The Student Attendance Conundrum

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about student attendance (or rather the lack of attendance) in my large lectures. As is typical during the second half of the semester, my 250-seat auditorium is only half full at my weekly lectures. Every semester I expend (probably too much) time and energy wrestling with the attendance issue. Perhaps posting my thoughts here will help me discover a solution. Here are some facts or at least my beliefs regarding attendance:

  • Most students will attend lecture if they find it entertaining and/or useful, or if it counts towards their final grade.
  • No matter what you do, there is going to be a substantial amount of students that skip lecture no matter how entertaining and useful it may be. I believe that if I had Bill Gates, or some other well-known authority, as a special guest lecturer, half my students would still skip.
  • Even if attendance counts towards the final grade, some students will skip.
  • Keeping track of attendance in large lectures is time-consuming. I currently pass around sign-in sheets to collect student signatures. Entering that data into a spreadsheet takes time but doesn’t compare to the amount of time required to inspect student’s Dr’s notes, and other documentation for when they miss a class, and to listen to excuses and haggle with students over points.
  • Taking attendance in lecture has increased attendance in my lectures by perhaps ten percent, however, half of the students that attend for the sake of attendance points, leave early or come late, which the rest of us find very distracting.
  • There is no reasonable system for taking attendance that is 100% unhackable. Students will arrive late if attendance is taken at the end of class, or leave early if it is taken prior to the end of class. Students will sign for friends. Electronic methods such as swiping ID cards as students enter and exit the auditorium, or the new wireless “clicker” technology used at some schools, are not much more effective and carry a significant amount of overhead in time and effort.
  • I do not want to force perfect attendance for all students since the students that don’t want to be in lecture often cause distractions to others by chatting, or even using their cell phone. So policies such as three misses and you are dropped from the class, I find to be too severe.

Finding a middle ground is the challenge. Teachers shouldn’t become obsessed with attendance to the point that it takes over our professional lives. One could easily spend 20 hours a week with attendance record keeping for a thousand students. I’ve seen some teachers become obsessed with this quest, locking classroom doors at the start of class so students are unable to enter class late (this BTW is against the law at our school). My philosophy is that life is too short to invest too much effort in this minor issue. I’d rather spend my professional efforts on developing useful curricula and helping students.

Considering these beliefs, my ideal attendance policy would 1) provide only enough motivation to sway good students that may be “on the fence” about attending lecture, 2) require a minimum amount of record-keeping effort, and student haggling.

A colleague of mine, uses a system that I find tempting to adopt. She takes attendance at every lecture using a student sign-in sheet. She never records the attendance or uses it in calculating student grades. However if a student comes looking for favors, she pulls out the sign-in sheets and uses the student’s attendance history to dictate how generous she is with favors. The interesting part is that students assume that their attendance is earning them points, even though the syllabus shows no points associated with lecture attendance. It usually isn’t until the end of the semester that she is finally asked how attendance is applied to grades.

Another option that I am contemplating is to have attendance count towards the final grade, but allow a few misses to accommodate emergencies. For example, I could make lecture attendance count towards 5 percent of the final grade, and require attendance at 10 of the 14 lectures. I would not look at any Dr’s notes or other excuses unless they cover four or more class meetings. I am leaning towards this policy for next semester since I like that it rewards the students that come to lecture all the time anyway.

As always, I continue to work to make lectures as informative and entertaining as possible. Including student interaction and media in my lectures helps a lot in keeping students engaged. Still, I often wonder if the large lecture environment isn’t doomed for extinction. Is this really the best method of relating information to large populations of students? The thousands of students that have opted to take my class online don’t think so. Why do hundreds of students opt to take my classes in a traditional classroom setting, and then not show up for class? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

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