I’ve been thinking a lot about the arguments related to mandatory class attendance policies, in part because my university and department are having discussions about the topic, and because I am at a new university where my own classroom policies are governed differently than they were at the other contexts I was in. I find that having conversations about the issue brings up an unending set of questions, concerns, and requests for data, as well as considerations of labor, power, teaching, learning, and assessment. So I decided to start a list-in-progress of all the positions and policy rationales, documented with evidence or data when possible, also to save everyone the time of having to reinvent these arguments whenever a policy comes to your senate or department.
What I am specifically interested in here is the question of attendance policies that mandate failures after students miss a certain number of classes (for example, 20-25% of the course is typical). I have been at institutions, particularly in writing programs, which is also where I will focus my attention here, where 3 weeks of class is considered the limit (in a semester), or a certain number of class periods (9) after which a student automatically fails. Implicated in these discussions though, then, are questions of how and whether to take attendance; whether individual instructors attach a certain penalty to missed courses, the issue of having to adjudicate what are “excused” or “unexcused” absences, and how/whether students can ‘make up” whatever was missed by that absence. Here is my list in progress of Things to Consider in No Particular Order, with as many of the shared, overlapping, and competing positions reflected as I can think of.
The excused/unexcused dilemma: In K-12 contexts, there is typically a distinction between what constitutes an “excused” or make-up eligible absence, and an “unexcused” absence. There is often a blurry line between what constitutes either of these categories–illness, for example, versus a medical appointment etc. In college, this distinction is something that (from what I have seen) many faculty are loath to make. They resist being compelled to decide what is or is not a legitimate reason to miss class, and what is allowed to be made up or not. Often faculty will say that the activity or activities that took place during class can’t be reproduced independently. Increasingly, campuses are recognizing and/or accommodating for absences that fall under several federally-mandated jurisdictions such as pregnancy/family leave, military deployment, or religious events.
The relationship(s) established between teachers and students by various attendance policies:
Something I think about a lot here is the ways that our policies set up relationships and positions between students and teachers. Mandating attendance or punishing absence may set up a dynamic in which policy compliance is more of an influence over what is happening inside and outside the classroom than is a focus on what students are supposed to be learning, developing, or doing. For example, a policy that has a rigid focus on excused versus unexcused absences may then compel an instructor into a position of “judge’ about what can be made up. A department or university policy that mandates a student fail after missing a certain number of class than necessarily puts an instructor into a role of being forced to fail a student who has missed classes regardless of their performance in the academic work of the course. It’s true that this may be more or less of an issue depending on the type of course and the discipline. For example, writing courses may include an intense focus on process, on peer review, drafting and invention activities, and on collaboration, which are more difficult to reproduce if a student is not in class (see Trader, et al 2016 for some discussion of this). It may also force students into “bad faith’ arguments to justify absences a position that taints the instructor-student relationship and creates cynicism.
Power and authority and the maintenance of standards:
Another important argument or consideration is the role of graduate teaching assistants, contingent faculty, or tenure-track faculty who may welcome a standard department policy or mandated university policy around the number of absences or % of class a student can miss and still pass. For instructors with perhaps limited experience or limited institutionally-conferred authority (such as GTAs) the complicated process of developing an identity and practices as an instructor as well as having to make judgements about what constitutes make-up-eligible absences can be an excessive mental load. Balancing and managing, for GTAs in a writing program for example, the work of graduate coursework and in many programs, teaching 1 or 2 sections of first-year writing is a challenging balancing act, and a standard, across-the board department policy eliminates some of the inevitable challenges that arise in classroom management.
Another consideration related to a non-standard or mandatory/punitive attendance policy is the workloa for instructors, particularly novice instructors or those with heavy teaching loads 4, 5, 6 courses per semester, and for whom accommodating student absences creates an additional burden, including creating alternative activities, uploading things to the course management system, assessing activities on a different timeline.
A related issue is what some have raised as a kind of emotional labor component or gender tax in which women instructors may be expected to be more accommodating to students needs/demands outside of class than male instructors (see a recent study from El-Alayli, et al: “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students,” published in the journal Sex Roles). A standard or mandatory attendance policy can make expectations more transparent and consistent, as well as create documentation for the purposes of appeals, grievances, or requests that might subsequently be taken to a chair or program administrator to resolve.
