A 21st-Century Attendance Policy

Two faculty members offer different answers to the question of whether and how to take roll in college courses

Creative Commons

July 14, 2014

The Canadian poet Tom Wayman wrote a darkly humorous poem in response to a question we faculty members hear frequently from students who have missed class. In "Did I Miss Anything?" he conveys the mixed emotions that faculty members experience about student attendance. Most of us would like to answer that question as Wayman does in one passage:

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter

When students miss class, they miss out on important details, changes to the syllabus, and new assignments, not to mention the opportunity for a deeper understanding of a topic. They miss the chance to ask questions, learn from their peers, and show us where we may need to slow down, speed up, or retrace particular elements of the course content.

That said, faculty approaches to student attendance are as varied as professors themselves. The two of us are a case in point. We would like to share our radically different attendance policies and why we adhere to them, in hopes of shedding some light on an issue about which many faculty members hold conflicting views.

Michelle’s "freewrites." I’ve experimented quite a bit with attendance policies, vacillating between ones that are very strict and a variety of softer approaches. For me, there’s just no substitute for the highly personalized relationship we build together when students attend class—interacting within a classroom culture of our own design, collaborating toward some meaning as we parse a reading or discuss our work.

In my experience, the most earnest students understand that showing up is not only the way I get to know them, but also how I fine-tune the sorts of individual support I might offer. Some students miss class because they have jobs, families, debt, and obligations; I prefer to think that they are consistently weighing and reweighing a number of competing priorities.

In the real world, employees are offered sick time and personal days. They are trusted with the responsibility for determining how to use those days and keep up with work-related expectations. And so I developed a new approach to class attendance that rewards students for showing up—on time—but doesn’t require me to actually take roll. It also keeps the responsibility for attendance firmly in the students’ hands.

I start each class with a five-minute "freewrite"—students respond in writing to a prompt that I provide on the board. (Because these prompts come at the start of class, they also help me account for tardiness.) The prompts are related to course activities, asking students to reflect on course concepts, to discuss material they did or did not understand, or to refresh their memories about what they read or did the night before class. Students post their responses online in a select area of Blackboard and receive 0.5 points toward their final grade for each completed freewrite.

I like this activity because it opens our class with a few moments of quiet focus, setting the tone for the class session to come. When I have asked students to tell me (via anonymous survey) whether they like this means of keeping attendance, they have responded very positively, stating that the freewrites are a relaxing way to ease into the day’s activities and also kept them motivated to arrive on time. However, for the first time this past semester, one student did complain that she felt the freewrites were "unfair" because people who missed the first five minutes of class did not receive credit for attending class at all.

But I like how this activity makes keeping attendance much simpler for me and, at the same time, is a useful means of taking the temperature of student learning. Instead of standing at the front of the room placing check marks and late notes by student’s names on a roster, I return to my office later that day and spend some time reading their warm-up thoughts. I’m not only keeping track of attendance, I’m gauging how the course is going and where I may need to make adjustments, based on their comments.

Steven’s playing field. Unlike Michelle, I’ve never vacillated between softer and more extreme policies. For me it’s all about professionalism. So attendance is very important. And that’s exactly how I pitch it to my students from the first day of class. I explain what they really already know. Every professional—from athletes to business executives—needs to make sure they do one thing: Show up. If you don’t show up, you can’t play. Or get paid.

So in my classroom, students are allowed one week of absences (usually the equivalent of two to three days). After that, each absence takes a mark off their overall grade. For example, if the class meets twice a week and a student hits his third absence, I immediately start his overall assessment at an A rather than an A-plus. If students reach six absences, they fail the course. The only "excuse" I accept is religious holidays.

Harsh? Maybe. Heartless? I don’t think so.

Despite this arguably draconian policy, students come to realize pretty quickly that there are good reasons why I am so adamant about attendance. My courses are always writing-intensive, and I need students to think of our classroom as their practice field and me as their coach. Since students form small peer groups on the second day of class and utilize them almost every time we meet, they quickly learn that it pays to show up.

Day in and day out, students increasingly rely on their teammates for support. They help each other brainstorm ideas and strategies for assignments. They read each other’s papers for response and critique. They frequently answer one another’s questions before asking me. They often build camaraderie and friendships that extend beyond the course. They help each other to get the most learning bang for their tuition buck, to write the strongest papers possible, and to earn that 30-percent participation grade.

And students know from the start that they must try to work well with their group members. At the end of the term they write a confidential, formal letter to me with details and scores for how they believe they and their teammates performed.

If students are forced to show up, then I too am obligated to play my part. Students quickly discern that, like Michelle, I will do everything possible to make our class sessions if not enjoyable, then at least not a complete drag. I will do my best to motivate and animate the class. I’ll play YouTube videos and music, encourage conversation, practice a tolerant cellphone policy, listen to and answer all questions as clearly as possible, and generally foster a light-hearted (often humorous) classroom atmosphere.

I don’t deliver traditional lectures—no "here’s the one and only right answer ’cause I say so." If students show up to class ready to play, I do my very best to make it worth our while.

Nothing, everything. While our attendance policies represent quite different approaches, we both believe strongly in the importance of a clearly articulated policy—and a clearly articulated philosophy that brings to light why we believe that policy matters. We talk to our students throughout the semester about our expectations, reminding them frequently about how their choices will affect their final grades, a clear motivator for the 21st-century student. But we also remind them that learning is an investment of time and energy that only they can bring to the table.

In Wayman’s poem, he offers his own answer to the question "Did I Miss Anything?": "Nothing. When you are not present how could something significant occur?"

Although Wayman meant those words sarcastically, we believe they can also be thought of in a more positive light. If a student misses class, instead of being sarcastic or annoyed, why not express a sentiment more along the lines of: "You missed X, Y, and Z, but we really missed your presence."

The issue of attendance is sure to inspire mixed feelings among faculty—exasperation, impatience, skepticism, and displeasure. But ultimately, as in all things, an attendance policy is about keeping students in the drivers’ seat of their own learning. Our attitudes and how we match policy to practice can make all the difference.

Michelle LaFrance is an assistant professor of English and director of the writing-across-the-curriculum program at George Mason University. Steven J. Corbett is a visiting assistant professor of English at the university.