Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dealing with Attendance in a University Class


Howdy, GTCers!

Below you'll find a recap of the GTC's recent workshop on Dealing with Attendance in a University Class, facilitated by Matt Dumlao. Curious about what was covered? Here's the scoop:


College instructors face very different challenges than K-12 teachers when it comes to student attendance. College students are adults who are not compelled legally to attend class. College funding is independent of student attendance unlike K-12 schools, which lose money each day or period a student is absent. 

It may seem completely unnecessary to consider the issue of attendance in college instruction, but whether a student is present or absent may have real consequences for the quality of instruction in many college classes.  In this week’s GTC meeting, we discussed the issue of attendance in college classes and the consequences that can arise when attendance is mandatory.

We opened the discussion by sharing some of our own experiences regarding student attendance. We noted that most classes do not take role in the traditional manner of calling a name and waiting for a response. That may be done in smaller classes during the first week, especially as part of an icebreaker activity or as a way for the instructor to learn the names of the students. In large lecture classes, checking attendance in this way is completely impractical. But, attendance may be recorded by asking questions that the students answer using clickers. Their responses are recorded and the instructor can determine after class who was there. Finally, we noted that some classes have strict attendance policies during the first week of class. For example, many labs require students attend the first class and if they do not, they are dropped from the class. Also, some instructors may be reluctant to admit a student to class if they miss the first week of instruction. 

Our opening conversation segued into a discussion of when attendance should be mandatory. Classes with group work, lab classes, discussion sections, or performance art sessions were all considered classes that should have mandatory attendance. The common thread among those classes is the fact that the work cannot be done outside of class or at a later date. In classes with group activities, the group members can be enlisted to monitor and encourage attendance; group members can evaluate each other and students who do not attend will receive poor evaluations that will ultimately influence their final grade.

When attendance is mandatory (whether to a specific class or to all classes), several issues can arise. First, the absence can be considered excused or unexcused. In some courses, proof (e.g., a doctor’s note) is needed for an absence to be excused. Some schools have official policies regarding the number of absences that can be excused. Student-athletes are usually given excused absences when they participate in school events. (However, there are cases of athletes colluding to get more time to study for an exam by claiming they had a game on the day the exam was scheduled.) If the instructor is given discretion to decide whether an absence is excusable, the student’s privacy should be taken into consideration.  A student may not want to divulge much personal information. One person pointed out that she has a policy of one absence per quarter with no questions asked. From the TA’s perspective, that removes much of the hassle (no need to question the student or ask for proof), and students appreciate the flexibility it provides.

Another issue that can arise when attendance is mandatory is how make up work is handled. Some classes may be impossible to make up and the instructor may need to assign an alternate assignment. Some lab classes offer students a chance to make up the class at the end of the week, before everything is set up for the next week.

Also, making attendance mandatory may have negative consequences on student motivation and the classroom atmosphere. Students who don’t really want to be in class may become a distraction to others. As TAs, we have all seen students texting and goofing around on the Internet. One person even mentioned that she’s seen students making out in the back of the class! Clearly, that can be a major distraction and it might be better for everyone if they aren’t in class. 

Finally, we raised the question of what happens when attendance is rewarded with points. That could inflate grades slightly and it may be unnecessary because students who show up tend to do better anyway. Also, it may send the wrong message that just by showing up you can be rewarded.  

We ended our meeting by going over a few suggestions for dealing with attendance. First, we said the policy should be determined beforehand and it should be clear and stated in the syllabus (if possible). Second, you should check with the university to see what the policies are regarding reporting absences. Some universities have mandatory attendance and a system for reporting absences. Third, we said that we should acknowledge that the students are adults and life happens. Finally, the instructor should determine how to handle make up work for each assignment at the beginning of the quarter. By being proactive and planning ahead, a policy can be developed that is fair and the instructor does not need to scramble when something arises. 


What is your experience dealing with attendance in class? If you have a hardline approach to attendance, how have you made it work? Add your comments below!

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