Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota
Over the last several years, I have had a shift in my thinking about attendance in my courses. Now, as I think about my courses in the spring semester, I may be changing my views once again. The specific issue I am currently wrestling with is whether to formally take attendance every class period. This is not an issue I am concerned with for most of my courses. I do not feel that it is necessary in small seminar classes. In those classes, because of their discussion format, I am able to learn student’s names rapidly and naturally. Nor am I concerned with large lecture classes (over 75 students). In these classes, developing a personal connection with the majority of the students is unrealistic. My concern is whether to implement formal attendance in mid-size classes (between 25 and 75 students). My structure for this size of a class is a hybrid format of lectures, group activities, and whole class discussions. In the large scale lecture course, even in an active discussion, only a small minority of students will be able to contribute to the discussion. In the small seminar class, time typically permits all students to contribute to the discussion. The hybrid nature and the number of students in the mid-size courses make these classes problematic. In these classes, it is possible to hear from a majority of students, but not all students. This is a challenge because these mid-size courses demand that students be involved with the collective learning activities. This requires that students be present and prepared for the class; missing either of these undermines the class goals.
The question is: Should I formally take attendance in my mid-level courses?
Argument against attendance #1: Formally taking attendance is overly time-consuming (or counterproductive).
At the University of North Dakota, if a class meets three days a week, each class period is only 50 minutes long. Even if attendance is only takes 5 minutes (which for me is optimistic in a 75 student class), this means that 10% of any course is spent on this activity rather than on the course subject matter. There is a two-fold problem with this. First, students are paying for this time, but it does not have any direct value to their learning. Second, by adding formal attendance taking to a course, I would only be able to cover 90% of the material that I would otherwise be able to cover. In addition, since this missing 10% would not come from a single course period, all of the daily course plans would need to be revamped and revisited.
There seems to be at least two different responses that might be given to this argument. First, it might be possible to formally take attendance without spending valuable class time. One solution might be to hand-around a sign-in sheet (or some other strategy like daily quizzes) where students record their attendance while the class is going on. Unfortunately, this approach comes with two costs. There is the potential for students to cheat the system and falsify attendance (by having someone else sign them in). Additionally, having a sign-in sheet pass through a class means that every student will be distracted from the class concepts and activities at some point; thus undermining the argument in favor of the sign-in sheet. Second, this argument can be criticized for conflating amount of time in the class with productivity in the class. If taking attendance were to make students more attentive, understand concepts better, or learn more, then it would be worth the lost 10% of the total course. This, obviously, does not mean that taking attendance makes students learn more efficiently (more data would be needed for this claim); it simply means that the use of time in this manner is not sufficient grounds for rejecting attendance.
Argument against attendance #2: It is not the proper role of an instructor to take attendance.
An instructor’s primary role in any class is to provide a quality experience for students. This experience should be based on the professional expertise of the instructor combined with the instructor’s judgment as to what should be learned and how the content and/or skills are best covered in the course. Formally taking attendance is not often seen as the most appropriate role of the instructor. Students’ have a role in their education, too. This is usually understood to include being present and prepared for each class period. In this understanding of the roles of the instructor and the students, being present would clearly be the students’ responsibility, not the instructors. By taking attendance, the instructor is taking the burden of this responsibility.
This argument revolves around the idea that all individuals in the learning process have obligations and responsibilities; if either the instructor or the student fails to meet their responsibilities, the learning process breaks down. I am receptive to this general proposition, but the idea of multiple responsible agents does not mean that the responsibility rests just on one individual. Attendance in a class is not just the students’ responsibility, even if the responsibility is unevenly on the students’ shoulders. For example, one responsibility that students have toward their own education is to ask questions of the instructor when they do not understand the course concepts. Instructors have the ability to discourage or encourage this type of discussion. Even though it is primarily the students’ responsibility to ask for clarification, the instructor has a reasonable responsibility to be accessible to students, to answer questions, and to be open to a discussion of the concepts. This same principle applies to attendance. Attendance is primarily the students’ responsibility, but instructors have some limited responsibilities (like giving incentives for attendance and making sure there are not disincentives for attendance).
Argument against attendance #3: Students are adults with free-will and should be allowed to make up their own minds as to whether they come to class or not.
