Friday, February 11, 2011

the case(s) for optional attendance?

Have any of you made class attendance optional (i.e., that there are no grade penalties for absences, neither is there any requirement to drop the course after a certain number of absences)?

It sure does put a damper on a class when significant numbers of students aren't prepared or when they're obviously distracted by various distractions. And maybe -- maybe -- making attendance optional, while still having high standards for class preparation, could be an effective response to that problem. Maybe it signals, "you don't have to be here, and there's no penalty if you're not; but if you are here, then you'd better be focused, not surfing the Web, and ready to go", and makes good class sessions more likely.

But especially in a small-ish class, it could also put a damper on things when you don't know from one day to the next which permutation of enrolled students will be in the room. If there are even a small number of students who attend erratically, then could also, I think, make it hard for the class to gel as a class: for students to achieve the kind of familiarity (if not also comfort) with each other that help them to engage more respectfully and intensively in the discussions that are an important part of many Philosophy courses.

Enough "maybe"s and "could"s. What are the actual experiences of those of you who have optional attendance? What were your reasons for making it optional? What have the effects been?

(I'm talking about classes with fewer than 30 students, by the way.)


  1. I use optional attendance in most of my classes, while warning them that low attendance is highly correlated with low grades. It seems to work, though there's often a day each semester when very few students show up.

    On the other hand, I hate the alternative: wasting a couple of minutes each day reading the roster aloud, and treating a bunch of adults like children.

    No doubt, punctuality and attendance are "soft skills" that some people still need to learn when they get to college. I just don't work on those particular skills in my classes.

  2. I've made attendance optional in all my classes. I've been happy with the main result: many otherwise distracting wastes of space don't bother coming to class.

    However, I've learned the hard way that it's important to call roll anyway. Not knowing a student's name makes it very hard to report them to the people in charge of dealing with seriously inappropriate behaviors.

  3. I'm intrigued. Pete and Joshua, has there been any departmental or institutional backlash against your optional attendance policies? What's the typical percentage of students attending? How is the level of discussion or engagement?

  4. From a student's perspective:

    I dislike when professors try to force me to attend class or force me to adopt their idea of good work habits. As Joshua points out, I'm not a kid anymore; I can make responsible choices, and even in the event that I make a poor one, that is my responsibility rather than the professor's.

    I can see how it would be frustrating for professors to watch students screw themselves over by skipping class or not coming prepared to class; but on the other hand it's also frustrating for students to be treated like children.

  5. I've never required attendance, even when I was nominally required to require attendance for first-year students. I've never had any backlash from it, either. Attendance has usually been pretty good. There are usually a handful of students who rarely show up, and another handful whose attendance is erratic, but there is usually a core of students who show up every time. Overall, I've been happy with the results and intend to continue the policy.

    My reasons are that I want to treat students like adults (even though some don't act like adults), that I hate calling roll, and that I don't want to have to try to distinguish between excused and unexcused absences.

    Like Joshua, I warn students on Day 1 that low attendance is correlated with low grades. I also tell them that good attendance may make me more inclined to go with the higher grade in borderline cases.

    Pete (Hi, Pete!), I've found that doing several low stakes assignments early on gives me a chance to learn names as I hand back assignments.

  6. I think I would rather have unprepared students showing up and listening in, then the alternative. I teach one seminar of approx 20 students, and tell them up front half the grade is attendance and participation. On a pure percentage basis, 70 percent attendance usually lands them a 70 percent grade. They can do the math.

  7. I take attendance as part of the overall participation grade. I don't know how much impact it actually has, though. A lot of students seem to show up to get the notes, more than anything else.

    I don't really see it as not treating them like adults though. Sure, the method might be similar to what they experienced in high school, but attendance is the bare minimum requirement of most any serious responsibility. Being accountable for one's attendance is something that is going to be with them for the rest of their lives. The complaint of "you have these rules, so you aren't treating me like an adult" generally arises from the teenage misconception that once they reach adulthood, that life becomes complete unfettered freedom. I do think it's important to give students a greater amount of independence than they had in high school, but I also think it's important to convey to them "this is an important responsibility and I need you to take it seriously."

  8. I am torn on the issue, and my thinking on it tends to be situational.

    1. In logic, I do not require it, because the class is, to some degree, self-paced. So not showing up is allowed because some students go faster than the class and have already demonstrated proficiency in a given chapter.

    2. In lower level required or gen-ed courses, it is required. Contrary to what screwplato says above, it actually is part of the job of a professor to encourage and facilitate solid work study habits. In fact, some of you may have read my other post on _Academically Adrift_ which seems to suggest that habits are the main statistical predictor of learning. If so, professors have an obligation to develop them, even if students think they know better.

    3. In upper divisional courses, require attendance, but I'm a bit looser about it, simply because I know that philosophy majors are majors because they love the subject, not because they think simply marking time in the class will eventually get them the job in business they really want.

  9. Since I agree with Amber Headlights that adulthood is not about unfettered freedom, perhaps I should elaborate on what I mean when I say that I'm "treating students like adults" by not requiring attendance. I'm not saying that I'm treating them like other authority figures in their adult life will treat them. Rather, I'm giving them the responsibility and authority to determine what counts as an acceptable reason for missing class. This depends on what each student really wants to get out of the course, how much attending a particular class affects whether they get what they want out of the course, and how important their competing obligations are on any particular day. The alternative strikes me as paternalistic: I am deciding what is best/most important for the students. While I'm okay with paternalism in academic work, I'm less comfortable with it when it comes to things like work/school/life balance.

