Friday, December 16, 2011



I’ve never really come to terms with taking attendance in college classes. Maybe it’s me.

Yes, there are good pragmatic, and even academic , reasons to take attendance. Financial aid rules require noting a “last date of attendance” for students on aid who drop classes; you can only get that right if you bothered taking attendance. (“Dunno – maybe Octoberish?” won’t fly.) Financial aid is important enough to both colleges and students that one does not dismiss this lightly.

Attendance obviously matters for any class involving group work. If half the group doesn’t show up on a given day, that leaves those who did show up in a bad spot. (That’s especially true if you have stable groups over time, as in the case of group presentations.)

There’s also a reasonable argument to the effect that showing up for class on time is analogous to showing up for work on time. Yes, some workplaces are more flexible than they once were, but even that has limits. (In my observation, the flexibility is usually in exchange for more work – the old “you can work any sixty hours a week you want.”) We teach by what we do; if we want to graduate the kind of students who can be depended on, the argument goes, we need to inculcate the habits of promptness in the course of what we do. That means requiring students to show up for class.

More recently I’ve been confronted with arguments from social justice. This argument relies on data showing that attendance in class correlates strongly with passing grades – one of the great “no shit” findings of social science – and suggests that “attendance optional” policies wind up defaulting to pass rates that correlate too closely to economic class. If we want to raise the chances of the least advantaged, this argument goes, we have to push a bit. That means requiring everyone to show up.

I can concede some truth in each of those, but somehow, it still just doesn’t feel right. (Full disclosure: I have the same misgivings about “college success” courses.) At some level, especially outside of group-based courses, I can’t help but think of class as a resource that students are given access to in order to succeed at their courses. Students who take advantage of that resource will tend to do better than those who don’t. Figuring that out is part of the process. If some student is a gifted autodidact, I can’t help but shrug and say more power to him.

My ambivalence is compounded by online classes. What exactly does ‘attendance’ mean in the context of an asynchronous online course? It’s getting harder not to notice that the trend towards more prescriptive attendance policies for onsite classes is occurring at the same time as the explosion of online classes, for which there isn’t even a place to be.

Of course, attendance policies carry with them the inevitable haggling over “excused” absences. In my teaching days, I hated that haggling enough that I just banned it; instead, I gave the students a set number of “cuts” they could have without penalty, and I counted the top three out of four tests. My argument to them was that in any given workplace, nearly everybody got some level of benefit of the doubt, but that it was finite; miss too much, even for good reasons, and people just get tired of hearing it. The great relief of online courses, paradoxically enough, is that they curtail the perceived need for surveillance (i.e. excuse verification) even more; either you got the work done or you didn’t.

This may wind up being one of those cases in which I just have to swallow my own misgivings and roll with larger pragmatic considerations. (Certainly I have no intention of messing with Title IV.) But it still doesn’t sit right.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a way to satisfy the need for Last Date of Attendance and suchlike without getting too infantilizing? Is there a better way?

For online classes, we use the last day they "logged in" to the online class to determine last date of attendance.

Many say have your post to the question up by Sunday at midnight and have 3 responses to your classmates by Monday at midnight.

We have also started calling students who have not "logged in" by the 2nd day of the class and again on the 5th.
One thing we've tried it giving a very small bonus for attendance - about 1% of a letter grade. It's enough to encourage some more students to come, but so small that the it doesn't really penalize a gifted autodidact. Part of it is just a clear statement that you want the students there.
I sort my grade spreadsheet and then send email to any student whose grade was in the bottom 20% of the class and who had non-trivial numbers of absences. My emails were a mix of nagging, encouragement, and fishing for reasons why the student was being unsuccessful in class (and followed up with possible referrals to campus resources for dealing with real issues).
This is college, not elementary school. If they don't want to attend, let them. If they want to fail, let them. They have the right to flunk out if that is what they wish to do.
Even for a face-to-face class I use Moodle and online discussions, so the solution of using last logged in for financial aid purposes works fine.

