Attending to Attendance
Related to yesterday’s post about the differences between professors and teachers is a detailed analysis by Michael LaBossiere (Florida A&M) of his students’ attendance in his courses. He has long taken attendance and now makes use of Blackboard analytics for gathering information and “generating a picture of why students fail my classes.” He writes:
Not surprisingly, the new data still supports the old data in regards to correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade. Students who do fail (D or F) tend to have very poor attendance. I have also found that attendance has grown dramatically worse in my classes over the years. This is not based on the usual complaints of the old about the youth of today—I have stacks of rumpled attendance sheets that provide actual evidence.
One thing to note, if you read his post, is just how much effort he has put into figuring out why students in his courses do poorly. He even surveyed his students on their reasons for missing class. That strikes me as unusually dedicated.
LaBossiere has begun to allow his students to use Blackboard to complete tasks they would have otherwise needed to come to class to do:
Students could take exams and quizzes and turn in papers and assignments at any time of day from anywhere they could get an internet connection. I also offered (and offer) very generous deadlines for the work so that students who faced difficulties or challenges could easily work around them.
Interestingly, while his use of Blackboard was correlated with a reduction in student attendance, “the averages in my classes are remaining constant. One possible explanation is that the students would be doing worse, but for their ability to do the work in a very flexible manner.” So Blackboard, he thinks, is a “double-edged sword.”
Philosophy instructors, do you usually take attendance? If so, do you grade your students on attendance? Is your grading direct or indirect, say, through the use of occasional quizzes? Do you use Blackboard or other forms of technology in ways that make it easier for students to complete the work for your course without having to attend class?
I don’t think profs should take attendance. Our students are adults – it is their responsibility to take charge of their learning (including attending class). It’s not my job to keep tabs on them, it’s my job to help those who want to learn.Report
I take attendance in every single class and it directly comprises part of their grades. I too still find that attendance generally correlates with final grades although I’m not sure of the causal relationship. I use our learning management system for all exams etc., and class time is exclusively for lecture and discussion.
I have, however, encountered a new phenomenon in the classroom in the last 2 years which I had never seen before: the student who attends every class, seems engaged and bright, but turns in no work. This, I admit, baffles me, and is a real exception to the general correlation. What remains true is that students rarely do poorly in my classes because they do poor work; they do poorly because they don’t do work. Having just submitted final grades, I can see that every student who failed the class neglected to submit at least 25% of the written assignments all of which were to be turned in online. That, even more than attendance, tells me why those who fail fail.Report
And by way, the only thing I use Blackboard for is PDFs of texts.Report
Anon Prof: there are, I think, good reasons to support your claim. I have only a handful of times in two decades of teaching encountered a student who would have done well if not for attendance. This suggests that I could generally go to either extreme; I could dispense with attendance or grade solely on attendance and the vast majority of students will still get the same grade. Those who show up generally do well, and those who will do well generally show up. There are exceptions but they are statistical outliers.Report
Anon Prof: it occurs to me that if you only use Blackboard for texts, then you do take attendance, just indirectly. I’m assuming (perhaps wrongly) that there are a variety of written assignments, quizzes, and exams which your students have to submit; this suggests that if one fails to attend, those assignments will be late at best.Report
I take attendance in large lecture classes (60-120, in my school), but not in small ones, and I back it up with draconian penalties for missing class without excuse. Students get three free absences for the semester, but after that, for each unexcused absence, the student’s COURSE grade drops by one-third of a letter grade. I don’t fail anybody for attendance lapses, but students can drop down just short of failing.
