Monday, October 26, 2009

Attendance 2: Putting an Attendance-Based Retention System in Place

Once the school has realized that attendance is one of the most important retention factors and put a required attendance policy in place, then it is time to build the system to support the policy. We don’t want the attendance policy to be simply counting prisoners in the cell block. Nor do we want attendance to just be seen as a negative accounting tool. It is important that a system be in place to use the results of taking attendance.

When I hired Bill Berry* to be the VP of Retention and Graduation Success at Briarcliffe College… Well, actually I was not able to hire him for that position because the powers that be thought that was not an appropriate title. We should not be so obvious that we were focusing on retention after all. So… well, let’s call the position VP for Student Services. So being a compliant type, I…Okay so I was not all that acquiescent. I disagreed since I always felt the title should be an accurate description of the reality. Like Fox News should not be called news but propaganda but that does not read as well. The Fox Propaganda Channel… Does have a ring to it.

Anyhow, the position was so important to student success as well as our own

(retention does lead to increased tuition revenue after all) that I would have let them call the position Melvin to get Bill in place.

Bill came on board as we put the required attendance policy in place. I would like to be able to say that I convinced everyone including faculty of the value an rightness of requiring students to attend but that would be a lie. After months and months of debate at the Faculty Senate which acted a bit like Blue Dog Democrats, we did not have a policy. I had set a deadline for a recommendation and that deadline came and went – twice. So after the second closing date coming and going, I made the decision. Retention was just too important an issue to allow it to be debated to death while students were dropping out or being flunked arbitrarily due to the college not having a clear and supportable attendance policy. So, we put one in place. (This was the royal we I must admit)

The policy allowed students to have no more than three unexcused absences from a class. Following the third absence, the student would fail the course.

The Attendance Support System

It was decided that every class would have a roll call at the beginning. The completed roll call was to be brought to the Student Services (read Rert5entuion) Office immediately at the close of class. This was planned to be made an instant electronic system in which the roll would be on-line and a simple X beside a name would be sent to the Retention Office in real time.

If a student missed a class, the faculty member was to call the student at home to see if there was anything keeping the student from attending. We did ask students to contact the faculty member prior to the class or as soon as possible if he or she was not to be in class for a valid reason which could consist of illness or unavoidable emergency. The faculty member would decide if the emergency was unavoidable and also determine if this was an excused or unexcused absence.

We quickly grew to find which faculty did call the students and which did not. Notes were sent to faculty who did not indicating that the call was part of their responsibility to the students and the school. To the students because if the faculty member found out a student was ill for example, the faculty member and student could make arrangements right then and there to assure one another that the student would get the notes from class lectures or discussion as well as the homework. This way the student could perhaps stay up to date with the class and not lose time and learning.

The school also learned right away if there was a problem with a student so we too could help out. If a student missed classes because of a transportation problem, we could try to find someone close by that the student could care pool with. Or we could develop a public transportation option that would help.

VP President Berry hired three counselors whose jobs would be to stay in contact with students at least once a week for most students and twice or more a week for at risk students. At risk-students were identified as those who had missed two meetings of a class as well as those who were in academic jeopardy, had indicated some concern about staying in school, had financial issues and the such.

VP Berry also met with the most at risk students himself on a regular basis. Students soon came to see Bill and his counselors as those who were always there to help them solve problems, get extra help or just listen when they needed an ear to drop some personal thoughts or concerns into.

The counselors received the lists of students who missed classes so they were able to keep their spreadsheets up-to-date. They did not have to wait until the problem had passed into the red zone to act. They could help students almost immediately. They would pick up the phone and find out what was going on in a student’s life that was keeping him or her from school and do something about it. When for instance they found that there might be a financial issue, they would often go with the student to the business office to see what could be worked out.

The counselors knew their jobs were to keep students in college so they could graduate. That was their primary and secondary mission and purpose.

