Purpose of Attendance

As one could guess, this is going to be an education-related article; however, unlike most of my education posts, this is not inspired by an article in the Chronicle. Instead, this post is based on my real-life recent experience and real-life recent wonder.

Here’s what inspired the post: my department encourages instructors to take “regular” attendance and in some of the lower-level service-courses “regular” actually means “daily.” And my department is not alone in this; not only do other departments at my large university enforce this protocol of regular attendance-taking, but the departments also have an “unexcused absence” limit. That is, each department sets a cap for the number of times a student can be AWOL before the instructor automatically is allowed to (and is urged to) withdraw the student from the course! Scarier yet–this does not seem to be unique to my current university: I remember distinctly that back at my smaller liberal arts undergrad attendance in classes was always taken. My undergrad would not hold class unless there was “quorum” (2/3 of the registered students) present–yes, I am serious about this–and the college even introduced me to the concept of an “FA” (failure due to excessive absences, which counts as an “F” on a GPA).

I will explain myself in a bit, but I’m going to say right now that I think taking attendance–let alone daily attendance–in a college class is absolutely ridiculous. It is moreover ridiculous to cancel a class due to lack of attendance and it is especially insane to make distinctions between F’s, WF’s, and FA’s. Attendance is not a big deal on my syllabi. Attendance counts for 0 percent of my students’ final grades. Still, since my bosses think it’s truly necessary, I do take attendance regularly. I have even managed to “make the most of it” (for example, making students pick up their graded quizzes and exams as attendance not only helps you see who was present in class but also decreases your amount of surplus paperwork!).

The requirement my department and my experiences from undergrad have made me wonder, though: why we do this? Philosophically, I’m baffled. College students, whether they act like it or not, are legal adults. College students (or more realistically their parents) are paying to take the courses in which they are enrolled. College students (or more realistically their advisors) choose the classes, and hence the days and times that they are supposed to be in class. So who cares if they fail to take the opportunity to show up to something for which they are registered, for which they are paying, and in which they will have to pass a final exam? Why is it the job of the instructor to count heads?

Some may argue that there is no harm in taking roll and reminding students to come to class. Especially if one is teaching a class with a lot of freshmen, taking attendance regularly might help establish stronger study skills in the students and help in their gradual shift from high-school to college life. They may even claim that withdrawing a student due to lack of attendance will teach that student an important lesson in personal responsibility. Let’s consider the following counter-arguments:

(1) Depending upon the size of your class and how you choose to take this attendance, this actually could be wasting legitimate class-time. By that, I mean it could be wasting time that could be spent lecturing, or leading class discussions. So let’s not say that taking attendance is completely harmless.

(2) There are really two types of students earning FA’s or WF’s due to absences:

(i) Students who are passing the course. If a student can not attend class and still “do well” in the course (either by nailing exams or writing fantastic papers or creating spectacular projects, etc), why punish them? If anything the instructor should be punished–is the class really challenging if you can afford to show up rarely if ever and still do well? This concept of an “FA” is utterly ridiculous. To say that a student conceivably could have a no-questions-asked “A” in the material only to have an “F” on their GPA (and at that point who cares if that “F” is “disguised” as a WF or an FA?) is an incomprehensible occurrence to me; yet, under quite a few academic systems, it is a true possibility.

(ii) Students who are not passing the course. Sure, withdrawing these students may save you from grading a few extra finals, but is it really worth all the paperwork (both in the actual withdrawal process as well as in the regular attendance taking needed to justify the withdrawals)? Leave the students in the class and let them earn the F. The (potential for a) lesson in responsibility is really only increased if the student is in the course for the ENTIRE semester with nothing to show for it.

In an attempt to justify the logic behind this system I have come up with the following sequence of thoughts: (1) Instructors/departments/colleges presume (in many cases correctly) that the students who are most truant correspond to students who will fail the course. (2) If you know the student is going to earn an F anyway and in the process drop your overall class’ GPA (which may be important if your contract is renewed frequently and/or if you’re going up for tenure any time soon), then why wouldn’t you want to get these students out of your hair? (3) In this process you somehow feel obligated to make a semantical distinction between the kids you REALLY wanted to evict (i.e., the WF’s) and the kids who just happened to fall under the “collateral damage” category (i.e., the FA’s). (4) In a further attempt to justify this, you argue that students who “earn” FA’s will be taught a lesson in personal responsibility, and that your attendance-taking will enforce stronger study skills collectively among your students.

The real problem still is (2). With recent cheating scandals in public elementary schools across the country, the topic of basing teachers’ worth and salaries on their students’ performance has come under intense criticism. Why not bring it under such criticism in college? Again, whose fault is it if students fail classes, particularly if those students specifically signed up for those classes and specifically paid for those classes?


One thought on “Purpose of Attendance

  1. Perhaps a part of the problem is we are still thinking of education within the confines of an obsolete model? It does seem that schools with these policies are prematurely penalizing students who if allowed to fail the course naturally might learn the lesson more readily. I have more comments but will reserve them for email if you’d like to discuss. I have recently listened to some TED Talks I’d highly recommend. boudreaux.oliver@gmail.com. Email me if you’re interested in the links or in a more drawn out exchange. I would love to discuss this as education is very close to my heart. However I do understand if you simply do not have time. The main reason I’m doing it this way is because my email gets filled up quick when I click the notify me button and I end up spending too much time reading “Great post” responses.

    🙂 Great post

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