Drop in academic performance during Fall 2020 semester leads to revised class attendance policy


In a live Zoom session conducted on Jan.14, President David Smith and other administrators at Southern Adventist University addressed students’ questions about the upcoming winter semester. While responding to a question concerning the administration’s revised academic attendance policy, discussed in a previous Accent article, multiple administrators revealed that students’ academic performances last semester were significantly worse than normal.

In the Zoom session, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration Robert Young explained that a large number of students chose not to attend class last semester because the attendance policy did not allow grades to be tied to attendance. Associate Vice President for Academic Administration Dionne Felix followed by saying that about 188 students became eligible for academic dismissal, and in her time working at Southern, she had never seen such a high number of students do so. 

“And this was not all because of illness,” Felix said in the video. “I do believe this was directly linked to either absences from classes or disengagement from classes.” 

Smith said the students academic performance, particularly among freshmen,  was far worse than normal last semester.

“We’re here for your success,” Smith said. “That’s why we’re here. And we want you to do well. And it’s evident already that not being in class, trying to connect virtually, does not result in a better academic performance. In fact, quite the opposite.”

In a recent poll of 362 people conducted on the Accent’s Instagram account, 40% of respondents said their academic performances last semester were worse than their performances in previous semesters. When asked why this occurred, students listed various reasons related to COVID-19, school policies and mental health.

Sophomore biology major Kaitlyn Williams said she felt burnt out last semester because students did not receive a midterm break.

“I believe that if we were given a break, my academic performance would have been so much better,” Williams said. “I believe not having breaks also negatively affects students’ psychological and mental health.”

Junior mass communication major Josue Vega said COVID-19 added weight and anxiety to the already stressful environment of school. He listed filling out the daily survey, obtaining wristbands, wearing masks and socially distancing as small things that added up to become an “extra burden.” 

“All these things were distractions that affected my academic performance,” Vega said. “It just felt like some days I didn’t have the energy to put into schoolwork because life had taken it all out of me.”

However, Vega said he believes last semester’s attendance policy positively affected his academic performance and allowed him to relieve stress when he felt mentally exhausted. Vega added that he tried to attend class regularly.

Sophomore social work major Kaitlyn Deaux was one of the 217 students who responded “no” to the Accent’s poll, meaning her academic performance last semester was not worse than her previous performances. Deaux, however, said she found it difficult to keep her grades up due to a lack of motivation caused by the “scary and disheartening” state of the world. Like Vega, Deaux said last semester’s attendance policy allowed her to manage her mental health more efficiently.

In the Zoom session, Smith said Student Association President Sheryl Kambuni raised the concern of mental and emotional health to administration multiple times while planning for this semester. 

“We recognize that there is a lot of stress in the current circumstances, including stress related to the classroom,” Smith said.

Smith added that conversations he had with professors and his own teaching experiences have led him to believe that most professors will be understanding this semester if students were to miss a few classes due to overwhelming stress. In addition, he ensured students that the classroom is one of the safest places on campus, with nearly every COVID-19 transmission last semester occurring off-campus.

Felix encouraged students in the Zoom session while discussing mental health to consistently communicate with both administration and their professors, saying, “We can’t help you if we don’t hear from you.”

When asked about students’ academic performances last semester, English Professor Jodi Ruf said her top performing students attended class, completed work and communicated with her just as they would in a normal semester. However, she did have a higher-than-average number of students fail her class.

“I admired students who persisted through a very difficult time,” Ruf said. “As many other professors, I tried to adapt to requirements and to keep working with students as much as possible to help them finish well.”

To better assist her students this semester, Ruf is using a class tech assistant, encouraging small class groups to work together and allowing more assignments to be submitted on eClass. 

English Professor Candace Miller said that unrequired in-person attendance was problematic last semester. She has now become more comfortable with the hybrid nature of courses and, as a result, she believes her students’ academic performances will improve. To help themselves succeed academically, Miller said students should “maintain a decent pace and have a good balance in their lives.”

Mathematics Professor Adam Heck said he is confident Southern is doing its best to create an attendance policy that will assist students academically amidst a pandemic. Like Felix, Heck encouraged students to communicate.

“Navigating education in the midst of a pandemic has been a tricky journey,” Heck said. “The biggest suggestions I have are to communicate with your professor, take ownership of your grades, and manage your time. If you do that, then you’ll be okay.”

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