Another argument/consideration is the question of fairness. As instructors, we of course want to create equity and inclusion in our classroom practices and policies. Having no standard expectation about what it means to be in class means is open to interpretation. Or a lack of clarity about what the consequences are for not attending class may create inequities or unfairness, or at least the perception of it. If you’re like me, you have often had a conversation in Week 6 or 12 or whatever at the start of class when 50% of the class showed up that day and someone invariably asks “can we have extra credit for being here?” Students have an inherent sense of/desire for fairness and if being in class is viewed as something of an effort/work required of being a college students, then it could be argued there should be some value attached to it (or some consequence for not fulfilling that expectation).
What We Communicate to Students with Our Policies about What We Value
At points in the past, I communicated in my syllabus that I expect attendance and that I take attendance because I want my students to know that it matters to me if they are there. That is, college can be a bewildering and disorienting experience the first year, and so telling students that I see them, know them, and value them, by expecting their presence, is one way to say that what happens in our classroom matters–to me and to them.
How We measure learning, and what it looks like
What is relevant to this position/argument is the question of whether being in class is and of itself the desired outcome, or whether “being in class’ is actually a barometer for or metonymy for some other (either measurable or unmeasurable) thing that we as instructors think is important about students being in class. For those of us in the humanities, this can be in part the notion of conversation that takes place about a text that is intended to cultivate new ideas, test theories, pose questions, and invite exploration. Though discussions may not have a tangible documented outcome per se (some might) being there, as part of it, and (hopefully) participating in addition to listening, is part of the learning that is taking place. That being said, can we guarantee that ‘being there” translates into learning? If a student is in the class physically, ae they there, engaging, mentally?
The question to me here is how and whether we know and ensure what happens matters for the purposes of the course goals and course learning outcomes.
What is unique or not about writing classes, and our core disciplinary values in writing studies
For writing programs in particular, which is where I have seen discussions about automatic failure after a certain number of absences, much of the emphasis focuses on some of the core disciplinary values–that writing is a social and rhetorical act, that process–and developing self-knowledge and metacognitive knowledge about process–is the proficiency that distinguishes expert writers from novice writers, and that the work that takes place among writers and readers is core to the learning goals of the courses. On this issue, the question for me becomes whether these are a) impossible to reproduce for students who miss out on them, b) sufficiently weighted in the final assessment of student work such that there is a tangible demonstration of the value of that part of the course in the criteria that are used to determine whether students’ learned what they need to learn.
A competing argument/position might say that if students can miss 20% of the class and still produce the assigned final products 9 and perhaps some but not all of the process-outcomes that are structured into the course), then is it ethical or even an accurate assessment to say they did not achieve the goals of the course?
Placement and assessment:
A related point to me here is, then, if the above circumstances arises–a student doesn’t attend class but still produces what might be established as passing work (or even excellent work), then is this an issue of the class level/rigor? Are the activities and learning assessments sufficiently/adequately aligned with the goals and the instructional activities? Is the curriculum, even as it breaks down into, for example, a basic writing-first-semester-second-semester and potentially advanced writing course aligned? Is the way that students are being placed into those courses and the mechanisms by which their readiness to start the learning of the course doing its job?
Mandatory attendance/consequences for absence and the effect on student retention, learning, or academic performance
A question I have only begun to investigate is whether mandating attendance (or punishing non-attendance) actually influences learning (or grades, which may not be perfectly aligned with learning, depending on the course). Some of the sources I have read show that students who attend class do better. That makes sense. .Others offer the caveat that students who show up under a mandated attendance policy were the ones who would have shown up anyway, or that more conscientious students (as in the Big 5 personality categories) are more motivated by possible negative grade consequences for missing class, so it works to motivate those students.
For example, Crede, et al (2010) showed that “class attendance is strongly correlated with class grades and GPA in college-indeed the observed correlations with grades are larger even than those observed in meta-analytic reviews” (285). The same meta-study however, concluded that their results “do not only show that class attendance is very strongly related to academic performance and moderately related to specific student characteristic” (285). Rather, the results are “‘more supportive of a unique effects model in which class attendance and student characteristics make unique contributions toward academic performance, especially when considering other evidence suggesting that student characteristics such as prior achievement and certain personality traits are related to grades. That is, student characteristics and attendance are more strongly related to grades than to each other” (285). Later, though hesitating to assert a causal relationship, they note that their findings would have “strong implications” if “even a small proportion of the attendance-grade relationship is causal in nature” (286). In other words, students who do better in class earn better grades. The trick is to figure out the relationship among the variables that influences both attendance and grades.