My rationale is partly just paternalistic: I am solving the puzzle of the self-torturer for them. But part of the rationale is that I do not think that I am just delivering a service, which they can avail themselves of at their own discretion. Even a large lecture class is made much better by students raising questions for discussion and clarification. So students are not doing their share for the good of the course by not showing up consistently, and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with requiring students to do their share for the course, on penalty of a drop in their course grade.Report
How do you take attendance in such large classes?Report
They sign in at the beginning of class.Report
In my classes I have some minor assignment that students must turn in in person (usually I take up only about half), such as short reading questions or a question about the reading. Hence, students lost points for failing to attend and for failing to do the reading. I can’t see why we would not want to encourage attendance in this or other ways. It improves classroom discussion and student performance. Yes, students are adults. And adults have attendance taken… at their jobs.Report
Will: I usually assess my courses by the following means: 2 papers (one short, one longer) – I distribute the prompts for the short paper in-class, and for the longer paper I don’t use prompts, student’s are expected to write a paper on a topic of their choice related to the course; and of course there is an in-class midterm and final. The papers are delivered to me by email. So, apart from showing up to collect the prompt and sit the exams, they don’t have to attend if they don’t wish. I do offer extra credit for participation, but I don’t have penalize student’s for not participating. By the way, I view “participation” broadly: coming to office hours, sending me emails, coming to speak after class, etc.Report
Oh God! So many grammatical errors in my last post.Report
Yes, I take attendance. Lots of ways to justify this: (1) Discussion, in a philosophy class, is like doing labs in a chemistry class. You wouldn’t get full credit for taking a lab if you didn’t come to the labs. Likewise, no full credit for taking a philosophy class without being present for discussion. (2) Absences lower morale for those who are present. (3) Absences alter the dynamics of class discussion. If X tends to take certain types of positions (in some helpful fashion), there’s a cost to everyone when X is absent. (4) Absences make people do worse, making them less receptive to the class, more disgruntled, etc.. For all those reasons, I give students a budget which covers all absences (“don’t show me excuses, please”), except in extreme situations. If they go over budget, their grade for the course suffers in some specified way. The vast majority of students respond by attending, I find, so I don’t often impose the penalty. In another setting–where students miss classes due to work and family pressures–this policy might backfire, lowering grades instead of increasing attendance. So–not the right approach in every case.Report
I don’t like to take attendance, for the very reasons mentioned by AnonProf in her first comment. And usually the students are responsible or interested enough to just come on their own. But recently, I taught a course at a culinary school, and it was their policy that I log attendance into their portal immediately after each class meeting. I guess I figured that I might as well make it fun, so I decided to start each class with a five minute philosophical movie clip, and have students answer a really easy question about it on small pieces of scrap paper that I’d collect within the first ten minutes of class. It worked pretty well, and also helped me frame the topic for the day. Next time I have a classroom that’s equipped to play film clips, I’ll probably do it again.Report
I take attendance in all my philosophy courses, even though it is laborious. However, it should be noted that I teach at a community college where many students have little or no study skills or understanding of what is necessary for success at school. To “treat them as adults” is to ignore their poor abilities as adult learners. I also indicate that I take roll each day at the exact start of class, and those who come in late are marked absent unless they come up after class and indicate to me that they are actually here. That boosts attendance and cuts down on late arrivals that break the flow of the discussion and miss my announcements.Report
I understand the point of view of those who take attendance on the grounds that students who fail to attend have a detrimental influence on class discussion and morale. My own experience, though, is that having students there against their wills and visibly disengaged is even more damaging to the atmosphere. Reasonable instructors can differ, I think, about which effect is more toxic, especially since this probably depends largely on what pisses the instructor off (or at least distracts her) more.Report
I find it important to take attendance in order to encourage students to show up. I directly lower the final course grade for each absence beyond four. Class participation counts for 20% of the course grade, and absences will affect that component too. My classes have no more than twenty five students (sorry, this is just information, not bragging), so once I learn names I just make a silent note of who is absent or late each class. I also make a note of participation as it occurs. I do not accept any hardcopy assignments whatsoever, but have students send work as email attachments and I send them back comments by email. (I ignore Blackboard which I loathe.) The advantages of electronic submission are that I never lose a paper and I can make the assignments due at a time (often Sunday evening) that prevents students from pulling “all nighters” or skipping class because they don’t have their assignment done. It’s also more hygienic!
