Monday, January 17, 2011

What's Your Attendance Policy?

As I have admitted before, I was not the best undergraduate student. I routinely didn't go to class. I can count on one hand the number of courses where I attended every class. Most of them were taught by the same teacher. She was an adjunct, and she taught some of the most thankless courses. Our first course with her was Technical Writing. And yet, we all attended every class, did every assignment, and were usually lined up around the corner to see her during her office hours. I don't remember if she had an attendance policy in her syllabus (she probably did), but it wasn't for fear of punishment that we did or did not attend her class. We wanted to be there, and we saw the utility of attending her classes. 

Another instructor (another adjunct) that I vividly remember also got me to attend every class. But it was because there was a severe penalty built into the syllabus if you missed even one class. We hated it. Everyone in the class resented the fact that we were being "forced," through threat of punishment, to attend the class. We would sit through his long lectures and plod through his boring exercises wondering why it was we absolutely needed to be there. It didn't help that it was Editing at 8:30 on Friday mornings, but if our Technical Writing teacher had been the instructor, we would have been there, no matter what.

This is the problem I have with attendance policies; it gives students the wrong incentive to attend class. if I am doing my job as an instructor, students will understand the utility of my class, enjoy (or at least appreciate) the learning process, and willingly attend. If a student at this level doesn't yet understand that attendance matters, then docking them a few grades won't help; if anything, they'll end up resenting you, your class, and your policy.

A number of my students have told me about the zero tolerance policy their high schools have developed in regards to attendance; if you miss a day for any reason not deemed acceptable, you get detention or suspension. Most of the time, however, those students who are "forced" to go to school are disruptive or don't bother doing the work required of them. No amount of punishment seems to change their attitude towards school and schooling; they see it as a waste of their time. I want to make sure that my students don't think that I am wasting their time.

That's not to say that there isn't a stick that goes along with the carrot. The students learn very quickly that every day we do a variety of activities in class that directly relates to their upcoming (or in progress) essay assignment. All of these activities count in their final grade. For me, the incentive isn't that they lose marks by not being in class, but that they miss out on important practice and preparation for major assignments. Doing well in my class isn't about just attending, it's about actively participating and working on what we focusing on that day. I have a number of students who show up and either sleep or just stare at me during class. The quality of their writing has not improved. 

I want to be more like my Technical Writing instructor than my Editing instructor; I want students to want to attend my class, not feel that they have to attend but are wasting their time in doing so. 


  1. I only have attendance policies in classes where other students' learning is affected by an absence. An example is my First Year Seminar class where there's a lot of discussion and team work for their projects done in class. In my physics classes, I do happen to have a quiz every day but I've had lots of students get up and leave after the quiz. It's their tuition, so I don't usually say anything.

    One time, though, I was able to show the students a graph of their performance on a recent exam versus their attendance. Needless to say there was quite a strong correlation to be seen. I don't think it actually changed the attendance rate but I didn't get as many excuses after that for poor performances.

    I do have some colleagues who take attendance as a matter of course in all their classes. I think they are most often thought of as you thought of your Editing professor.

  2. Hear Hear. I used to make it clear at the beginning of the course that I didn't care if they attended but that I designed the content of the lectures and seminars so that it would help them learn and do well. I also said that if they didn't attend, I wasn't going to replicate class content in office hours but that if they attended regularly and had problems, I'd spend as long as it took helping them.

    I have also kicked students out of a seminar class for not coming prepared. I had designed the reading and discussion so that students would be sharing what they'd read with other students who had read something different and thus they'd all cover more material. About half the class hadn't done their reading and I told them that their time would be better spent in the library reading what they should have read before class, and the students who had done the work could have better discussions amongst themselves.

    They didn't believe me but I made them leave. As I recall, students came prepared after that.

    I guess that means while I see Andy R's point about attendance that affects other students learning, I'm not sure that having unprepared students in a discussion seminar is helping the prepared students. I'm not a fan of encouraging free-riding.

  3. I agree with JoVE that free-riding students are a drain on the class. I, too, have kicked students out for not being prepared but I'd love to have a few more carrots in my arsenal than that stick.


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