Friday, January 11, 2008

To Attend or Not to Attend, That Is the Question

First, Happy New Year to my SW friends, and to the posters! Sorry for my absence these last few months. I'm in the middle of a book project, and the deadlines are murder! I have been lurking regularly, however.

We're inching closer and closer to the start of the new semester, so I've got a related question for everyone. Well, it's time to crank out those syllabi again. One question that I struggle with every time I put together a syllabus is: should attendance be required? Obviously, there are different ways to deal with this.

a. No attendance requirement at all (if anything, a student's grade would suffer on participation, but in this option there's no separate grade or penalty for not attending).

b. Attendance is required, and the student is given X number of points for showing up. Here, the student, loses points (whatever amount) based on absence.

c. In addition to (b), another requirement can be added: that for the student to pass the class, they cannot have more than Y number of absences total.

There are probably other ways to do this, of course. My main question, though is this: should we attach penalties to students who don't come to class? I'm torn on this. Three different positions come to mind:

1. Paternalism: you can't really get much out of a philosophy class that you don't attend regularly, so the student should lose points when they don't show up.

2. Consequentialism: the other students are robbed of part of what they pay for when students irregularly show up. It serves as a disruption to the overall class environment and moreover the regular students lose the ability to interact meaningfully with the absent students.

3. Libertarian: basically rejects the approach in (1), claiming that it is a student's right to not show up if they don't want. If that's how they want to spend their tuition dollars, I shouldn't be coercing them to show up by threatening them with grade penalties. Moreover, since it's the student's right to spend their money as they wish, (2) shouldn't be an issue either. They didn't pay to assume the obligation to assist others in their education.

Obviously there are lots of ways of framing this issue, and lots of different ways of listing possible responses to it. So I don't intend the above to be exhaustive in any way. But it should help to at least get the conversation going.


  1. Good to hear/see/read you again, Chris.

    For a long time, my approach was:

    4. Tough love: Don't have an attendance policy, structure your course so that those who attend struggle to pass, and let students who don't attend learn the hard adult lessons that, yes, showing up matters and you can't actually learn much by skipping class.

    But over time I've changed my thinking on this a little: 'Tough love' is not unfair to those who don't attend, and I tend to be averse to using carrots and sticks to motivate student behavior (preferring to use more intrinsic motivational strategies wherein they discover on their own how their behavior helps or hinders their academic efforts). But I've also come to see this from the point of view of the diligent student who attends every class: This is way of showing effort that should be rewarded. I've toyed with the idea of making attendance a positive rather than a negative lever: In other words, don't say that attendance is required, but call it "extra credit". I know that sounds strange, since attendance is a minimal expectation of students, but I wonder if shifting students' mindset from thinking of attendance as something they have to do to something they want to do would have beneficial effects.

    Also: I've allowed students in some courses to establish, by consensus, their own attendance policy. Usually the policies they arrive at are fairly reasonable and no one gripes about it.

  2. Hi Chris
    This is an important issue; one that I have struggled with over the years. I have come to the conclusion that what you refer to as 'paternalism' is the correct one to take. I not sure that I like the term; I would use 'real life' instead. I think that what we are actually dealing with is what used to be referred to as 'work ethic.' I expect that my students will be in class because that is part of their 'job' as students. In the world outside of academia where most of our students will earn their living and be engaged in their interpersonal relationships it is crucial people are where the should be when the agreed to be there. It seems to me that we are doing a disservice to our students if we do not expect attendance. I am expected to show up because it is my job. Students should show up because it is part of the job of being a student. In the 'real' world' people lose their jobs if they fail to show up. Why should we not treat students the way they will be treated outside the academic world?

    Part of taking my courses is that they have agreed to come to class; they have accepted the criteria detailed in the course syllabus that establish our relation If they do not agree with the criteria then they do not have to take my course. Being present is the same as writing a paper and taking a test as far as general criteria are concerned. I weigh them differently, but they all contribute to the student's final grade. We would not accept a student saying they did not feel like taking a test or writing a paper, so why should we accept the idea that they simply do not feel like coming to class? Of course, there may be extenuating circumstances that warrant a person missing a class the same way they would be excused from missing the due date of a paper or taking a test if certain situations arose that the student could not possibly foresee. But the expectation that they will attend class is stressed the same way writing papers and taking tests are.

  3. Michael,

    I think that's my issue -- I don't want to introduce an incentive (avoiding a negative grade) to incline a student to take their education seriously. I feel like this, in a way, buys into part of what is wrong with much of the way their education has been structured for 12+ years already.

    I'm intrigued by the "positive incentive" idea, but I'm not sure about it, if only because it still seems grade-oriented, and that's my main beef with attendance policies in the first place (though it's certainly better in being positive as opposed to negative).


    I agree in a way, but disagree in a way. I agree that part of what college _winds up_ doing is prepare students for the real world, that's true (and a good thing). But I never think of the aims of my courses as intentionally aiming for those things. So I'd feel odd having the grade requirement being due to that.