    I suppose it might be different if it were a very small class, where (as in many professional contexts) each person's participation contributes to the success of the whole enterprise. At that point, required attendance becomes a solution to a collective action problem, not a (paternalistic, IMO) requirement for the student's own good. In a larger class, I would think that student X's frequent absences have little impact on anyone other than student X.

    I'm curious to hear others' thoughts on this point, though. Is mandatory attendance paternalistic? If so, when is that particular kind of paternalism justified?

  10. David: I agree with what you said about responsibility. Of course students have responsibilities – but in general they are the students’ responsibilities, not the professors’.

    Chris: I disagree - whether or not it IS a part of a professor's job doesn't affect whether it SHOULD be.

    The mark assigned by the professor SHOULD be aimed at reflecting how proficient the student is at the subject in question, rather than aimed at reflecting how well the student conforms to the professor's idea of what a good student is.

    To illustrate this with an example: I don't take notes. I've repeatedly had well meaning teachers, fellow students, and professors assure me that this is a Bad Work Habit and that I will fail everything ever as a direct result. And yet whenever I tried taking notes, all that happened was that the burden of notetaking was a huge distraction and I didn't remember or understand much of what was said.

    Meanwhile, when I don't take notes and just focus on what's being said, I remember and understand the content very well.

    The point is that one person's bad work habit is another person's good work habit. While taking notes may be good for most students, when my teachers tried to force me to take notes, they were not doing me any favours. And when a professor says in her opening lecture that taking notes is vitally important and that she expects all of us to take notes, all she's doing is making it uncomfortable for me to go to class.

    Also, I've had some classes that I just didn't always want to attend because I intensely disliked the content (and yet the course was mandatory for a philosophy degree). If I decide that I am willing to sacrifice 10% of my grade in order to not have to spend as much time being tortured by Plato's nonsensical ramblings, then I should be able to decide that, rather than being forced into attendance just because my professor thinks that I'm making a bad decision. I respectfully disagree, and I have a lot more information specific to my situation than my professor who made a blanket decision for everyone.

    Basically there are exceptions to rules of thumb like "students should always attend class" and "students should always take notes" and when a professor decides on my behalf that I am incapable of telling when those guidelines don't apply it's frustrating and patronizing (even if it's true in some cases), not to mention that it can be detrimental to my learning.

  11. As a student, I only had one or two attendance-optional classes. I think I'd have preferred more; I would have attended every class session anyway, because I valued my learning and my grades both. But I wished that the unmotivated among my classmates were free to be absent (and so not detract from the class experience for the rest of us--when there are 20 students in a class and only 5 or so participate willingly, I find the others a distraction).

  12. Very interesting discussion!

    I don't think it's treating them like children. It's a trade off, just like almost everything else we do, as adults:

    - Show up for an interview; you get an opportunity to be interviewed, in return.

    - Show up to work; earn money, and opportunities for raises, and even opportunities for advancement, in return.

    - Show up at the doctor's; get a diagnosis and medical advice in return.

    And so on.

    It's most certainly a choice; students claiming that it treats them like children implies that something is being forced, and no one is telling them why. You know, like, "You ARE going to clean your room, because I said so". Force. No choice. No explanation.

    That's very different from an attendance policy:

    "Show up, engage in discussions and presentations (lots of on-the-spot presentations in my courses); earn points, and opportunities to learn, and also your classmates don't have to scramble to catch others up, as much, in groups."

    Students sometimes will come up to me, and ask if they can leave to go to the bathroom. Or leave the session early. I say, "You can do whatever you want, you don't have to ask me. Most decisions have consequences. If you're cool with the consequences of leaving early, no problem. See you next week."

    They usually stay.

    It boils down to a couple basic values, I think. Sure, on one hand, we value freedom. Being free to make our own choices, especially now that we are adults. But, as I illustrated above, I hope, it's not like we're taking away their freedom. We're still giving them choices. Choices have consequences, though. Simple as that.

    On the other hand, we teachers value a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. I think the students who consistently show up value that too. It's not fair to consistent students when slackers don't show up, because the consequences are often that when slackers DO show, the consistent students have to catch the slackers up in group work, be bugged to share their notes, and so on. You've seen it: the slackers show up sometimes, show up late, and when they do, they're frequently leaning over to bug someone else, saying "Hey, what'd I miss last time? Can I see your notes?"

    So...if you agree with me that it's not their freedom that's at stake, rather, it's simply a matter of here is yet another choice that adults must make. And all our choices as adults have consequences.

    P: The choices adults make have consequences
    P: Adults are held accountable for those consequences
    P: You are an adult about to make a choice that has consequences
    C: Therefore, you will be held accountable for those consequences

    I didn't symbolize this to double check its validity...I think it's valid...but I will hold myself accountable for the decision to NOT check it, if it is not. ;)

    So...maybe we are respecting their adulthood MORE by holding them accountable for the consequences of their choices. Plus, it is our job to run an effective classroom.

    Isn't that reasonable? For all stakeholders?

    I think equating an attendance policy to be treated like a child is...well, it simply doesn't work. Maybe I'm missing something?

  13. Plato -

    I think you've got me backwards - I'm actually saying that it is what the job should be.

    A few quick things -

    First, and I hate to put it this way but it's true: it's the educator's job (the specialist) to determine what a student should do to be successful in the course - it's not the student's job. It could be that a philosophy professor (say) thinks that engaging in spirited dialectic in class is a required component of learning philosophy. In such a case, you have not only an attendance requirement, but a discussion requirement. The student might think "doing philosophy" just means writing an essay or a paper. In such a case, the philosophy professor detetrmines the answer, who is trained in the field.

