Melbourne. And in today’s increasingly multidisciplinary, risky, and competitive world, acquiring these skills is also paramount to your success well beyond the job interview stage. Showing up to lecture is an integral part of building this skillset.

Poor student attendance in the lecture theatre

I recently sat quietly in my second year class to watch an engaging guest lecture by a promising young bushfire researcher. When the lecture began at 9:05am, only 40 of the 142 enrolled students were present. Another 15 students dribbled in over the next 30 minutes of the lecture. Some shuffled in wearing earphones, some walked directly in front of the Lecturer as she spoke. Less than half of the enrolled students bothered to turn up at all.

We had surveyed the entire class earlier this year and almost 70% of students thought bushfires were the most dangerous natural hazard Melbourne faced. So there was student interest, and a practical and local motivation for understanding this hazard. Student attendance was almost 100% for the first two lectures of the course, so timetable aspects do not explain the low attendance.

We know that students that come to lectures generally achieve higher grades in the course, which suggests that they learn more than absentees. We also know that the majority of students that access LMS to view the lecture material each week are the same students that turn up for lectures, not the students that don’t attend. The latter generally try to cram the LMS material in at the end of the course. This approach does not appear to bode well for the success of the students in the course.
When we tell students this it does not seem to make much difference to attendance levels. Neither do promises that exam material will be specifically shared with those who attend class. In one of my classes (a class that is not recorded by Lecture Capture) we write the exam questions together during lecture. Class attendance is still around 50%. Some Lecturers have resorted to handling out lollies in order to improve lecture attendance. Others have taken the harsher approaches of lecture ‘lock-outs’ for those arriving more than 5 minutes late, or assigning marks for attendance.

In my classes I make my expectations crystal clear to students in the first lecture of the class. We expect you to turn up to class every week, on time, and with a willingness to engage in the learning process. In exchange, we’ll do our best to foster a safe, intellectually stimulating, and inspiring environment that is aimed at giving you the best possible education and skills to be future leaders. We’ll give you the opportunities to do things that you cannot do over the LMS, like ask questions to us, face-to-face, and engage in conversations of course material with us and your fellow classmates. But this doesn’t seem to have influenced our attendance problem.

We know that the vast majority of latecomers and absentees do not possess legitimate excuses for their absence. I appreciate that everyone misses the odd class, either for legitimate reasons or not, but the vast majority of absences are not for legitimate reasons. Perhaps we have a diverse viewpoint on what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ excuse. Here are some common absentee explanations that I do not view to be legitimate: missing a lecture because you’re hung over or tired, or for work, or because you have to finish an assignment for another class, or because there was traffic, or you have a long commute. These are real life adult problems and thus they require real life adult solutions. Your lecturers and virtually everyone else in the world similarly has to balance their time and priorities.
The lecture absentee problem transcends all disciplines throughout the university, across the state, and possibly even across the country. It does not appear to correlate with the quality or style of teaching. Too many students just simply are not turning up to class. I wonder: is this something my generation will perpetually grumble about to our successors? Do all of my fellow colleagues at the university care? And is it a global problem?

I have given undergraduate lectures at universities across the world, including Canada, America, New Zealand, Germany and Italy. And in my experience, a higher percentage of the enrolled students attended these lectures than they do in Australia. This also seems to some extent borne out by my brief literature survey on lecture attendance in other countries. My hypothesis is that there is a domestic element to this problem. And in today’s multicultural world, we best address it, fast.

Improving social skills in the lecture theatre: some advice

Whether you want to work at Google, a law firm, or McDonald’s, you need to turn up to work on time and ready to work. You need to be respectful to your colleagues and committed to working hard and efficiently. You need to listen to instructions and follow them. So why should university lectures be any different?

Here is my advice. Treat your lectures like a professional opportunity. Get there on time, every time, with a desire to succeed and willingness to engage. Try to say hello to your Lecturer. Try to ask a question in class when you don’t understand something, rather than letting the opportunity pass or asking via email. Try to make eye contact with the Lecturer to show them you are listening. Get off the phone and interact with the learning process. You never know; your lecturer might have a key contact with industry or be able to write you a letter of reference after the course that might help you on way to a successful career.

As one of the world’s best universities, we aim to produce some of the world’s best graduates. Our collective success depends in part upon your abilities to succeed and do wonderful things in the world once you graduate. So in your interest and in ours, start turning up to class with a professional attitude. Start building the life and leadership skills now. You can thank me for it after your first interview.

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Mark Quigley

Mark Quigley is an Associate Professor in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He has taught 1000s of university students in Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America since 2000. He has written more than 100 letters of reference for undergraduates, many of whom are now gainfully employed in the geoscience, geotechnical engineering, and mining industries.