I'm a bit more focused on attendance in my freshman seminar, helping build some good college habits. For other courses I tell them they're adults, they've invested a lot of money (or gone further into debt) for this class, that attendance and participation correlate with class success, and now the decision is theirs.
I'd love to let them fail for not attending but currently this is hotly debated at my school. If there's no attendance policy what do you say to the student who has missed 6, 7, 8, etc weeks of school and now wants to make things up? Some faculty members are fighting the whole attendance thing because they don't want students to fail based on attendance. And if said studen contests their grade, you lose the support of the union and the major players in faculty.

However the college requires us to submit sheets indicating attendance all semester. If you're going to make me take attendance, then I should be allow to use it against the students. This semester many of my classes dropped from 25 students to 14 to 9. I teach those classes that require group work as the nature of the course, and it's a hassle to schedule presentations when sometimes half of the class will show up and sometimes they won't.

Attendance in class is dwindling every year and while it's grand to think that we shoudl punish the students, it's the faculty who really get punished. It shows up when senior faculty evaluate me. In fact I've been in trouble for not caring in students come in late or miss--it apparently reflects that I'm a bad instructor. But....they won't let me fail someone for not showing up.
I have index cards filled in by students during the first week of class, and records of assignments received. No index card = never attended. Went missing without filing a drop slip? Last date attended is day of last assignment received. Registration and Records is OK with that approach.

The good news is that the date of last attendance can be used to deny financial aid. Stop subsidizing slacking, get less of it.
"If there's no attendance policy what do you say to the student who has missed 6, 7, 8, etc weeks of school and now wants to make things up?"

I teach math. In classes that meet two/three times a week, I have one quiz every week; in classes that meet five times a week, I have two quizzes a week. That's good enough attendance taking for financial aid considerations.

The correlation between grades and attendance results from the fact that good students attend and get good grades. The question becomes then: what is a good student, and how do we get people to be good students? And that, I think, is where the socioeconomic issues come into play. Colleges are geared towards people with good "student skills"; these skills are acquired differentially.
I returned to academia two years ago to take a position as an Academic VP. I couldn't figure out why my Enrollment Director was making such a big deal about faculty not taking attendance. I never took attendance as a faculty member and saw no reason to clamp down on faculty about the matter. Eventually I came to understand that federal regulations had changed a lot since I'd been away.

I'm ashamed to say that these days I sound like my Registrar and can't end a faculty meeting without admonishing folks about attendance taking.

I still think taking attendance on the college level is dumb, but at least with the new SIS software I persuaded the school to purchase taking attendance is an easy click of a button.
It's easy: Just have some kind of activity--a quiz, group work, written three-minute feedback on the lecture material, whatever--every class. Students who are in class get points. Students who aren't there don't.

I haven't encountered very many "auto-dictats" in my cc classes, but if someone were able to get the work done well without attending class, then I'd simply give her the grade she deserved.

I have a class reflection grade instead of attendance based upon answering a prompt related to the day's discussion/topic. It has some pedagogical value as it forces reflection on their part and allows me to see if they are 'getting' it. It counts for about 10% of their grade. Sometimes I do it towards the beginning of class, others at the end - keeps them honest about showing up for the whole time.

I never go 2 weeks without doing an in-class reflection. So between that and turning in assignments via the electronic submission system, I can feel pretty confident when the financial aid people come calling about the student who disappeared.
I struggle with this. On the one hand, I agree with this poster "This is college, not elementary school. If they don't want to attend, let them. If they want to fail, let them. They have the right to flunk out if that is what they wish to do."

On the other, I teach at a community college and we are expected to baby them to some extent.

My answer is similar to Philip - I teach statistics and at the end of each class period I have what I call my in-class problem. It's worth about 10% of their grade. Enough to get them to do it, not enough to tank a grade on it's own.

Pedagogically it's intended to get them to dredge up today's topic and apply it to a problem right away. It also succeeds in taking attendance for me. They put their answers into blackboard, which grades them on the spot, and then I start the next class by going over the problem (getting it back in their heads).