The second finding from that study is that there is a weak relationship between mandatory attendance policies and the effects they have on actual student attendance: “The weak positive effect for attendance policies, based on a small total sample, cannot in itself make the argument for mandatory attendance policies.” This was on the basis of 3 studies.
The authors conclude that “instructors and universities should allow their decision regarding mandatory attendance policies to be guided by a joint consideration of the best available empirical evidence and an evaluation of their educational philosophy.” Though they note that most educators would agree that class attendance is generally a “desirable behavior, and there is encouraging evidence that mandatory policies are not necessary for dramatically improving class attendance or class performance” (287). Just stressing the importance of attendance at the start of the semester both raised average grades and reduced the failure rate (from 23% to 7%).
Rendleman’s study answered one of the research questions they investigated: “Is attendance higher when it is required? Seemingly, the requirement didn’t boost attendance since the average was actually slightly higher when it wasn’t required. However, we conducted an analysis of variance test to see if the difference was significant. It was not” (348).
Carrots versus sticks:
Something that at least some of my favorite books point out (like Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do) suggest that the best way to ensure students come to class is to make sure that what happens in class is meaningful to students and is clearly linked to a task they have to perform or will be assessed on. This raises questions, to me, about how to ensure that what happens in class time is not just well-planned (which I think most instructors aim to do anyway), but also the significance of it to the learning goals of the course are visible and explicable to students.
As Rendleman summarizes: “Pinto and Lohrey (2016) discuss mandatory attendance in a philosophical back and forth, Pinto taking the position that attendance should be required and Lohrey the opposite. Pinto’s arguments include the often-cited fact that college students are adults and are responsible for their actions. He also believes that instructors should be responsible for attracting students to lectures, and not simply require attendance. Lohrey’s arguments in favor of mandatory attendance include learning students’ names, being able to remember who students are when recommendations are requested, and having a record available for college administrators. All her points can be seen as contending for attendance and taking role, but not necessarily for making attendance mandatory” (347)
What new instructors (GTAs, new adjuncts) learn when trained under various models
A concern I have about relying on mandatory attendance and automatic failures as a way to provide departmental or institutional backing for new instructors is that these are formative years for future college educators (writing instructors in particular, who it seems to me are more likely to be granted responsibility for their own section of a course as a masters students or first-year phd students than in other fields, because of the labor structure of the field). In this case, a worry I have is that the “compliance” mentality–one in which seat time and being there is a barometer for a student’s commitment to the course, respect for the instructor, contribution to the classroom community, and academic gains–then is built into the ideas, attitudes, and identities formed for those instructors as they move into new educational contexts. In some educational contexts, that shortcut (or support system, depending on your perspective) may not be there, it may not be appropriate, or it may just not be applicable (for example, in online courses).
In this way, considering what both undergraduate and graduate students learn about what attendance does or how it reflects learning has larger implications than the current semester or institution.
The changing landscape around college credit, seat time, and metrics of learning (such as Prior Learning Assessment or Competency Based Education)
Increasingly, as Prior Learning Assessment initiatives, Competency-Based Education models, and online learning have started to demonstrate (or perhaps challenge, depending), the notion of seat-time is being replaced by structures and models where the learning students can or cannot do is measured and assessed differently than the completion of a certain number of credits or contact hours. Some folks see this as a liberatory development that means that the learning and knowledge that college students or potentially college students have can be valued and rewarded in ways that may have a disproportionately valuable impact on students whose competence ahs been cultivated in ways that are separate from the structure of formal education.
Online learning, as well, which is exploding across higher education, particularly in two-year colleges, necessarily challenges the assumption that physical and synchronous presence is the only or best way to a) teach and learn, b) measure learning, c) create a learning community. Though online classes are structured a lot of ways, the idea that students have to be somewhere all at the same time together is made moot by online courses in which students participate in discussions, activities, and assessments, but do so asynchronously.
On the other hand, some detractors of online learning (or the erosion of the traditional models of higher education) worry that removing the emphasis on same-room/same-time learning creates a utilitarian and vocational model of education that contributes to the neoliberalizing of college. If college is supposed to be a space in which students grow emotionally, civically, and intellectually, not just earn a credential to get a job to earn money, then the decentralization of the time and space of learning may contribute to what some see as the central mission of the institution.
