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From a Student’s View: Fair Attendence Policies

Posted by on Monday, March 21, 2011 in News.

This is a guest post by Erin Baldwin, Vanderbilt Class of 2014. The post is part of our spring “From a Student’s View” blog series. We occasionally feature guest posts here on the blog as part of our efforts to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning among Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. We recognize that everyone’s teaching context is different, but we hope that hearing others’ perspectives on teaching and learning will help our readers reflect on their own teaching. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please let us know.

Erin’s post is a response to this prompt: “Should instructors have attendance policies? If so, what are some examples of effective attendance policies? If not, why not?”

While I myself find it very hard to justify missing a class, I think that the debate on mandatory class attendance is one that divides the campus, students and professors alike.  During my Vanderbilt experience so far, I have seen many different approaches to the problem of classroom attendance.  Some professors have no attendance policies, letting students attend or skip class as they wish.  Other professors use grades to motivate their students to attend, either by making attendance a portion of students’ participation grades, giving “points” for in-class clicker questions, or testing over material that is not in the text and was only discussed in class.  Finally, others do not base grades on attendance, but instead give a certain number of allowed absences (usually 3 to 5) after which a student’s final grade drops by specified increments.  All of these approaches have an impact on attendance.

I can think of many arguments which support the use of attendance policies.  Those students who are going to attend class no matter the professor’s policy are given credit for their efforts.  Those who would have the tendency to skip class are given incentives to attend.  Also, policies in which attendance contributes to a student’s grade give students a “cushion” for their grade by adding in extra points that do not require any effort other than simply showing up.  Moreover, professors put effort into preparing their lesson plans, and requiring attendance asks students to reciprocate that effort.

However, the argument can also be made against mandatory policies.  Those who skip classes are already “punished” by not being as successful in the course or by missing crucial information discussed in class.  Why punish them further through an attendance policy?  It can also feel demeaning to students when they are compelled to do something and are denied the right to make their own informed decisions as an adult.  Some argue that if students are paying tuition, they should have greater autonomy to decide which “services” of the faculty they make use of.

I have no doubt that mandatory attendance policies are rooted in professors’ desires to see their students succeed and their sincere belief that class attendance is the most effective means of learning the course material.  However, I also believe that teachers should make compelled attendance worthwhile to their students.  The material covered in class should not simply be a regurgitation of the facts in the course’s text, something that the students could learn more conveniently on their own time.  For an attendance policy to be fair, the act of going to class should benefit the student in some manner and directly further their understanding of the material.  This can be achieved by a thorough explanation of the text to clarify the information, added material to supplement the readings, or discussion of the concepts  to  expand the students’ knowledge beyond the course’s texts.  While I feel that the majority of students do not skip classes out of disrespect for their professors, I think that if a student feels that they could learn the same material by themselves without attending class (whether this notion is true or not), then they feel inconvenienced or belittled by forced attendance.

Personally, I do not like the feeling of being behind in a class or not having notes from a specific day when it comes time for an exam, so I skip classes only in extenuating circumstance.  Other students, however, sometimes prioritize other commitments over their class schedule.  I believe that the best attendance policies are ones that acknowledge the importance of students’ time by making it worthwhile for students to come to class.  Such policies not only motivate students to make attending the class a priority, but also fosters mutual respect and cooperation in the classroom because both professors and students have a vested interest in being there.

Image: “Empty,” Shaylor, Flickr (CC)

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