    On attendance being similar to papers and tests and the like, once you take out the "prepare for the real world" part, the similarity seems to fade (to me anyway). Just sitting there doesn't do anything at all, especially if the student doesn't want to be there. Of course, I'm not adverse to using grades to assess a student's participation, which clearly is similar to tests/papers, and of course this is indirectly linked to attendance. But I'm thinking of policies that grade attendance above and beyond participation grades.

  4. I suppose I'm a paternalist. Students rarely know what's in their best interest esp. when they have never taken a course with you. Furthermore,

    (1) an attendance policy reduces the possibility of having to repeat the entire lecture during office hours. By coming to class for lectures and discussions, office hours can be used for students who actually have substantive questions.

    (2)an attendance policy ensures that students will be less likely to interrupt the lecture and thus the class can start on time. (Do you really allow students to simply walk in 15, 20, or 30 min. late?)

    (3)an attendance policy helps ensure the student's success. Again, most do not truly comprehend what is in their best interest. At least this has been my experience.

    (4) an attendance policy reduces the litany of excuses one is more likely to get at the end of the semester.

  5. The Professor,

    Yeah, that's why I have an issue with the whole thing -- I'm have very strong leanings on both sides, both "libertarian" and "paternalist."

    On some of your points,

    On (1): that's true, but I find that when students are frequent class skippers, they rarely -- if ever -- show up to office hours.

    On (2): That's certainly true, and it's a good point. But I think this can be accomplished by just putting your foot down on the issue, no?

    On (3): Right, that's what causes the tension in my head about the issue. But, then again, they're not children either. They need to figure out why education is valuable on their own at some point.

    One question that come to mind for me is: is it the professor's job to force them -- by negative grading -- to see what (in my opinion) is in their own best interests? Or is it to grade them on papers and how well they understand the material?

    On (4): I do think that if you don't have an attendance policy, it IS a wise idea to take attendance, for that very reason. But you can always say "hey, you missed 25 classes this semester, so it's not hard to believe that you failed all your exams, is it?"

  6. Chris,

    (4) is an interesting point. I've never considered taking attendance without negative or positive consequences. I may try that this semester.

  7. Hi, Chris,

    Thanks for raising this question as I am in the middle of writing this semester's syllabi!
    Feeling slightly contrarian, I'd like some discussion of what I take to be the prior question, which is, in its blunt form: what's so great about attending (every) class? There will always be students who absorb the material better on their own and who don't find our lectures/discussions particularly clarifying or insightful. There will be those students whose occasional attendance isn't actually all that disruptive to the overall class environment. Even those students who are present physically might be absent mentally -- it isn't clear to me, even when I'm wearing my paternalist hat, that their mere presence is conveying a benefit to them, to their classmates, or to me. And if you're the conscientious sort of instructor who'll meet with students outside of class to (try to) answer their questions, then they can go over some of what they've missed by not attending class anyway.
    Even if we're talking about primarily discussion-based courses rather than more lecture-oriented ones, I might still prefer (if these be the only options) that the students who attend class are actually prepared and interested in taking part in the discussion, rather than showing up even if they're not prepared in order to avoid a grade penalty.
    By the way -- I don't think that the attendance question has much to do with the punctuality question. I think that you could dispense with an attendance requirement (or incentive, or "disincentive"), while still insisting that students who are going to show up need to do so on time.

  8. This is a useful discussion. A couple of other thoughts:

    Does having an attendance policy with incentives attached artificially inflate the importance of mere attendance? As a couple of you have pointed out, a student's physical presence as such doesn't do much for student learning. What we really want are students who are present and prepared. I guess I might favor incentives that reward students who are adequately prepared for class meetings (which of course presupposes attendance).

    Back to Chris' (2): Could getting students to see attendance as an obligation to others work? There's something kind of atomistic or binary about how we talk about attendance, as if attendance is a concern arising within the instructor-student relationship as opposed to one arising within the relationships among students. I've had courses where, either through my intentions or sheer coincidence, a genuine intellectual community is created, and in such courses, attendance is excellent (and I typically didn't punish or reward attendance). Might there be students who are not especially motivated by the instructor's demands nor especially motivated by their own concern for grades or performance but who would be motivated by owing attendance to other students? I'm curious — peer pressure can be fairly powerful.

    (BTW, I messed up my 'tough love' approach in my 1/11, 10:03 PM comment: That should say "so that those who DON'T attend struggle to pass."

  9. One of the more effective strategies I've encountered is simply to remind them in the syllabus that it is university policy that attendance is required (which is usually at least partly true), and then say nothing more about it.

    I don't see the benefit to acknowledging an explicit penalty or bonus for attendance. Informing the students of the penalty or bonus provides them a clear opportunity cost on which to judge, but leaving it unstated what will happen when they don't attend may incline the risk-averse to attend out of caution.

    But I guess that raises the question: Who is more likely to be influenced by an attendance policy? The risk-averse? Or the point hoarders? (I think the answer might depend somewhat on the quality of the course. A poorly-designed or poorly-executed course will not have students in the seats without an incentive.)