Different individuals have different values. As adults, students should be allowed to establish their own priorities and act on their values (as long as those actions do not harm other individuals). If a student has determined that some other activity has a higher value to them than attending a class period that is his or her choice. To supersede this judgment is to see the students as less legitimate decision makers than the instructor. This is a clear case of paternalism. Equally important, students who do not attend class regularly will be found out. In the end, their grades will likely be lower than their classmates.
This argument hinges on the relationship between paternalism and attendance policies. It argues that formally taking attendance forces students to conform to the values of the instructor and not to act in ways that they might normally choose. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is nothing about formally taking attendance that undermines the students’ autonomy. They still are allowed to make decisions based on their values. Class attendance is still voluntary, but the consequences of noncompliance are clear and reinforced in every class period. If anything, attendance policies make students better decision makers because they have more information available to them when they compare their values. Secondly, paternalism is rampant and beneficial in mid-size classes. Instructors have guidelines for all sorts of class behavior (both within the classroom and outside activities involving the course). Students respond to these guidelines all of the time. Taking attendance shows students that the instructor values students being in class and that the instructor believes that regular class attendance increases the effectiveness of the course. This is no different from telling students that they cannot sleep during class. This is paternalistic, since it tells students how to behave, but this does not make it wrong to try to stop this behavior.
Argument for attendance #1: It holds students accountable for their actions.
Like most people, students do not want to do things that they will not get credit for. Since most educators see attendance as beneficial to learning, formally taking attendance creates a direct and immediate benefit to the student. It gives them credit for the action and costs them when they violate the expected behavior. Students know what is expected of them and can act accordingly. Even if attendance corresponds to success on class assignments, these evaluations are more sporadic. Formally taking attendance gives daily feedback to the student about whether they are meeting the course expectations. This direct and immediate feedback is more meaningful and lasting because of its regularity.
I am sympathetic to the idea of creating positive incentives to encourage beneficial student behaviors. However, it is not clear that formally taking attendance is incentivizing the right behaviors. Taking attendance does create an incentive to be in class, but only that action. It does hold students accountable for whether they are in class at a specific time, but it ends there. The incentives push students towards coming to class even if they have not prepared, are sick, or cannot stay awake for 50 minutes. Taking attendance, by itself, encourages students to come to class, but does not encourage them to be actively engaged with the class.
Argument for attendance #2: It provides data about the effectiveness of teaching.
In theory, there should be a correlation between class attendance and final class grade. This does not mean that a student with perfect attendance will get a good grade or that a student could not receive a strong grade despite spotty attendance. However, when we look at a cohort of students, there should be a direct benefit between class attendance and what students learn. Formally taking attendance provides direct evidence as to who was in each class and how often a student was not present. This data should allow us to determine whether what we do in class is effective. If the correlation between attendance and final outcomes are strong, this indicates that classroom time is important to student progress. If students who attend regularly and students that attend irregularly earn the same grades, this indicates that class times and activities do not provide students with information or tools necessary for success. (It is important to note again that this should apply to large groups of students and might not reflect every student outcome). The additional data provided by taking attendance also allows us to examine the success of class activities. We can compare the correlations between attendance and grades to determine what activities have the greatest impact (not just what students prefer).
This defense of formal attendance is nice in theory, but does not seem strong in practice. It is true that we end up with more data to think about, but that data is only useful when it is actually analyzed. This means that we would need to use this data in a systematic and sound manner to analyze a course. This seems unrealistic for most instructors, since it would require timely (and potentially massive) data analysis. Instead, it seems more probable that this additional data would only be used anecdotally and it would be susceptible to confirmation bias.
Argument for attendance #3: It provides supporting evidence for determining some components of students’ grades.
Many classes incorporate points in their grading schemes that come from discussion, participation, attendance, or some other structure that rewards students for being prepared and involved in collective learning. Unfortunately, most assessment in these areas is highly subjective. Having accurate and complete attendance records provides a defensive argument if a student challenges any of these subjective grades. If a student complains that they ended up with a B for class participation, an objective number can be used in a disagreement. As the university structure moves increasingly towards a contractual and legalistic framework, this objective data protects instructors’ interests.
This argument seems to be reversed from the previous argument. It may be great in practice, but it is problematic in theory. It may prevent challenges to individual grades, but it provides false security and seems to be based on a lie. Attendance is clearly a necessary condition for participation and active learning, but attendance is not a sufficient condition. Students cannot participate in class if they are not there, but mere presence does not affect participation. Using class attendance as a sole justification for a participation grade conflates these two aspects of education. It also provides a false sense of objectivity to how these grades are determined.