Blogs > Cliopatria > College Attendance and Public Ed.

Jan 27, 2005 11:12 am

College Attendance and Public Ed.

A couple of weeks back, a student here at beautiful, scenic, Northern Kentucky University published a letter to the editor of our campus paper decrying any sort of attendance policy on campus. Yesterday's edition of the paper ran a response by me.

Nowadays, when faced with unapologetically absent students, I often find myself giving a mini-lecture on the subject, the key points of which more or less mirror the letter found above, and I figured that putting it into print might save me some precious time and breath over the next term or two. Notably, in the past, I didn't worry myself about such things. When I first started teaching, I never harassed students about attendance. If they didn't show it was their problem, and I figured it would almost certainly reflect in their final grade. And, in the vast majority of cases, it did.

I have, however, watched with some interest as I have become a bit more demanding about attendance every year. Part of this is because I have come to appreciate what public education means (especially as it gets less public every year), and also because I really hate to see students do poorly, and have seen the toll that the absence-ignorance-guilt-avoidance cycle takes on students who otherwise have no reason to do poorly in my classes. I guess in the end I would rather have them complain about attendance (which I calculate as part of the class participation grade) than about failing exams.

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Van L. Hayhow - 2/1/2005

I work as an adjunct at a similer school. They require students to attend virtually every class on the theory that the employer expects you to come to work every day.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/29/2005

My mother taught me that being a student was, for four years at least, my profession, my job. I guess I took that seriously, because I wore decent clothes and almost never missed class for any reason, even those rare classes where my time could have been better spent watching pigeons.

I have so many students who work dozens of hours outside the academy that it doesn't translate too well to them, though. One of many employers, at best....

Wendy Wagner - 1/29/2005

I am in a different situation. I teach at a university that markets itself as preparing students for careers. It took some doing, but I finally worked out in my own head the rationale behind my university's attendance policy, and I share it with the students on the first day. The university is preparing students for the working world. The working world has attendance policies (sick and vacation days). They should think of the attendance policy the same way. I don't ask them to explain their absences so long as those absences fall within the allowed number of cuts. If there is some sort of emergency that would require them to miss more than the required number, they should speak about it with me the same way that they would speak with an employer. This has worked pretty well so far. It puts the responsibility on the students, where it should be. It asks them to think about potential trouble spots before they happen. And it encourages communication because it shows them that I won't be personally offended if they do not come to class.

Derek Charles Catsam - 1/28/2005

I usually put a caveat in my syllabus to avoid just this eventuality, someting to the effect of: I reserve thje right to change this syllabus at any time if I feel that it will be for the betterment of the course.

If it is a contract, that is part of the language of the contract. If it is not, no worries.


Richard Henry Morgan - 1/28/2005

If you look at contract law, there seems to be the required ingredients -- a meeting of minds, and consideration. Teachers have been attracted to more specific syllabi and grading schemes in order to avoid disputes, but in so doing they can hardly argue that there isn't a common understanding. You avoid one pitfall, only to fall into another -- contract.

David J Merkowitz - 1/28/2005

By contract, I was speaking more in the sense of a social contract. The student expects certain things from professors and I think professors should be able to expect certain things from their students. For the academic project to work the reciprocity of relationships between student and instructor, and I guess even the administration has been taken seriously by all involved.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/28/2005

That would be the personal contract, bound by ethical behavior and not law, I'm thinking. Still, I always have a place in bold red that states that I have the right to change grade values and assignments if I see fit.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/28/2005

In the area of disciplinary proceedings, even private institutions have been shocked to find that promises of substantive justice in Student Handbooks aren't interpreted by courts as merely precatory language, or even a pledge, but as a contractual obligation.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 1/28/2005

I think that the syllabus as contract thing is something invented by the courts. Therefore, whether it is or not, schools have to act as though it is in order to keep from being sucessfully sued.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/28/2005

Let's try to keep that in mind, the next time someone starts the "syllabus as contract" wind blowing again.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/28/2005

I like it, actually. A good portion of the F grades I give really would be V grades.

My course grades are usually 100-point scale, so I can distinguish between not doing the work (0) and doing the work badly (55). But when it comes down to the final grade, there's no difference.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/28/2005

There is no legal contract between the student and the professor. Ethical? yes. Moral? probably. Implied mutual obligation to obey appropriate standards of behavior? Certainly. But the professor's contract is with the institution.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/28/2005

it's a 0.0. It's basically a way of noting when someone failed not because of their work, but because they didn't actually do the work. With as many part-time faculty as there are, it seems a good idea to at least have a reason for those grades, since often the faculty can't be reached when the student comes back to complain ...

David J Merkowitz - 1/27/2005

I don't know whether to hang my head in shame or what, but I was an adjunct at NKU a couple years ago and actually taught the student in question.
I certainly find Prof. Reynolds comments valid. The most frustating students are the ones who rarely show up but clearly have enough talent to do well. Mr Dressman makes a fundamental error. The classroom, even in college, is not a marketplace. The contract between the student and the professor is such that it falls clearly within the boundary of right to require a minimal level of attendance. In-class time is a fundamental part of the learning experience.
Unfortunately NKU and its fellow public institution across the river, the University of Cincinnati are filled with this type of student.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/27/2005

How does that figure in to their GPA, I wonder?

Julie A Hofmann - 1/27/2005

I've actually told a student that, since my husband and I pay more in taxes than he does, I actually am paying for his education, too. So there.