Technically the problem is available off campus for a limited time period when the on campus students are putting in their answers. The auto-didact who can solve problems quickly from home could just do it there. So far no one has tried that. '

I like this idea a lot because it serves both an administrative and a pedagogical purpose. Plus, frankly, it's easy for me; once I set it up it grades automatically and I have a record that they were there/engaged in the class.
I do a daily quiz, but it's the "extra credit" option for the class. If the quiz score is better than the average of their other work, it's included as an additional assignment. If not, it's ignored. So I know who was in class when. And I can track how attendance is related to grades.
Responses to clicker questions provide convenient attendance data.
I teach small undergraduate seminars (10 is a large enrollment). The discussion and interaction between the students is an integral part of each class. These seminars, while pertinent to the major, fulfill no specific degree requirement, so if a student doesn't want to be there--can't handle being required to show up and participate--then that student should not be enrolled in the class.
apparently I'm going to play contrarian today. Do we really place so little value on experiential learning? It isn't just about passing the exam- particularly in my classes, because there is no exam. It's readings, short response essays, and lots of class discussion. They learn to think by thinking on their feet, responding to me, responding to each other.

if you're teaching your courses in a way that it doesn't matter if they show up to class, then what's the point of the teacher? Just set a standard exam and let them learn it on their own- maybe offer some tutors. Bam, no more need to pay faculty.
To Anonymous 12:07:

If they already know the material and there is no way to "comp out", then they don't need me to pass the tests. It is just this one person out of 25 or 50 who would be penalized by an attendance policy. I don't tie attendance to grades for just that reason. I regularly have one or two students who do not need to attend regularly to do well. We are a rural school and have a few bright stars that use a scholarship program called A-plus. It covers the costs if they are at a CC.


I don't include attendance in the course grade for personal reasons as well. I hated college courses that required I be there for points. Why should I get course credit for warming a chair? I should be there because the professor is sharing information I don't know. If they aren't doing that, well, I shouldn't have to be there. Besides, how do students learn that sometimes you do little things without specific credit tied to it in order to gain something grander? The last time I had a job out of academia there was no hourly reward for doing my job. Has this changed?

Here's the funny part. I do take attendance every class even though it isn't tied to the course grade. I teach science. We have weekly labs which would suffice for Financial Aid records. I take attendance each lecture because it helps me learn the students' names. I think I have a safer lab environment if I can call on a student by name if/when a problem (or potential problem) arises rather than yelling from the other side of the room, "Hey you!"
Our college just instituted a new policy requiring us to take attendance for every class AND to enter attendance records every week into the most antiquated, miserable, useless, time-consuming disaster of a computer program I have ever had to deal with. They tell us we have no choice--it's all "required by the federal government." Hmmm. Wonder why I haven't heard about any other colleges requiring such foolishness? It's really ghastly. We're getting regular reminders from the dean . . .
Yes, I agree. My own grades never showed a correlation to my attendance; or, if anything, a negative correlation. I'm probably one of those (admittedly quite rare) students who Anonymous 6:37 mentions. And I'm in the humanities, where there are few exams and assessment really does test comprehension rather than coverage. Some of my seminars were fantastic and I attended every one I could. Many others, however, were less than fantastic (for me, not necessary a reflection on the teacher) and as soon as I worked out that I could still get top grades with minimal presence, my attendance slipped.
The last time I had a job out of academia there was no hourly reward for doing my job. Has this changed?

At my first job in the private sector we had flex-time and a work-from-home policy. It was great, until I realized (too late) that my manager gave the best performance ratings to those he could see working hardest (ie. those who put in the longest hours at the office) — and as salary was tied to performance ratings, that was an expensive mistake.

Many jobs are hourly. Those that aren't still have an expectation that you show up. The old joke that flex-time means working any 60 hours you like during the week is still valid.
I'm not sure I see the parallel to "college success" classes. When I take attendance, I become the warden, a role for which I am ill-prepared.