    Second, I think some make the argument that "hey, I already have habit X, Y or Z, so leave me alone". Should the student's word that 'I have such and such a habit' be definitive? Clearly not. I know lots of students who think they have this or that habit, but are wrong.

    Third, even if (say) a student could demonstrate that they have habit X, I'm not sure it should matter, because I'm not sure that the educator's job is to set standards for individuals - it is to set standards and assessment devices for aggregates. I don't take my job to be to teach Joe, say - I take it to be to teach the class (of which Joe is a member). So if there are certain habits that I expect students-at-large to acquire, then I set the expectations that way. If there are individual students who are already masters of said habits, then good for you - the job of demonstrating mastery will be easier.

    All that said, as I noted in my first reply, I think the degree to which attendance (or habits) are required is situational. In a lower-level general education course, it is absolutely evident to me that acquisition of academic habits _is_ a part of what it means to succeed in the course. That's part (just a part) of why there are gen ed requirements in the first place. In upper divisional classes, there is less of a reason to require attendance for these reasons, but probably more of a reason to require it for reasons of discussion. There are some other reasons too, but I've typed enough! :)

  14. KP - If the professor does nothing to directly punish students for their absence, then the student is still being presented with a choice with consequences. Missing class has the consequence of the student not knowing the material as well, which in turn hurts their grade.

    The reason that mandatory (or 'encouraged' if you'd rather) attendance can be seen as treating students like children is that it implies that students are not capable of making a responsible decision. If they were then there would be no need to try to force/encourage them to attend more than they already would.

    The "force vs choice" issue is just semantics; if you put a gun to a student's head and instruct them to go to class, they can still choose not go to class, they just have to deal with the consequences - i.e. being shot in the head.

    Duly noted about ‘is’ vs ‘should.’

    As I said before, I think the professor should be aiming to have the grade reflect how proficient the student is at the course subject. If the professor thinks that being able to discuss philosophy is an important part of being proficient then that's fine. But if the professor wants to punish me for not attending because he thinks I really ought to attend, that's not OK, because it's a separate issue from my proficiency.

    Let’s look at an example. Student A only attends half of the classes, but her performance in discussions, tests, and essays is good. Student B attends every class, but his performance in discussions, tests, and essays is mediocre. In my opinion, student A should clearly get a better grade – what’s the point of having grades if they don’t actually indicate proficiency? But your methods would (in some courses) give student B a better grade.

    Is the justification for giving student B a higher grade solely that you want to encourage students to have better work habits? It seems like that should take care of itself. If poor work habits really do hurt performance, then that, coupled with advice given at the start of the course, should naturally lead to students acquiring better work habits without any explicit punishment required. And if poor work habits DON'T hurt performance – if cases like student A vs student B are common, rather than odd flukes – then why are these work habits so important in the first place?

  15. ScrewPlato-

    I know what you think the professor should have a grade reflect, but again: the professor is the educator, so if they say that an aim of this class is for a student to acquire skill/habit X, then that's part of what the course aims at. I think the question here shouldn't be "how dare the professor" but rather "is the professor's demands arbirary or capricious?" Demanding that students wear red hats is clearly capricious, whereas attendance doesn't strike me as such.

    Also, saying that the aim of the course grade should be to reflect "being proficient at the subject" is too vague. As I said before, an "intro to phil" course at my school is a gen ed course. Gen ed courses have a function beyond merely talking about philosophy. They are meant to instill general habits and skills. So it wouldn't make sense in such a context to say that merely doing well on tests or papers is sufficient, such that attendance should not be required. Also, as I said before: course assessement aims at the aggregate student, not the indiviudal one.

    Later you also say that attendance requirements reflect the professor's belief that "he thinks I really ought to attend, that's not OK, because it's a separate issue from my proficiency". As I said, if the demand is capricious, that's not okay. If the teacher simply says "I want you to attend simply because I am an egoist and demand an audience", well that's capricious. Satisfying a professor's ego has nothing to do with student learning. But if the teacher says "it is important to attend" and this is shorthand for "to acquire habits X, Y and Z" or "to engage in regular discussion" then is does have to do with learning and is not capricious.

    On your example, by the way - I'm not saying that student B (who attends) should get a higher grade at all. I haven't addressed how attendance should be weighted. I've simply argued that it _should_ be weighed. How the weighting system is calculated is a different issue.

    Quick comment on something else you said -"And if poor work habits DON'T hurt performance – if cases like student A vs student B are common, rather than odd flukes – then why are these work habits so important in the first place?"

    Actually they do. One of the things we've been discussing here at ISW is the recently published _Academically Adrift" which argues -- out of a long series of empirical studies -- that student learning is strongly correlated with strong work habits, and poor student learning strongly correlated with weak habits.

  16. I wasn't arguing that poor work habits don't hurt performance (although maybe you knew that, it's hard to tell).

    In any case, if there are students who ordinarily would skip class more than they should, who get in the habit of going to class because of incentives, then I guess I can't really disagree too strongly with making attendance mandatory, at least in gen ed courses.

    I definitely disagree with having it in smaller higher year courses, but I don't have the energy to argue it.

  17. @ Srewplato:

    "Missing class has the consequence of the student not knowing the material as well, which in turn hurts their grade."

    "...if you put a gun to a student's head and instruct them to go to class, they can still choose not go to class, they just have to deal with the consequences - i.e. being shot in the head."

    Both of these focus on the consequences for THAT student. There are consequences for other students, and for the effectiveness of the classroom as a whole, when particular students consistently miss class.

    My final judgment takes the interests of all stakeholders into account, not just those of the individual student who chooses to miss class.

    What are your thoughts on this?