@Will I too have noticed the strange phenomenon of students who never miss a class, participate actively in discussion, and yet don’t turn in their written assignments. Since the easiest way to do poorly is to end up with zero for entire assignments, I always follow up and try to figure out what’s going on in these cases.Report
I take attendance for the first 6 weeks or so of term, just to learn the student’s names. They do not have to attend classes but my school policy is, ostensibly, to deceive them into doing so. The unit outline – the document in which course requirements are laid out – is deliberately vague: “students are expected to attend 80% of classes.” Most interpret this to mean “students are required to attend 80% of classes.” This strategy has good and bad consequences. Two negatives are the students who turn up just to get their attendance recorded and play no role in class; the other is the annoying email enquiry from the same students about number of classes attended. I agree with some of the comments above about the general trend – attendance in class is trending down. [ Justin, could you start a thread about Academon? I suspect more and more students are using it to get around Turnitin. I would like to hear about how other philosophers deal with this problem.]Report
I do take attendance. Though they are adults, we also serve a very large population of first-time college students who often arrive with no clue as to what is needed to succeed in college. I’d rather them understand the importance of attendance by forcing them to be there rather than let them find out the hard way by them failing out of the university.Report
I usually take attendance. The exception is an intro to logic class. In that class there is very little role for discussion, which removes one reason for taking attendance. But the main reason I don’t do it anymore in that class is that I devote many whole periods simply to having the students practice their skills; and when I used to require attendance, there were large numbers of students who would simply sit there and not actually work through any problems. So they were getting nothing from the class, and their presence was a distraction to other students. In most cases their lack of engagement was due to lack of interest, but in some cases it was the total opposite: some students had already mastered the material and just didn’t NEED to practice. So I stopped requiring attendance, which means that in those class periods I now routinely get no more than 25% of the class attending. I’m OK with this, because it hasn’t had any noticeable effect on grades in the class. The students who didn’t practice before still don’t, but now they aren’t present in class to distract the students who actually want to work.
In all other classes I kill two birds with one stone: at the start of class I pose some questions on the reading assignment that was due for that period. (I use clickers for this.) And their performance on those questions counts significantly towards their grade. This both motivates them to attend and motivates them to do the readings — two things that very many of my students would otherwise often not do.Report
As part of a retention effort, we are required to take AND report attendance in all 100- and 200-level courses. Attendance is reported with midterm and final grades. It is a PITA, and I must admit that I don’t do it consistently. I’ve heard of my colleagues in other colleges using card-readers for students to sign in with their IDs. I agree with others that students are adults and it is their responsibility to get to class, though having taken attendance like this for a couple of years, the campus culture seems to tend towards attending more than it used to.Report
Many students are not adults, and have never had to develop adult skills, like showing up. They don’t think school is their job — they think it’s a hurdle they have to clear to get a job, but don’t understand that they acquire skills by going to class that will actually help them in ther jobs one day.