    The main reason I dislike an incentive or penalty is that it seems wrong to force any student that actually is far above the rest to be around while you explain what she already knows. As much as we teachers might like to deny it, sometimes the student signs up for a class on X only to certify that she knows X, not necessarily to learn X. (Less true in philosophy, probably, than in other disciplines.)

  10. Michael,

    I agree about your comment on (2). There is an atomistic bias at work, both in how teachers and students view attendance.

    I think peer pressure is very powerful in these regards. When typically lazy or bad students perceive a good "mood" in the class, they actually work harder. No doubt about that If they perceive a bad "mood", they tune out, don't come or try to act as disruptions. Crowd psychology is an interesting thing.

    No doubt this is why it's so important to take control of a class mood quickly when the semester begins. Of course, any policies that can help to swing the mood to "good" early on are all positive practices, IMO.

    I think my concern is just this, though: is it the instructors job to assure that a person accept a product that they've already paid for? The attendance policy seems to demand that once they've paid for their donuts, they'll have to sit at the table with the bag, even if they just sit there and never eat them.

    At the very least, it seems to suggest that paying and leaving the store without the donuts won't be allowed.

    Vance: I agree, it's not necessary to come every class. Whenever I do have a policy, I always build into it a certain # of "freebies" that students are allowed to use however they wish.


    In my experience, when I don't have a policy, it's the bad students who don't show. The point hoarders still show up regularly. Also, I think I'd prefer not to use the more "ambiguous consequence" approach, mostly because I'm trying to get away from student's using "risk-reward" thinking regarding their behavior towards education. The ambiguous consequence strategy might make them show up more, but it seems for the wrong reasons (at least in my own way of framing the issue).

    Great discussion so far, by the way. Excellent responses!

  11. Chris

    I look at grades as payment for performing up to the established criteria for the resulting grade. Sort of like piece work; 90-100 = A range, 80-89 = B range, etc. Yes, there are those that do not want to be there, but it is part of the price they have to pay for the grade they aspire to achieve. I call on students for their thoughts on whatever is being discussed. That way they simply do not sit around. Most learn to come prepared and to pay attention to what is being discussed.

    I also do no think that I violate any libertarian principle by having this policy. A person is not forced to take my class: they are free (???) to choose to take another if they do not want to accept the criteria that I have developed to evaluate their performance. I post the syllabus on Blackboard at least two weeks before the course begins and yes some do drop (for whatever reason).

  12. John,

    I mean "libertarian" in a non-technical loose sense. You're right, of course, that they're free to be there or not to be (a point that I frequently remind my students of from time to time).

    I think for me it's more the issue that I raised in my reply to Michael. Put it this way: if I sell donuts, is it my responsibility or obligation to assure that people who buy them, eat them? Once a person has bought a product, shouldn't they be free to toss it out the window, if they so choose?

    I don't mean anything more by "libertarian" than that. Now, of course, if a teacher really intends to make it an issue to ask everyone to speak in every class, as a way of discerning which students understand and which don't, then attendance can be seen as a type of quiz. If they miss the quiz, they get graded down for it (then it's more of a participation grade).

    But I'm not convinced that most teachers use it that way (I don't). I think they just want the student to be there, independent of their intention to quiz them verbally, and simply mark them down for not being physically present.

    I could be wrong, though?

  13. I'm debating what to do with my attendance requirement this semester, too, so this is a helpful discussion for me. I admit that I absolutely hate taking and keeping track of attendance, and I'm sympathetic to the "libertarian" and "tough love" lines in the thread. So I'm reading this looking for reasons to have an attendance policy.

    To synthesize the discussion a bit, there are three reasons for an attendance policy that stand out:

    1. It helps some students do well in the class by getting them to attend when they otherwise wouldn't.

    2. It rewards the students who do attend for their effort.

    3. It prepares students for their professional lives.

    I'm sympathetic to all of these, though I agree with what's been said against them. Let me add:

    Re: 2. Should attending without doing good work really be rewarded with grades? One function of a course grade is to serve a much-condensed letter of recommendation, to be factored into GPA. When attendance is rewarded with grades, it potentially erases the difference between a "recommendation" that says "Does acceptable work" and one that says "Does shoddy work, but shows up on time." I think that's a problem.

    Re: 3. I would be surprised if lax attendance policies in college actually make a difference in whether people show up to work on time or not when they graduate. I think people know the difference between class and work, regardless of our policies.

    So, in my mind, it comes down to (1). But I just don't know if this is compelling or not.

  14. In my university, instructors are required to fail students who fail to attend more than 1/3 of a course. If a student who is receiving government assistance fails a class, the instructor is required to state the last date on which they attended. The university is a state university.

    Observing these policies means that, although I have some freedom (I can be more strict than is required), my hands our tied. I explain to students that we are not allowed to waste tax-payers money by having empty class-rooms: state authorities want to know, when they pay for teaching to take place, that professors and students are spending time together in class.

    Of course, I can and do discuss pedagogical reasons for requiring attendance, especially the importance of participating in class discussion, but the fact is I am not free to base the policy entirely on my own judgement about what is beneficial.


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