  18. In my experience questions about what happened last class and such happen before the lecture begins, so while it might be a slight nuisance it doesn't really interfere with learning that much.

    About it being harder for students to speak out when they don't know everyone there very well, I can't really say much. Personally I never feel uncomfortable with speaking out, but I haven't discussed this with other students, so I don't know how it affects most students. I'd imagine that it doesn't make a big enough difference to justify measures like trying to force students into attendance, though, especially since any effect it has will be counteracted a bit by the slightly lower turnout (which makes it easier to speak out).

    So, overall, unless the student is openly disruptive I don't think their decision on whether to attend has much consequence for their fellow students.

  19. SP:

    "I wasn't arguing that poor work habits don't hurt performance (although maybe you knew that, it's hard to tell)."

    Okay good, so we're agreed on that.

    "...then I guess I can't really disagree too strongly with making attendance mandatory, at least in gen ed courses."

    Well, that's a big admission. Now it's simply a matter of wondering whether upper division major courses should have such requirements. In philosophy, there are obvious reasons to do so, mostly related to (a) discussion and (b) the fact that the teacher knows a lot more than you do, so if you truly want to learn the material (as opposed to just "get an A") it makes sense to go to class and interact with an expert. It's not difficult to construct a straightfoward Platonic reason for participation requirements (knowledge via dialectic). I suppose though, that given the fact that you've flipped the bird to Plato, this won't be welcome to you?

    I guess my real confusion, though - given that I presume we're talking about philosophy courses - is; why in the world would someone major in philosophy (philosophy, mind you, not business where one might actually hate the subject matter but do it for $$) and then decide not to show up to class?

  20. This is Anon 3:09 again. This post has quite a debate going!

    To Chris, regarding (b) in your last comment: those are reasons for a student to attend class and to participate, not reasons to require said student to attend class and to participate.

    KP: I would note (as I tried to earlier) that there are negative consequences for engaged class members when students who otherwise would skip are 'forced' to attend. If half of a 10-person class skips, yes, discussion is more difficult than with 10 people present and participating. But if the skippers don't participate even when they're there, what good does it do the rest of the class to have them there? In my experience, unmotivated classmates' reticence to speak up made it more difficult for me (and, it seemed, others) to participate.

    I understand mandatory attendance in gen-ed classes, even though I tended to learn far less in those classes and gain far less from attendance than in major and elective classes. So I'm not arguing against it, but the consequences blade is double-edged. In upper-level courses (especially in philosophy!) it shouldn't even be necessary; like Chris said, why *take* those classes if you're not going to show up (and participate)? I guess I'm a little confused on that one, too.

  21. @ Srewplato:

    Two issues here. One an "is", one a "should".

    The "is": are other students, and the classroom overall, affected when particular individuals miss class?

    - The answer to this question will vary according to how a particular class is run, what kinds of activities occur therein, etc. Therefore, I think your conclusion may represent an overgeneralization, since it seems based on a small sample. Your thoughts?

    The "should": IF it is determined that other students' effectiveness, and the effectiveness of the classroom overall, are undermined by students missing a lot of class, then what *should* be done?

    - The answer to that question, a different issue than the first one, will depend on what values are being operated on.

    In terms of *my* classes and the activities we do therein, the evidence I've collected over several years suggests, strongly (the first question), that the effectiveness of other students and the overall environment *are* undermined by lots of absences.

    I value freedom, and choice, but I also value classroom effectiveness, overall. So my solution is to weigh attendance heavily. This is made clear on the first day of the semester, so students who have issues with attendance policies can exercise their freedom to choose another class. Students who are more consistent are less interrupted and frustrated by late arrivals, early departures, missing group mates, etc.

    P: When absences undermine the effectiveness of other students, and the overall classroom environment, attendance should be weighed heavily to help reduce the number of absences
    P: Evidence suggests abundant absences in my classes undermine the effectiveness of individual students, and the overall classroom environment
    C: Therefore attendance should be weighed heavily in my classes to help reduce the number of absences

    Ten four, over and out.

  22. There's a difference between it being a good idea for students to go to class (I agree that it is, 90% of the time), and it being a good idea for professors to force students to go to class (which doesn't account for the 10% of the time it isn't).

    As for why someone would skip philosophy class, there are a few good reasons, and of course many more bad ones. But, here are some reasons I've had for skipping classes that I think are good:

    Feeling sick: I won't get much out of class since I won't be able to concentrate. All that can really be accomplished is perhaps making others sick. So I don't go.

    Appointments: Rare, but it does happen.

    Disliking the class: I like philosophy as a verb, but I do not like all of philosophy as a noun. To expand on the example I gave earlier: I hate ancient greek philosophy. Yet, a History of Ancient Greek Philosophy class is mandatory for getting a philosophy degree. So I took it, but hated the course. Ironically, there wasn't even the chance of a good Socratic type dialogue. Most of my professors have been extremely approachable, but this professor's approach to discussions about, say, the validity of Plato's argument for the existence of Forms, was that I was wrong, Plato was right, and the professor had to get me to realize that I was wrong as quickly as possible. If that meant interrupting me midsentence, then so be it (he was a nice, enthusiastic guy, just not a good guy to have a philosophical discussion with).

    So basically I didn't like the course, I didn't like the lectures, and there was no chance of having a good discussion. So I skipped the lectures sometimes, and I think I was justified in doing so. I passed with a 72 and I kept my suffering to a minimum.

    Most of the time it's best to go to a lecture (and most of the time I do go), but there are occasions when I have good reasons for wanting to skip and I'm glad that in most of my courses I have the option of doing so without further penalties being applied.