My classes have a modest participation grade — about 5% — and missed classes result in deductions. It’s enough to make the difference between grades. The failers in my classes tend to be students who don’t turn in assignments, but about half of those students attend every class and participate in discussions. The other half of failers don’t do assignments and don’t come to class. I take attendance sort of informally — the first several weeks so that I learn student names. I make index cards with my students’ photos, which helps me learn their names (I’m bad with names), and I mark the card with the date when they miss a class. (My classes average about 30-35 students.)Report
I teach research ethics to our Masters in Clinical Research students. They’re mostly MDs or MD candidates, with some PhD candidates mixed in. I require attendance, and students physically sign in (how archaic!). My position is that focus matters. Ethics isn’t about content, as much as it is reasoning and internal discourse. So I run the class as a lecture-discussion, trying to be provocative and asking lots of questions designed to encourage debate. If the students aren’t in the classroom, they won’t get it. Classes are taped, but I know they don’t engage in the same way. The grade comes from one large paper at the end of the course (torture for the poor teacher with no TA and 35-50 students). Miss 3 classes and the grade goes down one notch. I’ve surveyed the students for years, and they’ve consistently agreed that the attendance requirement is reasonable. Interestingly, after years of positive feedback about the policy, the whole Masters program has adopted my attendance policy. I also teach or co-teach a fall bioethics seminar for grad students and undergraduates that’s pan-listed. There we’ve made it clear attendance is expected and haven’t worried about monitoring week by week attendance.Report
Another factor that people may want to consider is institutional rules regarding attendance. The University of Connecticut does not allow instructors to require or grade on attendance. That being said, they of course allow people to have participation grades, although these cannot be based purely on attendance.Report
This is a really helpful discussion. Is there any chance this post could be followed up with a question about strategies for tracking and appropriately grading in-class participation?Report
Good idea. I’ll put something up on that for tomorrow.Report
On the first day of class (an 80-student lecture), I ask the students to fill in all the seats at the front of the room. (This serves the independent purpose by creating a sense of community in the class.) I then pass around a blank seating chart and have them fill in their names. I tell them that these are their assigned seats for the semester. (This serves the independent purpose by helping me to learn names — not that I succeed.) Every day the teaching assistants sit in the back of the room and note down the the names of students whose seats are empty.
The main problem with this method is that it is invisible. The students soon forget that attendance is being taken, so they revert to their old ways. Because I allow only 3 unexcused absences before I start deducting from their grades, some students risk failing the course solely on the basis of poor attendance. My plan now is to work out some way of notifying them early in the semester that their grades are suffering.Report
Regarding attendance and discussion: I once had a student tell me something like what Dale Miller says in 15. She said she was more comfortable talking in class when the disengaged students weren’t there. She said they made her feel self-conscious and less likely to talk. But I don’t know if this is a common sentiment among interested students.Report
Let’s back up briefly and ask what the purpose of college classes is and what the purpose of grades is, and then ask whether taking attendance promotes those goals. I think the best brief answer is that the (idealized) purpose of college classes is to gain knowledge/skills, and the purpose of grades is to measure whether the student knows the class material. Now, if I believed that my assortment of exams and papers is a perfect measure of students’ knowledge of the material, then I wouldn’t take attendance. But they are not perfect measures, since there is a lot more to learn from class than the questions that are on the exams (or appear in exam study guides) and a lot more to learn than is gauged by papers, since papers usually are on a single topic. Also, some students are just better test-takers and paper-writers than others. A couple commenters above say that it is the students’ choice whether they wish to attend classes and thus succeed, but that seems to assume that succeeding in a class simply means doing well on exams/papers. But that is a false assumption – perhaps dangerously so. (It certainly relies on a great deal more confidence in the thoroughness of one’s other assessment measures than I am able to muster about mine.) Succeeding in a class means learning the material. Those who do not attend classes regularly are likely (though of course not guaranteed) to have learned less than those who do attend regularly. (And are likely to have learned less of the material which is not tested on exams/paper assignments.) Thus if grading is a measure of learning, then it is quite reasonable to grade students on attendance, at least for most philosophy classes. (I don’t take attendance in logic classes because I do think that the exams there come close enough to measuring knowledge/skills, but I do take attendance in my other classes, usually having 5-10% of the final grade on it.)Report
