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I am teaching Calculus I this semester and it's not going well. There are roughly 30 students registered for the course but for any given lecture, only 1-4 students show up. Attendance has been consistently declining throughout this semester. I'm not sure why this is the case, but it is disconcerting. What is worse, is that despite plenty of notice, only six students showed up to the second exam this week.

What should I do to encourage class attendance and what should be done regarding the students who missed the exam?

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    $\begingroup$ It sounds like this class is totally off-track if you have days with just one student showing up, and 4/5 of the students don't even come for the exams (of which I'm guessing there are few, since it's the end of March and you just had your second one). In a situation this extreme, I'd suggest talking to the head of your department - ASAP. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Mar 31 '14 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ What are the goals and backgrounds of the 30 registered students, as far as you know? Have you asked the students who do still show up, why they keep attending? Likewise, have you surveyed the students who have stopped attending? Has this decline in attendance ever happened at your institution before, for Calculus I and/or other courses? Have you discussed the situation with a course coordinator or head of department? $\endgroup$ – J W Mar 31 '14 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ In some colleges that have "open" admission, the dropout rate can be very high. In a university, the most common problem I have seen is that the instructor, out of a wish to tell "the whole truth," or because of prior experience at a place with more motivated students, pitches the level of the course unrealistically high. $\endgroup$ – André Nicolas Mar 31 '14 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ I second @AndréNicolas comment. Since only a small minority of students showed up to the exam, probably most have given up and accepted failing the course. Ask the remaining students why they are still around and what you can do to keep them. Listen to their responses (slow down if you needed or give more examples, etc) and try to reach out to the students who have given up on the course, indicating that you will make the changes suggested by the remaining students. $\endgroup$ – Gamma Function Mar 31 '14 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the suggestion to speak to the head of the department, one should also keep in mind that such a situation will likely affect teaching evaluations in an extremely negative way. And for some people, this could have an affect on continued employment. So take care... $\endgroup$ – JDH Mar 31 '14 at 16:43
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As Benjamin says in the comments, your class is totally off-track, if not a disaster. For whatever reason, most of your students have found themselves unable or unwilling to learn from you, and have either dropped the class, transferred to another section or just given up. This is a very strong signal that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the course was being run. My main recommendation, therefore, is that you use this situation to reflect seriously upon what went wrong, to consider how you might run a better class in the future.

There are a number of ways that an instructor might drive an entire class away: an instructor could have totally unrealistic expectations; an instructor could be completely unapproachable; an instructor might be unfair or abusive; perhaps an instructor's remarks are unintelligible. I think the most common explanation for a situation where students aren't learning and the instructor doesn't realize it is that the instructor is teaching on too advanced a level, and doesn't get feedback about how little is being understood.

Probably none of those reasons applies to you. But since clearly something is wrong, you should try to think about what the problem was, so that you can fix the problem going forward.

As far as fixing the problem for this semester, perhaps some of your students have already dropped the class, and in this case you won't be getting them back. For the others, you should try to contact them---do you have a class email list to send an email inviting everyone back? (If not, then in the future make sure to get such a list.) It may be that some of them haven't realized that the exam was scheduled then, so you can remind the class of the exams. (In the future make sure the exam schedule is more clear.) With the few students you have left, make sure to teach in such a way that you get feedback during the class about whether they are understanding the material or not. Ask the students questions during the lecture (I do so dozens of times) concerning what you are lecturing on, since when they are unable to provide the answers, you can adjust the topic and pace.

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Until you know what caused the course to get off-track, it's hard to know how to fix it. What follows are a few things to help you determine the cause of the trouble.

Often, universities have a program to help faculty and graduate students teach effectively. If your university has one, contact them and ask for help. They do things like observe your lectures and/or survey your students. Typically, this feedback isn't shared with your department, so you can learn from it without worrying about getting in trouble.

Ask a colleague if you can sit in on one of their classes (it's best if it's the same course or one quite similar). Make sure you ask someone who has a good reputation as a teacher.

Ask a colleague to sit in on one of your classes. Afterwards, buy them a beer and ask if they have any thoughts on how you might improve.

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