  23. @ Anonymous 309:

    I cannot speak for others, and I definitely hope my posts have not been taken that way. I can only speak for my courses. I use a lot of group work in my classes. Not outside-of-class group work, but on-the-spot group work.

    Here's what I tend to do, almost each and every class:

    1. Post an opening question or two on the whiteboard (while I write the agenda, and concept maps and such that we'll use later on, on the board)

    2. Students are to answer those in their notebooks

    3. Then they get into groups of 3, 4 at the most, and discuss. A "scribe" takes basic notes, to insure that everyone contributes, and all students are armed with a list of "Socrates questions" that they are to employ when the conversation seems to halt

    4. Then I take summaries of answers & discussions from a couple groups.

    5. Then we discuss the issue, concept, or problem as a class.

    This way, everyone participates. This way, the classroom discussions are not dominated by people who happen to be more comfortable speaking in front of groups. Also, some of the shy students' really good ideas can be shared as part of the groups' summary, in the event that the shy person is not ready to "own" their contribution, or share it out loud in front of the class.

    Students tell me constantly that this is the first class they felt comfortable speaking in. I hear this from a lot of girls, especially. I don't have to tell any of you that philosophy is dominated by men. And that the especially competitive males in each class can scare the crap out of shyer students.

    So that's what I do, and that's why my classes don't go well when students don't show up.

    Also, I think there is a distinction to be made between "mandatory" attendance and "heavily weighed" attendance.

    Mandatory ... "compulsorily: in a manner that cannot be evaded" ...

    They can evade attending. Easily. They'll lose points if they do, though. Not a LOT...but enough so that in a 16 week class that meets once a week, 3 or 4 absences puts them out of A territory if those absences occur on days when work is due.

    I think that's reasonable. Students do really well in my classes...maybe my high standards play a part? I think that they do.

    :) Karla

  24. Anon 309 again.

    Have to say I disagree with SP about that last reason for skipping class. Now, if it'd be obvious to me as a classmate that SP hates the class, *I* would wish SP weren't there. But it's not a good reason for SP to skip. You don't have to like it for it to be valuable (story of my life). Don't like how the prof responds when you speak? Practice writing your objections & arguments down.

    Karla: I see how erratic attendance would be problematic given the way you structure your class sessions.

    And if that structure would mask the non-participation of frequent skippers (you didn't say anything about this, I know), then I'd be all for heavily-weighted attendance in your case. ...I'm still bitter about a project in which one group-mate contributed absolutely nothing yet received the same (high) grade as the three of us who did the work. (And that was 7 years ago. I feel pretty strongly about free riders.) If the group work in your classes can't mask individual non-participation, I'd neither defend nor oppose heavily-weighted attendance.

    Group work like you describe was only an occasional feature in my classes; discussions tended to be whole-class, and in that case having a body of classmates who only spoke when directly called upon made speaking up harder. (I am not, you may surmise, one of those who happen to be comfortable speaking in front of groups, however verbose I'm being now.)

    By the way, I really like the touch of having students write down their answers to your questions before talking in groups. That would give someone like me--someone who is extremely shy in person and has to have a thought articulated in her head before she can speak it--a better chance of figuring out what she wants to say or ask before the discussion's over.

    For the record, though, the alpha males didn't exactly scare me; they annoyed me. I thought them loud, arrogant *s who could use a lesson in using their ears as well as their mouths. ;)

    As to the "mandatory" vs "heavily-weighted" distinction, I apologize if I have mixed the terms up. I have to remind myself that most students don't think about grades like I did (from my own perspective, if there were points to be lost, it was mandatory--I may have taken my grades a little too seriously).

  25. @ Anonymous:

    "By the way, I really like the touch of having students write down their answers to your questions before talking in groups. That would give someone like me--someone who is extremely shy in person and has to have a thought articulated in her head before she can speak it--a better chance of figuring out what she wants to say or ask before the discussion's over."

    Same here--I am not someone who speaks well right off the top of her head. Well worn paths, yes. To get it well worn though, I have to work very, very hard. And it takes a while. The shy students tend to do pretty well in my classes too. I think that's because in that second stage, wherein the small groups are discussing things before they debut their findings with the larger class, shy students get a chance to work stuff out with a couple other individuals. Then, when I call on groups, to give a summary, I have the group own the items covered in that group. At that stage, no one is to take credit for a particular item. They must say "In our group some of us concluded X, and some concluded Y, and here are the reasons".

    Then when we discuss as a class, the students that maybe would not have spoken up in a regular class have run their ideas by someone already, shored up their confidence, and seem more willing and able to submit their own idea, and own it, to the larger class.

    No worries about the mandatory vs. heavy weighted distinction. It's not that anyone messed it up. Rather I wanted to make sure anyone reading my contributions here understood what meaning I was going with.

    Do you use group work in your classes?

    :) Karla

  26. 309 here.

    It seems I was unclear; I'm not a teacher, just a recent grad. :)

  27. To those who argue that grading attendance is the equivalent to paying for work or that even adults face consequences:

    The attendance requirement is coercive in the sense that it tries to change the default or baseline set of consequences, from "learn material presented in class or not" to "lose GPA or not." The real question is whether the baseline consequences are sufficient or whether it is virtuous to supplement them. I suspect this depends a bit on the students you're working with (elite or community college, public or private, etc.) In that sense, there may be no generic answer to this question.

    But in defense of my early response, not requiring attendance is a kind of pedagogical technique, too: it's intended to teach students to be self-motivating and to think of themselves as responsible for their own education. If a student can't generate the internal drive to succeed or curiosity regarding the subject matter, that student is unlikely to succeed in other adult pursuits. They don't tend to succeed in my classes.

