Are you satisfied with the number of students who attend your class regularly? Is your Friday class meeting disappointingly lower in attendance compared to your Wednesday class session? Maybe it is time to consider implementing an attendance-required policy in your class and give students points (or subtract points) for attendance? Or maybe such a college class attendance policy is not such a good idea. This notion has been debated and re-debated many times over, but there is actually a better approach.
It stands to reason that, by and large, students who attend class get better grades than those students who do not attend class. Beyond reason, and with a little concerted effort, most science professors can systematically collect sufficient data to show that in their own classes where there is no draconian-level punitive attendance policy, that their students who attend class generally get better grades than their students who do not. Given such logic and evidence, one might quickly assume that better overall course grades will result if more students are attending your class.
As a seemingly unrelated but parallel example, consider that at least one national group of pediatricians became cognizant that school children who have numerous books in their homes excel in school as compared to school children who have few books in their homes. As a result, pediatricians throughout the country have devoted considerable time and money to giving books to low socioeconomic class children who come in for medical treatments and preventative care, with the enthusiastic hope that a larger portion school children would begin to excel in school—all because more books in the home seemed to equal better academic performance. This is a classic case of confusion between correlation and causation, even though the program has been repeatedly described on the floor of the US Congress (Reach Out and Read, n.d.).
In both cases, well-meaning professionals are confusing correlation and causation. In both cases, what seemed to be the cause—consistent class attendance and books in the home—are symptoms rather than causal mechanisms. As it turns out, families that focus their fiscal and human resources bringing books into the home are more often also supportive of high academic achievement. And, similarly, college students who are self- and intrinsically-motivated to attend college classes regularly are also apt to take their overall college learning experiences with more enthusiasm and end up earning better grades in college overall. Moreover, research exhaustively summarized earlier by Clair (1999) and more recently explored by Bugeja (2012) consistently show that seemingly harsh attendance policies erode students’ motivation, regardless of how good a class is on its own two feet.
So what is a passionately committed college science professor to do? I do not recommend instituting a penalty (or incentive) grade-based attendance policy. For one, such policies have not been shown to work. For another, the record keeping related to enforcement in either case is onerous. But, most important to me, attendance policies can degrade students’ sometimes fragile levels of motivation (Slater, S.J., 2014), which I am trying so hard to nurture so that they can learn science.
Instead, I recommend professors consider first and foremost that each and every day in class, they engineer specific learning activities—clearly aligned with helping students attain high levels of performance in their course grades—that make coming to class highly valued and consistently worthwhile. Group activities, mini-debates, case studies, test-item-creation tasks, among many others, engender active learning experiences that cannot easily be replicated by simply getting the lecture notes from another student. In other words, instead of spending one’s effort on the record keeping related to student attendance, reallocate one’s effort to making class time so valuable a student doesn’t wish to miss a single class meeting!
For myself, I certainly do have a stated class attendance policy, but it is not directly tied to students’ grades numerically—students should earn a grade based on what they understand and what they can do. Experience suggests that such non-punitive attendance policy approaches only work if professors purposefully take the time to repeatedly explain why you value class attendance and why students should value it too—certainly on the syllabus and perhaps reminding students every couple of weeks too. It is worthwhile to tell students during class why their attendance today is valued and what benefit they are receiving today by doing today’s activity. As harsh as it sounds, indeed if students really can pass your class without attending class regularly, then perhaps your class time really isn’t that important and it is time to rethink, re-conceptualize, and reinvigorate what happens every day in your class.
Bugeja, M. (2012, Dec.). Attendance Not Required. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/17/essay-unusual-approach-classroom-attendance#sthash.3eZ8I0dT.FvgYhVcY.dpbs (based on data publicly available at: https://myethicsclass.com/2014/10/30/reasons-for-missing-journalism-ethics-class)
Clair, K. L. S. (1999). A case against compulsory class attendance policies in higher education. Innovative Higher Education, 23(3), 171-180. http://faculty.washington.edu/sharon/St._Clair_1999.pdf
Reach Out and Read (n.d.). URL: http://www.reachoutandread.org/
Say, They (1921, private communication). You can lead a horse to water; but, you can’t make ‘em drink. DISCLAIMER: Students are not implied to be domesticated horses; instead, this well-known phrase is intended to be nothing more than a rich metaphorical statement steeped in historical context commonly found in literature to emphasize that it is difficult to force students into specific advantageous behaviors
Slater, S. J. (2014, Oct.) Can Your Syllabus Improve Student Motivation? CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research Blog. https://astronomyfacultylounge.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/can-your-syllabus-improve-student-motivation/
Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com
Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2016, October). Ready to revise your class attendance policy? Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(3), http://www.scst.org/blog