absences and grades

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At this point in the semester, I want to remind students of the deadline to withdraw from my class and get a grade of W instead of continuing and getting an F.  The trouble is, the students who need to hear this are absent.  As they have been most of the semester.  (Starting from the first week, so I don't really think my teaching is their reason for not showing up.)

Other teachers -- and my students -- say that if I want students to attend, I need to incorporate attendance into the course grade.

I don't want to do this.  First, I believe the college standard is to attend every class unless you are sick or caught in an emergency situation.  So, to me, saying "after X absences, your grade will go down X points" feels like I'm giving them permission to cut class a few times.  Also, some students do become seriously ill or injured and must miss classes and I don't want to punish them.  If I start asking for doctor's notes, I feel I'm being way too parental -- nor do I want the extra paperwork.  Finally, if absence makes your grade go down it seems conversely that attendance in and of itself improves your grade.  I've read some syllabi that stress attendance to the point where, if you do the math, students can turn in F work for every paper and test and still get a C in the course if they warm a chair in the classroom.

My syllabus states "miss class at your own risk" and tells students it is highly unlikely they will pass the course without consistent attendance.  I note that 10% of their course grade comes from in-class work and that productive participation may raise their grade and counterproductive or non-participation may lower it.  My students interpret this as: attendance counts for only 10% of the grade.

I believe in allowing my students the option to accept the consequences of their own behavior, but the absentee students don't know my position or hear my warnings because (of course) they're not there.

Can anyone offer me a better way to handle this issue?

I also have a specific case this semester for which I'd appreciate guidance.  This student has had 11 absences to date (out of 26 total through December) and has delivered his assignments via "magic elves" who put  his papers on my desk.  His work started at B/C level but has slipped to F.  He has promised (by e-mail) to start coming to class a few times, but hasn't shown up.  He e-mailed me that he is helping to care for a sick grandfather which makes it hard for him to attend my class.  He claims he showed up at the one class I cancelled in lieu of individual student conferences.  (What a coincidence, eh?)  I've e-mailed him that he needs to talk to me, but he doesn't appear.  This morning I e-mailed him the registrar's information about withdrawing from classes and suggested he should strongly consider this option as his last assignment missed the boat completely and got an F and his absences, for whatever reason, have seriously hurt his grade.  After I hit the "send" button, I got nervous.  Did I just give him ammo to make a case against me with my dept. chair or dean?

I welcome your advice.

Assuming your e-mail to him was factual (as it sounds), your message sounds fine.  That's no guarantee against the vagaries of deans and chairs, but I'd hope that reasonable ones understand that sometimes you have to tell the student the bitter truth about where they're grade for a given quarter is going.

If you're worried, you could try to pre-empt any complaint with your chair.   ("I just wanted to give you a heads up that I had to tell a student by e-mail today that he should drop the class. I've made a lot of effort to get him to come to class, help him to do better work, etc, but it hasn't worked in this case. It's possible that he'll complain, so I wanted to make sure you understood that his attendance is atrocious and his last 3 papers were all F-level.")  I don't think I'd do it unless I was pretty sure a complaint was coming, tho.

Regarding how to encourage students to attend, I generally stand up the first day and point out that many days include an opportunity to earn points (in class work, short quiz, etc) and that not all of them are announced. Further, since I'm teaching science, they're going to want to be there to listen to me interpret the book (which many will complain is incomprehensible) and to see demonstrations of problem solving (not found in the book).  A classmate's notes don't cut it.  Do they listen?  "Shrug."  You can't save them all.

I also refuse to include class attendance as part of the grade, although I encourage students to attend. If they can perform well without attending class, well good for them (I guess), but if not, which is more often the case, that is their own doing. It's not our responsibility to remind them of add/drop/withdraw dates or baby-sit students. We do need to be encouraging and supportive but sometimes students will just fail.

On the syllabi, 'miss class at your own risk, and unlikely to pass" could be a concern, as the standards under which a lack of attendance might affect students' grades could be somewhat ambiguous.  So, if one of the miswended contingent wanted to challenge it legally, could be a problem.  So, alas a clear attendance policy might be necessary.

The mystery student, if your college has a liaison/student-retention counselor with student services, might contact them about the problem.
Otherwise might do an instructor initiated withdrawal, maybe an incomplete. That way, if it is indeed true about the grandparent, when that situation shakes out, he could try to return under a condition which won't entirely tank the financial aid, and clarifies that you are the person in authority in this matter.  

We may not want to, especially since our students are presumed adults, but at times some discrete authority is necessary.  In part, due to the overemphasis on self esteem, many students have gotten through 12 some years of school without any real experience in consequences.  So, if you (or me) are going to hold to some standards ... at times a allegorical reenactment of the "Paper Chase" is sometimes needed.  Just don't go to far with it all...

Visiting ass't. prof.:
I wanted to concur with the other poster to send a short message to your chair letting him/her know about this particular student's problems meeting class expectations.

If the student comes to you for guidance about balancing his family obligations to care for his sick grandfather with his schoolwork, you might -- perhaps -- advise him on this.  Let him know that you think he is a dedicated and caring family member for taking on this responsibility.  Ask if he thinks it might be good for him to take time off from school if he chooses to shoulder these family responsibilities.  Since he isn't benefitting from being enrolled in school if he can't keep up with the work, he might want to think about taking time off until his responsibilities to his family change.


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