Mandatory Attendance: The Debate Continues

If you show up to class, chances are you will do better in the course. This is hardly an earth-shattering realization, but some colleges are now trying to be more aggressive in encouraging attendance. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, some administrators are “viewing stronger incentives for showing up” to improve retention and increase graduation rates.

While administrators in the California State University system have asked faculty “consider taking attendance or making it mandatory,” some professors already place a lot of weight on attendance in their class by making it one of the determining factors in a student’s grade. One class described in the article has attendance account for 40% of a student’s grade, with students earning an automatic “F” if he or she misses 3 classes. Another, considerably less drastic, class counts attendance as 15% of the final grade.

The all-too-obvious solution to this issue is to make attendance mandatory in all classes across the board and, like the courses described in the article, make part of the student’s grade dependent upon class attendance. However, as the article and the responses to it note, the answer is not as simple as it may seem. Several researchers are quoted as noting that mandatory attendance for college students is not the only or the best course of action.

The main problem presented with demanding attendance is that students will (and sometimes do) mistake mere attendance for true engagement and learning. Although professor and researcher Marcus Crede notes that “repeated exposure to class materials clearly has a positive effect on students’ grades,” this exposure does not guarantee that the student is internalizing the material or engaging with it outside of class. Consequently, a student could come to class and never participate or learn yet still think that he or she deserves an “A” for attendance.

Exacerbating this problem is the multitude of social media that students can access on their phones and computers. Having the option to multitask can be tempting to even the most diligent students, perhaps rendering any positive effects from attendance null. Furthermore, students who do show up to class only to spend the time on chatting on Facebook, surfing the web, or otherwise engaged are sometimes shocked to learn that merely showing up to class does not ensure an “A.” One colleague I spoke with said she had a student who showed up to class each week only to open her computer and mentally check out of the class. When this student received a lower grade than anticipated, she contacted the professor, who pointed out that the student never participated and spent most of the time playing Solitaire. The student retorted that she was present in class and that, along with her course work, should be enough for an “A.”

Personally, I make attendance and participation count for the classes I teach. I take attendance at the beginning of each class (it only takes me a few minutes), and I ask that students contact me in advance if possible if they know they will be missing class. Although attendance only accounts for approximately 10% of the students’ grades, I stress the importance of being present not just to hear my thoughts on a given topic but so they can contribute to the classroom community and thus enrich the perspectives of everyone in the class. This system isn’t perfect, but it does allow me to give students clear expectations and hold them accountable in regards to their grade while also stressing the intangible benefits of coming to class and engaging with ideas.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Should attendance be mandatory? Should professors count attendance as part of the final grade, and if so, how much should they weigh it?

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