Should you require class attendance?

Do you have an attendance policy for your classes? Do you reward or penalize students for attending class? Or do you leave it up to the individual student to determine how to acquire the knowledge necessary to pass the course? Does mandatory attendance equate with a higher success rate for students in the course?

Handwritten attendance sheet.Research studies have not shown mandatory attendance to insure a higher success rates for students. An oft-cited article by Karen L. St. Clair, A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education, Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 1999, examines and evaluates the research literature on the relationship between attendance and academic achievement. St. Clair applies Paul Pintrich’s model of college student motivation in the classroom to the issue surrounding attendance policies. [Paul Pintrich, Student motivation in the college classroom. From: K. W. Prichard & R. McLaran Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of college teaching: Theory and application, Greenwood Press, 1994.] She finds that attendance is linked to motivation and required attendance does not guarantee high achievement. Low achievement in a course is usually due to a number of factors. Moreover, an attendance policy will not guarantee attendance. “Classroom environments that engage students, emphasize the importance of students’ contributions, and have content directly related to knowledge assessed will undoubtedly provide encouragement to students to attend regularly.” (p. 178-179) St. Clair notes that there are exceptions when it is necessary for students to attend class to demonstrate proficiency, for example, in foreign language and laboratory classes, small discussion sections or seminars where “…attendance is compulsory because it is part of the grading structure.” (p. 179). Otherwise, St. Clair concludes that class attendance should not be compulsory.

St. Clair’s work dates from 1999, and it could be argued that much has changed in the classroom and in institutions of higher education in the past fifteen years. While more recent studies on attendance have been conducted, these have focused on attendance for online courses or other issues, for example, whether providing lecture materials online causes student class attendance to decline. However, instructors have written articles based on personal experiences that may provide insight for your consideration of the issue.

Inside Higher Ed featured an article, Attendance Not Required (December 17, 2012) by Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Bugeja, who taught at Ohio University and Iowa, accepted any reason for not attending class (as long as a test or project presentation wasn’t scheduled) because he wanted students “to assess their priorities.” He required students to email their excuse for the absence with the criteria that they be completely honest. He collected and posted the reasons, because he felt that faculty are not well informed as to why students miss classes. He explained to his students that attendance correlates with achievement and had the data to prove it. Perhaps not everyone will want to duplicate this approach, but his reasoning and results are worth examining.

On the other side of the discussion, in 2013, Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska adopted an extremely tough “three strikes” attendance policy. “Once a student skips class, flunks a quiz or fails to turn in their homework (or any combination thereof) three times, the vice president for academic affairs, Steven Bullock, decides whether the student is out — of the class, in this case.” (Carl Staumsheim, Striking Out of Class, Inside Higher Ed, April 11, 2013). The key here was a perceived need for early intervention for struggling students. “Administrators stressed the policy was created to motivate, not weed out, lazy students. As students begin to accumulate strikes, they are sent to Midland’s advising center to get help with their coursework and study skills.”

A recent post (July 14, 2014) in the Advice section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, presents the views of Michelle LaFrance and Steven J. Corbett in A 21st Century Attendance Policy. LaFrance, an assistant professor of English and director of the writing-across-the-curriculum program at George Mason University, uses a prompted freewriting exercise at the start of each class as a means of both encouraging and taking attendance. Students receive points for each completed freewrite, but the exercises are not graded.  In anonymous surveys, students have been positive about the process. It also serves as a formative assessment as LaFrance writes: “But I like how this activity makes keeping attendance much simpler for me and, at the same time, is a useful means of taking the temperature of student learning. Instead of standing at the front of the room placing check marks and late notes by student’s names on a roster, I return to my office later that day and spend some time reading their warm-up thoughts. I’m not only keeping track of attendance, I’m gauging how the course is going and where I may need to make adjustments, based on their comments.” Corbett, a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, has a much stricter policy based on a concept of professionalism – in the real world if you don’t show up you don’t get paid. Students are allowed two or three absences after which each absence takes a mark off their overall grade. Both LaFrance and Corbett have clearly stated policies. “We talk to our students throughout the semester about our expectations, reminding them frequently about how their choices will affect their final grades, a clear motivator for the 21st-century student. But we also remind them that learning is an investment of time and energy that only they can bring to the table.”

Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2009, p. 17-18) offers some good general advice: “Let students know in the syllabus and on the first day of class that you expect them to come to class regularly. Do your best to make class time worthwhile – a time when real work takes place. Students are also more likely to attend if they know that exams will include items that have been discussed in class only. Some faculty use attendance as a factor in grading, but many do not. If you want to reward good attendance, let students know how you will determine whether they come to class. Rather than penalize absences (by subtracting points), reward perfect or near-perfect attendance (by giving bonus points); the numerical result will be the same, but students feel better about the latter. Set a good example by arriving early to class, starting and ending on time, and staying late to answer questions.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art

 

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