    There's also a selfish reason: I don't have to field excuse e-mails. Perhaps it's reasonable to expect that grandmothers will die, but why do so many die right before and after Spring Break?

  28. Daryl Close had a terrific article – Fair Grades – in Teaching Philosophy Dec. 2009 on the subject of what should and should not be graded, including attendance. A pre-print is available on-line here ...

    I am conflicted on the issue. I think I tend to agree with Daryl that attendance should ideally not be graded, but I tend to agree with CP that there are non-academic skills (such as showing up) that we can (and indeed must) encourage in students, especially students who lack basic skills and/or are new to the demands of college.

    As a result of Daryl's article I have removed the attendance requirement from my upper-level courses, but I have (so far) kept it in my intro courses. - Cathal

  29. I judge my own success by how much students learn. Society judges my success as a professor by the same measure. If students are not there, they are not learning from me. I have no chance to be effective with them (for that portion of the course they miss). I need to ensure conditions that will allow me to be as effective as possible, especially in a political climate in which the general public feels our profession is not doing a good job.

    I don't mandate attendance; I do count participation as part of the final grade. (Of course, if a student is not present, there is no participation.) I don't "force" student to come to class. They simply do not earn that portion of their participation grade when they don't show up. I don't force them to take exams or turn in their papers either. i simply give them the grade they've earned.

  30. Everyone,

    I'm curious how you implement your mandatory attendance policies. In particular, do penalties kick in with the first absence or is there some number of "free" absences? Do you track excused vs. unexcused absences, and what are your experiences in trying to distinguish between them? (Like Joshua's, my experience is that nothing kills more grandmothers than Spring Break.)
    How would a policy like this address the various concerns in this post? "You get n absences for any reason. After that, you lose p points for every absence, regardless of the reason (excepting extended medical emergencies)."


    I was interested to read about your class structure and hear your report of its success. I think the need to develop good group rapport, etc. make mandatory attendance a reasonable requirement for that kind of course.

    I've used group work in various contexts, though rarely as extensively as you do. In one of my current courses, I offer students extra credit for participating in the weekly group sessions. That encourages and rewards participation without penalizing those who choose not to come to class. It has taken some reshuffling of groups as we find out who attends reliably.


    You said that course assessment aims at the "aggregate student," not the individual one. I think I have a vaguely Rawlsian attitude about this: I'd prefer to protect some things, such as the responsible students' autonomy to balance one's various responsibilities, even at the expense of maximizing the "aggregate learning" of the class by allowing some irresponsible students to shirk. I don't expect everyone to agree with that approach, of course. It might not be as big an issue on some campuses as others. My students, especially at my old institution, were often working full-time, had kids or other family responsibilities, etc. I knew they sometimes had good reason to miss class and didn't want to penalize them for it.


    Thanks for the link to the paper. I look forward to reading it.

  31. Ugh. I just wrote a very long reply, and Blogger ate it. Grr. As a result, this second try will be short.

    David -

    I allow students to miss 2 classes without penalty, as I think this is fair (life happens). However, I also agree that these policies should be mapped onto the demographic makeup of the student body. In my case, I teach at a private school where my students are well off and mostly live on campus. So there's no real reason to build in a more lax attendance policy. If such reasons existed (say, if I taught mostly non-traditional students) I might have a different policy.

    On aggregate assessment: I can't imagine doing it any other way. When you develop the course learning goals, you are thinking of what you want "the student" to master. Allowing students to opt in/out of different requirements due to their strengths/ weaknesses surely sounds good in principle, but seems practically unworkable (not to mention institutionally questionable). For one, a student might say "I already mastered paper writing" which means they could opt out of the paper. Or: it could mean that because they've taken more classes, you make them write a harder paper, or you hold them to tougher standards for the same grade. Either way, this would be a nightmare for obvious reasons.


    I saw Close give that talk many years ago, and to be honest I still have a strong memory of just how much I disagreed with him on many things. It would require a whole post to say how, so I won't here. But I will note that the habits I meant _are_ academic, actually. Also, although I agree that the more fundamental habits are learned in the lower level class, in the higher level class there is a different set to be learned, so I'm not sure the time ever comes when you no longer need to learn habits to succeed.


    In my own case, the first two reasons you give would be covered by my own attendance policy (2 freebie absences). However, this is an argument for a freebie policy, not an argument for non-mandatory attendance.

    As to the third one - not liking the class - this is not an acceptable reason to miss the class, from the teacher's point of view, the person charged with advancing student learning. I understand not wanting to go to a class you don't like, but from the standpoint of the educator, this is really not relevant at all.

  32. I do not mandate attendance in any of my courses, at any level. However, one component of the grade for a course is dependent on work done in class (such as case studies, individual writing assignments, participating in a debate). This component of the grade is usually 25% in an intro class, and 10% in an upper division one. The level of attendance in my courses is high, on balance.

  33. I view attendance in class the same way I viewed attendance in the businesses I worked for. To me, being a student is a job (career if your prefer) the goal of which is to learn crucial skills and acquire knowledge. Employees get evaluated on their attendance as part of their overall performance and can be terminated if they fail to be present when they should be. No one is forcing students to be in my class so if they do not like my policy they are free to leave, just like employees could leave if they did not like working for me. I know that some may object to my treating students as 'workers' and the educational environment as an opportunity to learn life lessons before bad work habits have too negative affect on the course one's life may take. But, I consider it part of my responsibility as an educator to prepare students for the realities of professional life outside of academia where showing up to work when one feels like it is not an option.