When I teach a "college success" class, I am a teacher passing along important information on a topic I've mastered (more or less by definition). I can see where it might be silly to have the class be anything other than pass/fail, but anything that helps people make good decisions in a new environment seems like a good idea.
Just for the record, I have no idea how our college comes up with the last day of attendance for students who withdraw from a class. We don't even record it for students who fail because they didn't finish the course. We do, however, record attendance a few times per year for financial aid purposes.

Does anyone know where the OFFICIAL rules are located in the Federal Register? DD?
Anonymous @7:43AM asks "what do you say to the student who has missed 6, 7, 8, etc weeks of school and now wants to make things up?"

I tell them that the policy for submitting late work is clearly spelled out in the syllabus, and that the penalty points have already guaranteed a zero for most of those assignments. Ditto for my policy on missed exams. It is all there in both ink and bytes, and I have a signed form that documents they got a copy.

This isn't difficult. It just requires two things: one semester of experience and a spine. OK, three things: and a Dean that backs up hir faculty.

In the one class I teach where attendance counts, it is used for the students, not against them. A perfect grade for a modest homework and attendance component is a huge help to students on the borderline for two reasons: extra points and the extra things they learn by participating every day.
To Rosie at 11:55 AM -

Clickers are, indeed, very convenient for attendance. However, have you ever stood in the back of a large lecture hall and watched students come in with several of them?

They are only reliable when you know who is there but want to save time.
When I looked up Title IV, I seem to remember something that boiled down to: If the student attended at some point after the 60% point of the semester, then they don't have to pay back the money. Before that point, they needed to pay it back (pro-rated).
i had a college professor who took a deck of cards, and he wrote a student's name on each card. when he wanted to ask a question, he would take a card from the deck and call on the kid whose name was on the card. if the kid wasn't there, then they were marked as absent. i think he used attendance as a bonus.

here is the problem with taking attendance: if kids can get the syllabus on the first day, and only show up on test days and still get an A (or even a B) in the class, then the class was proved to be fairly worthless.

i can read books on my own. why pay a few grand for a class that just asks me to read a few books? if the point of college is to become enlightened and learn how to become a critical thinker, then what purpose is served by a class that can be passed without ever showing up?

colleges should take attendance, but not for grades. they should take them to see how many students are showing up vs how many are getting an A. as the ratio gets smaller, you can more easily recognize a worthless class that is a waste of time and money.
@CCPhysicist: I tell the class at the start of term that answering someone else's clicker for them is academic misconduct. If I (or the TA attending the big class) see anyone using two clickers I confiscate them both.
So I take frequent attendance in some form or another in my 100 and 200 level courses, but not in my upper-level courses. I figure that by the time they get to be juniors & seniors, they should know enough to understand the importance of regular attendance. Or, to accept the logical and likely consequences if they don't attend regularly.
have you found a way to satisfy the need for Last Date of Attendance and suchlike without getting too infantilizing?

No—and for approximately the reasons you describe, although I wrote much more about the issue here.

Both sides have compelling arguments. Hence the difficulty of deciding.
"if the point of college is to become enlightened and learn how to become a critical thinker, then what purpose is served by a class that can be passed without ever showing up?"

This assumes that tests are a good measure of enlightenment and critical thinking.
I employ a fairly simple policy that seems to work. I teach seminar style class that meet once a week for 3 hours. There are no formal excused absences. If a student is absent the student must write a 2-page essay for me on a question/prompt of my choosing. If they don't do it, I will lower their grade by a full letter for the entire semester. However, and here's where the "formal" caveat comes into play, if they miss more than three times, they fail. It seems to work.
In a class I used to teach, I always used to take the roll at the start of the tutorial, mostly to help me learn all the student's names. One semester, I decided not to do it, just to see what happened. Attendance by the end of the semester had dropped at tutorials from the normal 80% to below 50%. I think taking the roll sends a message that students attending is important to you as a teacher and they respond to that.

Note that attendance was not compulsory and there were no marks attached to attendance or the tutorials.
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