Oh -- I have never had a problem with valid excuses, but I find the people with kids often get notes from other people and let me know what's going on. We actually have a V grade for "vanished." It's for people who decide not to withdraw (I think that they don't much care after the tuition is gone), but don't attend.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

Rules don't have to achieve their purposes every time to be good rules. It is a rarity that one gets nothing from a classromm lecture, yet it happens. That does not mean that an attendance rule or policy is a bad idea. Rules get their justification not from the fact that they are always and everywhere correct, but that in general they have some rational relation to the purposes to be achieved.

Derek Charles Catsam - 1/27/2005

Students seem selective about when they are and are not consumers. They love to throw the "I pay for this class" thing in our faces whenever it suits them. Here is what should be our common rejoinder:

You pay for the right to come into this class and obey the rules as determined by the providers. You pay for movie tiockets, too. Try shouting at the screen during the movie and see what that gets you. You pay for tickets to sporting events. Try throwing things at the athletes (then again, please do not.) What you are paying for is the opportunity to get the expertise and commitment of your professors. If you choose not to adhere to those rules, you might forfeit what you paid for. I am not under contract to you, but to a larger community, and those rules and mine will be what rules the day. I am not the counter person at Wendys. You are free to take my classes under certain circumstances, and those circumstances are ones you do not dictate. If I have an attendance policy, you will be there, or you will pay the price.

Consumers have rights. But students are not mere consumers, and in any case, all consumer rights have limits.


Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

Up until I think about 6 or 8 years ago, you could drop a course at Stanford (yes, Stanford!!) up to the last day of class, without even a WP or WF reflected on your record. These things, of course, were known by graduate admissions types, who discounted GPA's accordingly.

I think it was something like 15 years ago (maybe more)that the students at UC Santa Cruz petitioned the administration for grades -- until then, they had nothing but narrative evaluations. The students thought it hurt them with grad school admissions.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/27/2005

One of my worst teaching experiences _ever_ was in a community college, where there was no attendence requirement and students were allowed to drop a class in the last week of the term. It was a bit of a nightmare. You didn't really know who was taking the class for credit until the last week and those who would eventually drop it tended to shape the atmosphere.
I finally decided that there was some unstated agreement among state education officials, local administrators, and students. The school was compensated for all of the desks occupied at the beginning of the term, there was no penalty for dropping the class at the last minute, and state administrators could claim they were encouraging the education of large numbers of students.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/27/2005

I don't grade attendance. I used to say I did, but it was something of a bluff. I also once had a class, astronomy, in which the prof simply did not communicate at a level I could follow. That's one of the reasons why I didn't. I just decided to drop the bluff.

Also, at one of the campuses I teach at there is a noticeable percentage of parents with young children. When little Jodie has the flu, little Jodie has the flu. Mom (and occasionally Dad) simply has to go get her. Sure I could and did make exceptions, but forcing them through that hoop seemed a bit petty.

Having said that, I do find some of the arguments above compelling.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/27/2005

Yeah -- I don't buy the, "I work x hours a week," argument, either. I worked 30-40 hours a week as an undergrad and carried a full-time load -- and showed up to class (although my friends still remind me that I did sometimes nod off). We are not allowed (in WA state) to require attendance, but can grade on participation. My classes are structured to include a lot of primary source discussion, with attendant preparation for discussion. If a student chooses not to come to class, the student cannot do well. And yet, many still consider attendance optional. Of course, they also seem to consider the reading, tests, papers, etc. optional.

On another note, one argument that Jonathan Reynolds did not bring up is that, if a class has met the cap and there is a wait list, students who keep their places but don't attend are infringing on the rights and privileges of those students on the wait list who would. By loose extension, a student who chooses to attend a public institution and not fulfill his commitments and obligations may be taking the place of someone who was not accepted and might be a better student.

Brian Ulrich - 1/27/2005

I'm strict about attendance in discussion sections. The culture at UW does not really permit checking it at lectures, though what I cover there is different from the readings and you really need both to get high grades. (You could probably pass without one or the other.)

As a undergraduate, however, I often noticed that the classes where attendance was counted as part of the grade were usually those where the educational value of such attendance was the least. I remember one education requirement in particular where the "lectures" were just going through the textbook, but attendance was like 35% or something. By the same token a political science professor never bothered with attendance, but everyone usually came because it was the only way to understand anything.

Manan Ahmed - 1/27/2005

So, if on the first day of class, I distribute all the readings for the semester, the assignments and the final essay requirement, I can stop going to class to give those insubstantial lectures? Kids can read/reflect at home and hand me the assignment and that would be that?

Signing up for a class is a committment. I, as a teacher, commit to showing up every class and delivering a cogent lecture. You, as a student, commit to showing up every class and paying attention. I agree with Jonathan that I'd rather have them complain about strict attendance policy than fail the class.

Incidentally, I have rarely skipped a class (I cant even recall any examples) and I have been working full-time throughout my undergrad and grad school life.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/27/2005

I think your position works sometimes, even most of the times.

I have a counterexample. I had an advanced math class where the professor failed you if you missed two classes. It met twice a week. With a half-hour commute, that made 5 hours a week devoted to classwork (commuted at night). Unfortunately, the classtime was worthless. I had a 96 average in the class, but I was consistently lost by a third of the way through the class period. I passed not based on classwork, but based on teaching myself from the book, on my own time, and doing four times the assigned homework. I would actually have saved myself a lot of time and grief if I hadn't gone to class. BTW, the professor was a hell of a nice guy, and an entertaining lecturer, he just didn't have a clue that 90% of the class was lost each week.