  34. I would also like to point out that there are institutions that do not allow teachers to use attendance as a grading criterion. As I understand it there have been court cases that have determined that a student should have the opportunity to pass the course with an A (or the grade they actually earn without an attendance factor) without attending class sessions because they have paid for the right to take the course and if they can learn the course material without attending class that is their right. Consequently, I have made participation a large part of my grade and in so far as one cannot participate if one is not present I can get thru the back door what the law will not allow thru the front.

  35. Wow, 34 comments! Maybe we should do a poll on this topic? I'd be very interested in the results...

  36. 309 here.

    John, I think change is occurring in many professional environments that your approach fails to appreciate. Most of the people in my office could do their work effectively from any location where they have a computer, phone, and connection to the internet. And they do; if there's a blizzard and the roads are closed, they simply work from home. "Attendance" isn't necessary for them any longer, because they can get their work done without being present. It's only the lowest-rung workers who have to be present--the ones who handle materials or serve visitors--and my understanding is that this is a general trend in the corporate world. Even in a side job as a entry-level freelance proofreader last year, I only had to be in the office for 1 of about every 20 hours I worked. So it sounds like you're treating your students as though employment outside academia for them means menial labor or low-level office positions. (An approach that may cause offense.)

    Just something to consider; if your aim is to emulate conditions in "real-world" employment, changing conditions in that environment are relevant.

  37. I feel very split on this topic.
    Firstly, at least at an undergraduate level, I think it is part of the teachers job to help students stay on track(midterms right?). While an undergrad I would do my best to read all the material before class. For one of my courses, each class period we had a quiz, which went towards our grade. Not to the extent where if you missed a class you would be doomed but enough to make me read the material twice and not miss a class. Because the teacher gave an incentive to come everyday and be well versed in the material, I put more effort into the class and, amazingly enough, got more out. I feel that this is what good teachers do, remind and help students do well and not procrastinate.

    Secondly, I feel that if a student doesn't come to class regularly, why are they there? At least in my case much of my tuition was coming out of my savings, so every class was worth quite a bit to me. I doubt that most professors really want to be there and having to force others to be there just seems childish. These students are adults and should be responsible for their own education.

    Yet again very split on this issue, perhaps a little of both?

  38. Although I agree with John's end-result policy, I'm not sure I agree with his reasons for having it.

    In fact, if the real reason for requiring attendance was to instill non-academic habits for the workplace, I wouldn't require attendance at all, since it would have nothing to do with learning. Then I think you _might_ actually have a situation where (in my comments to ScrewPlato) the imposition of the requirement is arbitrary or capricious (simply in that it doesn't have anything to do with learning outcomes).

    It may be the case that de facto colleges wind up to be the places where students acquire the habits to show up to work and sit in their cubicles, but that's not stated anywhere in my university's mission statement, nor in my department's stated goals, so I don't think I'd feel comfortable letting it influence my pedagogical decisions.

    Of course, if those habits can be made out to be academic and also have non-academic application, then I'm all for it.

  39. 309: I agree that the work world is changing and that that needs to be taken into account. I teach an intro to philosophy online course, but I do require participation weekly on the discussion board. This accounts for @20% of their final grade. If a student does not participate for two consecutive weeks, I drop them from the course unless they notify me as to why they are not 'there.' I have even begun to require participation online in discussion boards for my face-to-face classes.

    I also think that most grads do not go immediately into the middle or upper levels of an organization, but start at the entry level where they have to prove themselves. Most entry level jobs that I am aware of require face-to-face interaction with others, or at least some form of interaction. That is one of the things I am trying to teach my students - how best to become successful so that they can achieve their professional goals.

    Chris: Not my only reason of requiring attendance. I approach philosophy Socratically, so participation is important to the learning process. One cannot participate if one is not there. Even in the example from 309 some form of active participation is essential.

    Now, I want to go on record as saying that I do not think that attendance has to be mandatory or required. It is what I choose to do. If one can teach a course and students who do not participate in some interactive form are as successful as the ones that do, then great. My experience in 25 years teaching is that students who to not take advantage of interacting with others do not do as well on exams or writing assignments, at least in my courses. By making attendance/participation a part of the grade it gives students an incentive to learn.

  40. John,

    I'd agree with everything you said in reply to me. I think the participation aspect is crucial in philosophy.

    Also, I should note that I don't have any problem with saying that a result of requiring attendance is the acquisition of work-related habits. I'm just wary of making it a core part of the reasons we offer when we say why attendance is required, since it is not related to learning outcomes.

  41. Chris: We probably do not have much of a disagreement here. That said, one of my learning outcomes (objectives) is that students will learn to construct and evaluate specific arguments in favor of specific conclusions. This requires exposure to arguments and practice in constructing them within the context of a discussion of the issue being explored. I have yet to have a student be successful (A or B) and not be in class for the vast majority of the class meetings. So I think that attendance at least as I teach philosophy, is related to some of my learning outcomes, or at least the attainment thereof.

  42. I'd like to add a few points to the thread. It has grown substantially since I last looked at it, so I may miss or restate some points that have already been covered, sorry about that. I think I am on the same page as Karla above.

    I require attendance because I believe it improves the class, because quality participation improves class. I allow several absences for any reason (about two weeks worth) after that I deduct ten points off their final grade for each additional absence. I make it clear at the start of the semester that they can go to Cancun for two weeks if they want, I don't care. If they do and still do well in the course, good for them. But if they get sick and miss another two weeks after they return, they will fail. This approach has two benefits: a) it allows students to make decisions for themselves about the best use of their time and b) I don't need to get involved in sorting out excused and unexcused absences.