I don’t take attendance directly, but I do incentivize it. Class participation is a graded element of the class (it depends on the class, but in larger classes it makes up 10% of the total grade and in smaller classes it makes up 20%). Throughout the semester I have around 10 in-class activities: group activities mostly, close reading of a specific passage from the text, argument reconstruction, debates, comparing the views of different authors, etc. Some of these activities take 5 minutes of the class time and others take up the whole day’s class. Student participation grade starts at full credit (On blackboard, they already have a ‘Pass’ masked for each of these activities); every time a student misses a class activity, they lose 1 point. Final grades may thus be adjusted up or down by as much as one full grade for exceptionally consistent or inconsistent participation. I have found that this system is fairly effective in keeping students coming to class. Perhaps even more effective than when attendance was taken directly. Students like starting off with the 100% for class participation grade, they seem to care about maintaining their high average on this front, and they do not know when the next in-class activity will come. There is the worry that students are not going to take the in-class activities themselves very seriously, but I have not found that to be the case and students who are less comfortable in speaking up in full class discussions have expressed relief that they are getting credit for participation in these smaller group settings.Report
My view is that attendance ought to be taken if and only if it’s germane to the course and its learning outcomes. I’ve taught introductory philosophy, introductory ethics, introductory logic, and I’ve been a TA for various courses. Since I think participation in discussion is highly relevant to the learning outcomes of most of those courses, I’ve taken attendance for everything except intro to logic and the TA work (for the former, class discussion isn’t central to the learning outcomes, and for the latter it’s helpful but not part of what’s assessed).Report
This is in reply to Av… I take your point that papers and exams aren’t perfect measures of learning. Still, I’m uncertain that requiring attendance would better promote student learning. First, students who attend only because this is required will likely not be in the frame of mind most conducive to learning. Second, as I noted earlier, I think that requiring attendance can change the atmosphere of a class in ways that make it harder for students who do want to be there to learn. In fact, I think that some students who would have attended in a more positive frame of mind if attendance were not required will be in a less receptive frame of mind if it is required and they feel like they’re being coerced. Plus, taking attendance (and adjudicating whether absences were properly excused or not) takes time that I could be investing in the class in other ways. So there are trade-offs, and having tried it both ways I’ve decided that for me requiring attendance produces worse outcomes in most classes than I get from simply giving a small amount of extra credit for participation. (In small seminars participation is required.) Also, if part of the purpose of a college education is to impart decision making skills and responsibility, then there’s something to be said from a learning standpoint for giving students more freedom to practice exercising these skills even knowing that some will use it badly. With all of this said, though, I wouldn’t criticize anyone who does take attendance (at least not for that). As I said before, I think that different instructors really can be more effective with different styles. What works best for me might not work as well for you.Report
Now that there’s an “Av” here, I’m getting confused. Seriously, I wanted to add one more thing about attendance. Not only do I require attendance and make participation 20% of the grade, but I also strictly prohibit the use of electronic devices in the classroom. Attendance means little when students can spend the entire class session texting their friends, browsing on Twitter, or playing video games on their laptops. Students have complied with this rule without my having to stipulate penalties and it really improves the discussion atmosphere in the classroom.Report
I think there’s some truth to this. I’ve heard other students who don’t participate express sentiments about certain people talking too much or judging what other people say (e.g., if someone gets something wrong). Whether they actually think this or not, I think this is where the self-consciousness comes from. If there are more people making a good faith effort at participating, it seems like there would be less pressure to always say the right thing.Report
Dale – fair enough. I agree that there are pros and cons, as well as alternative incentives, as you mention. I myself have ended up thinking that giving students a little less freedom to mess up is a good thing, but reasonable people can disagree about where on that spectrum to fall. Regarding the onus of taking attendance, I simply put an attendance sheet (a grid with names going down and dates at the top going across) out before the start of class where they initial in the appropriate box to indicate attendance (either before class starts or after it ends), and I collect it after everyone has left class. Then I put a mark for those who do not attend so that they cannot sign in for a previous day. It’s not a perfect way to do it but at least it doesn’t take much of my time and doesn’t distract people during class itself.Report
At my uni, if a student fails a course, the instructor has to record their last date of attendance in class. To my knowledge, that is the only sense in which I am required to take attendance. But I used to adjunct at a SLAC where I was required to take attendance.Report
And the solution is mandatory attendance that’ll fail any student who is absent beyond the “prescribed limit”?
I guess the logic is that if people who fail have bad attendance, we might as fail anybody with bad attendance regardless of performance.Report