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Summer Reflections: Attendance

I finally had a chance to read my student evaulations. Whereas many departments use numeric evaluations (bubble forms and such), our department still relies on narratives. I always tell my students that I take their comments seriously, which I do, so I was a little hesitant to write about them. But when the same comment, using almost the same wording, appears on over half the evaluations in one class, it’s noteworthy.

The comment: “more absences.” The context: my draconian attendance policy. This semester, I allowed two absences or tardies (that is, two absences, two tardies, or one of each). After that I took off one point from their final grade for each tardy and two points for each absence. The students think that two absences is not enough. They want more!

It’s worth noting that in all my classes, the number of grading points possible is 105, but I only grade out of 100. Thus, students get a 5-point head start. Thus, they really get four absences, not two, before they begin losing real points.

When I first arrived on campus, I was astounded at the number of students who would blow off class (it’s worth noting that my previous academic experience was in the Air Force, where the conequences for unexcused absence was more than points off a grade). I was even more blown away by student reaction to my attendance policy, which, by the way, is consistent with the university’s academic regulations. They thought it was grossly unfair that they could lose points for failing to attend class!

That was four years ago, and it had subsided a little, but it has reared its ugly head again.

I attribute this to what I call students’ Inflated Sense of EntitlementTM. They seem to see attending class as an option. It’s their right to miss my class for whatever reasons they want with impunity.

My guess is that many other professors at my university are much more “understanding” about attendance. Compared to them, I’m Dean Wormer.

What am I going to do about this? Absolutely nothing. Well, maybe stress yet again to students why I count attendance in their grade. I mean, it’s not like I’ve explained it on my website or anything. Oh, wait! I have. And there’s a link to that explanation in my class syllabus.

To save you the trouble, here’s the meat of my philosophy, which explains why I take off for absences:

  • It provides an incentive to attend class. If you don’t attend class, you will miss valuable course content. This can result in more time spent in class answering your questions on content you missed. That’s not fair to the students who didn’t miss class (or to me).
  • I spend time preparing for class and designing a mix of lecture, discussion, and groupwork based on your being there. Education is a real-time experience, and if you’re not there at the time, everybody suffers.
  • Education is not one-way (professor to student). Education also involves student-to-professor and student-to-student communications. It is a participative process. Each student has a responsibility to listen, ask questions, participate in discussions, challenge the professor at times, and work in groups and on assignments. This cannot be done if the student isn’t present.
  • Course grades essentially reflect how well you learned the course material. Your attendance is a measure of that learning; it is a metric as valid as your performance on assignments and tests. It is, in fact, the metric that you most have control over.
  • This prepares you for life after college. Be assured that your future employer will be even less understanding than I am about absences and tardiness. You should get into the habit of keeping your commitment to attend class.
    • On a side note, sometimes students use me as a reference for prospective employers. I have been asked whether students attended class. When I am asked such a question, I answer honestly. Expect that your other professors do as well.

One Response to “Summer Reflections: Attendance”

  1. Robert Says:

    It’s interesting, because although I agree with every point of your philosophy, I take the completely opposite approach towards attendance — I have no attendance policy at all. I just tell students everything you just said, along with the fact that Calculus (or whatever) is not necessarily easy, and although you can skip as much class as you want, your grades will largely reflect your efforts. Students find out real quick that skipping class leads to abject failure in my courses; most students I have are not nearly bright enough to learn Calculus outside of regular class attendance. (That sounds awful doesn’t it?)

    This approach has worked pretty well, and it does get some important points across. It teaches students that they are adults who are responsible for their actions and whose actions have consequences. And I like the lack of paperwork. But it also obviously opens the door for other students to just lay out of class for days at a time. That hasn’t been a problem in the past, but this semester I had a real issue with that in one Calculus class and almost amended the syllabus at midterms.

    And of course, what’s one of my students’ biggest complaints? “He needs to have an attendance policy to force me to come to class; I can’t make myself come if there’s nothing making me.” I kid you not. That’s actually on there at least 2-3 times every semester.

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