An older study of medical students found that students who attended 4/5 of lectures performed best, but that those who reported attending only 1/5 of the lectures scored second best in the class and on the standardized test, noting that “There is a sizable group of students who do very well in learning the required materials without the aid of lectures (Hyde and Flournoy, 1986). This is, of course, more relevant to large lecture courses in highly selective academic programs than to first and second-year courses and the applicability to new college students and non-selective contexts is probably limited.
Consequences to different student groups
As an instructor who taught for 19 years at multiple open-admission or two-year college sites, one of my worries about mandatory attendance policies (or punitive ones, or automatic failures cut-off points) is the ways that they may disparately impact in negative ways vulnerable and underserved students. For example, absences from class for students in these contexts are just as likely to be caused by unreliable transportation, caregiving/family responsibilities (not just children–often my students had obligations to care for siblings, or in the case of multilingual students, to attend medical or other appointments with family members to serve as translators). Students in these contexts are more likely to work part or full time, and may have little agency in their work site to influence their schedule (so many are called in to work shifts that they are not scheduled for, or are scheduled by managers without regard for their school obligations). I also see perhaps disproportionate impact on students with invisible disabilities, with mental health issues, etc. Another concern is that policies are sometimes made by individual instructors (or other campus entities) requiring a doctor’s note to document absences for medical issues, though this may unintentionally punish students who do not have access to health insurance (likely low-income students but not exclusively that group) and for whom a doctor’s visit is beyond their financial reach.
Student Agency and Characteristics
An additional argument that is sometimes made is that in college, students are adults and should have the ability to choose whether or not they attend class, in particular because they are the ones who must absorb the consequences of that choice.
The results of one 2017 study, “Do Attendance Policies Improve Student Performance? The Relationship among Attendance, Class Policies, and Grades” found that “While the link between attendance and grade performance is positive we do not find that attendance policies improve either course performance or even class attendance itself” (Rendleman). They also, in summarizing their results note that the students in their study “… seemed not to consider grade penalties and rewards for attendance. Attendance, in general, did result in higher grades though” (349). This study was within the context of an agricultural economics course.
What am I missing from my list? Please help me identify additional issues/concerns by posting in the comments section or twitter/FB, or emailing me at email@example.com (or tweet: @prof_hassel)
Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard UP, 2004.
Crede, Marcus, et al. “Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the relationship of Class Attendance with Grades and Student Characteristics.” Review of Educational Research., vol. 80, no. 2, pp. 272-295.
El-Alayli, Amani, Ashley Hansen-Brown, and Michelle Ceynar. “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students.” Sex Roles, vol. 79, 2018, pp. 136-150.
Flaherty, Colleen. “Dancing Backwards in High Heels.” Inside Higher Ed 10 January 2018. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/01/10/study-finds-female-professors-experience-more-work-demands-and-special-favor
Hyde, R. M., & Flournoy, D. J. “A Case against MAndatory Lecture Attendance,” Journal of Medical Education, vol. 61, no 3, pp. 175-176.
Mancini, Tracy. “First Day Attendance and Student Course Success: Does Being There Make a Difference? A Literature Review.” The Community College Enterprise, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2017, pp. 32-57.
Pinto, Jo Ann and Peter Lohrey. “Point-Counterpoint: Should Attendance Be Required in Collegiate Classrooms?” Contemporary Issues in Education Research, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 115-120.
Potter, Claire. “Do Attendance Policies Discriminate against Disability?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 2 August 2014.
Reed, Matt. “Judging Absences without Judging Students’ Lives” Inside Higher Ed. 8 October 2018.
Rendleman, Matthew. “Do Attendance Policies Improve Student Performance? The Relationship among Attendance, Class Policies, and Grades.” NACTA, vol. 61, no. 4, Dec 2017, pp. 347-349.
Trader, Kristen Seas, Jennifer Heinert, Cassandra Phillips, and Holly Hassel. “‘Flexible’ Learning, Disciplinarity, and First-Year Writing: Critically Engaging Competency-Based Education.” WPA: The Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administratorion, vol. 40, no. 1, Fall 2016), pp. 10-32.
Warner, John. “A Failure of Empathy.” Inside Higher Ed. 2 August 2016.