    The primary advantage is that all of the students are on the same page when we have a discussion. In other disciplines this may not be a concern, but it is in philosophy course because the class benefits greatly from discussion and because some stubborn students are so willing to voice untutored opinions. This may benefit the class occasionally, but it is better if it doesn't happen too often. So having most of the students present in most of the classes means that (ideally) simplistic positions and objections won't need to be addressed over and over again simply because one vocal student rarely comes to class. It also means that we share a common vocabulary. I find this important for good discussion, and the problem is not only with technical terms. The longer I teach, the more I realize that I may not even share the same vocabulary as my students, simply because language drifts away from some terms and phrases over time. I say “human nature”, they hear “individual inclination” and have no problem saying things like “It is his human nature to be lazy” I say “free will” and they hear “free choice”, I say “a means to an end” and I get blank stares. Having everyone present as often as possible can substantially improve the class for everyone.

  43. @ David:

    "I'm curious how you implement your mandatory attendance policies. In particular, do penalties kick in with the first absence or is there some number of "free" absences? Do you track excused vs. unexcused absences, and what are your experiences in trying to distinguish between them?"

    First of all, I want to tell the world (okay, those who are reading this) that I love this blog! So many useful ideas, challenges, arguments every time I visit.

    Anyway, David, to answer your question, here's what I'm doing these days. By the way, I call attendance "classroom practice". Why? Because I teach Philosophy as an activity, not a subject:

    I run my courses on a 1,000 point scale.

    "Classroom Practice" = 200

    In courses that meet once a week, a student loses 20 points each session missed. In other words, miss 5 sessions, your grades drops a letter. Courses that meet twice a week: 10 points lost each session missed.

    2 late arrivals or early departures = one absence.

    No exceptions. None. Not for medical emergencies, funerals, deaths. Nothing. Why? Because what counts as an "emergency" differs from person to person.

    That's not all, though. If a hard copy of the assignment does not reach me at the beginning of class, on the day it is due, it is considered late. Emailing assignments not allowed. Then, they can only submit it by the next session, or not at all. Late assignments earn a 30% penalty.

    All this seems strict...and in a certain sense, it is. I hold students to high standards. I hold myself to high standards too. Students frequently tell me my class is the hardest one they have taken so far, in terms of what I expect. But they also frequently report that they learned the most in my class, and that my classes were the most fun. They tell me they cursed my name at points, but that all things considered, they are glad they took the course, and frequently, they tell me the course changed their life.

    Finally, get this: most students make A's and B's in my courses.

    I teach intro and general education courses. No higher level courses. If I taught higher level courses, I would probably follow different policies. Maybe.

    Jim Spence highlights something that I had not touched on in my own posts, in quite the way he does, but I agree wholeheartedly with him:

    "The primary advantage is that all of the students are on the same page when we have a discussion...So having most of the students present in most of the classes means that (ideally) simplistic positions and objections won't need to be addressed over and over again simply because one vocal student rarely comes to class."

    That's exactly what used to happen in my classes. Cocky students who thought they knew everything already would simply not attend very often; when they did, all too often they would issue an overly simplistic, and frequently incorrect, position. We all know what that does to a classroom, especially when it comes at you later on in the semester. You AND the students are like, "Really?! Is this really happening? Where was this individual when we covered that?!"

    Okay. I've written enough. Oh, if you want to see my syllabi (warning: they're not for the feint of heart), have at it. Each one is published on my student blog:

    Thanks, everyone, for the challenges, insights, and clarification. :) Karla

  44. I also have a strict late arrival policy. If you arrive after I call your name, you are considered absent for grading purposes.

    It may have been useful to note that these policies were developed primarily for introductory level courses, where many of the students are taking the course to fulfill a requirement, not because they love the idea of reading Plato. I don't have much of a problem in upper level courses, though that may be partly due to the expectations set in the introductory level courses.

  45. Karla, thanks for the details and for sharing your syllabi.

    Chris, I see what you mean about aggregate assessment. I certainly agree that we shouldn't give different assignments for different students or set different standards for those assignments. I'm inclined to say, though, that your argument applies mainly to assignments in which students demonstrate their mastery of a skill/topic. While attendance can help you develop mastery, it does nothing to demonstrate it. Participation would be different, and as John notes, a participation requirement is a de facto attendance requirement. There's a gray area, of course, in which assignments both develop and demonstrate mastery, and I think (with some reservations) that it is best to make those mandatory.

  46. Interestingly, I wandered here by way of an interest in bread. But I can't resist what, to me, is the obvious question. How does the student who misses class pass the course? Admittedly, it's been a L O N G time since I was a college student, but it seems to me if attending class or not is irrelevant to the learning required to get a satisfactory grade then why have the class (or professors) at all? I do not mean to offend. I actually did spend some time teaching in post-secondary education. I agree that college students should be treated like adults, however they should also be held accountable.

  47. David -

    Point taken on the vague border between the two, especially on this issue (habit).

    In fact, this partly figures into an earlier point I made somewhere - that there are few classes that we teach where the goals for the course are (or should be) entirely self-contained _in that class_.

    For ex, when I teach Intro to Phil, it's a gen ed course. Which means that part of the goals for the course are supposed to reach out beyond philosophy (say, developing better reading, writing, critical thinking, and habit formation). Since in ideal form these broader goals are shared by other gen-ed courses the student is supposed to take, it really requires a joint effort to produce them.

    As such, it would be odd if the student were to prove mastery in that course specifically, for those broader goals. It seems that this is better done by a kind of longer term assessment, say in the senior year or something of that sort, where graduating senior demonstrate that they've progressed in those ways (or, say, by senior level departmental assessment, which aims at the cultivation of a narrower, but still broader set of goals than is contained in any one class).


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