Immediacy is Important to Attendance Success

When a student misses a class and there is either no sanction or no one seems to miss him or her a strong message is received. If the class is cut and there is no penalty, the student can learn it is easier not to go to class than to go. Staying home and watch TV for a day because he or she just does not feel like going to class can be much more pleasant than sitting in a class one does not enjoy or care about. Watch TV and hey…No problem. No penalty. Well, why not just do this again?

So the student cuts another day. No consequence again. No one seems to care that another class was missed. “I’ll go back the next class.” But when that comes around the student often feels like “Well, I missed two days and no big deal so one more….And besides, I missed some stuff and maybe I’m gonna be too fare behind so… Yuh, I’ll just get the notes from someone and go back after I catch up. I mean no one seems to miss me from there so I guess it’s okay.”

The second lesion is included in the first. No one seems to care. And that is a very dangerous consideration. Especially since the feeling that no one acres about me is the top reason why students drop out, or fade away into the land of attrition. But when a faculty member would call the same day and ask the student why he or she was not in class, a very different message came through loud and clearly.

WE CARE ABOUT YOU. And if your teacher did not call, I a counselor am calling.

We care enough to try and find out why you missed class. If you are pout for a good reason we are also sending the message that we will do all we can to help you stay up with the class and get you the information you missed. If there was not a valid reason to miss the class, the message is equally clear. We noticed you were not in class. We care about you learning as much as is possible. There will be a penalty which will range from my embarrassing you with a call all the way to some grade affect. So you better get back ASAP.

The immediacy of the contact from the school was powerful. If a student were out for valid reason, the immediacy reinforced the sense that we cared. We cared so much that we were not waiting to see if there would be a second day missed. If a student just cut, the immediacy said we are not kidding about the importance of class attendance. And we are concerned about your cutting class. One student who was called said it was worse than if his parents found out he cut a class in high school and they really gave it to him. This was the College coming after him for missing a class. And sometime the College came right to the dorm room to see what was going on!

Involving The Home Front

We knew that if a student missed a second class without reason that student was now at serious risk. The greatest correlation between probability of dropping out and then actually doing so was the number of class sections missed. We also knew that if a student had three unexcused absences that student would fail. That failure usually led to dropping out for fear of failing out.

We were primarily a commuting school so we took advantage of that. We also realized from experience that many times, the parents had no idea the student was skipping classes. They became aware of the absences when the student was dropped from the College for missing too many classes and failing. That was when we heard form the parents. They would call angry at us for not doing anything to keep the student t in class. Well, that was more prior to putting the attendance retention system in place.

If a student missed a second class, a postcard was sent to the home. The card said that we were sorry he or she had missed two classes and was now in jeopardy of failing the course. Please contact the faculty member or the College immediately so we could se e what we could do to help them stay in the class and in school.

That really did the trick for many students. Somehow parents who were paying the high tuition of a private college were somehow bothered that their son or daughter was not taking full advantage of the education Mom and Dad were working hard to pay for. Most often, attendance was not a problem for that student going forward.

The phone calls home could also have a similar effect if a message was left on the phone when no one picked up during the day. “Hi (student) this is ________ at the College just checking if I need to get you the notes from today’s class since you missed it. Just call me and let me know.”

And yes, we did comply with FERPA and did obtain FERPA waivers from students during orientation whenever possible.


The results were simple. Retention went from 54% to 76%.

Not bad. VP Berry and his folks tracked every student, showed they cared about every one of them and made the attendance policy a very positive factor for students and the college.

* Bill Berry is currently a senior consultant with AcademicMAPS




by clicking here

AcademicMAPS is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through research training and academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that seek to work with them

We increase your success

Contact Us Today



“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%.”Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.”
Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.”Shelly S, Lincoln Technical Institute

Monday, October 05, 2009

Required Attendance and All the Attending Excuses Against it

For the life of me I do not understand the attitudes and rationale of so many faculty toward student attendance. All I need to do at most every workshop is review the institution’s attendance policy with the audience and kaboom, the fight is on. Yes, I did say fight. Most faculty and some administrators immediately disagree with me. They yell out “what do mean we should not have an institutional attendance policy? We insist that students learn the most they can by attending every class and learning from us. Don’t you realize that required attendance is a major positive factor in keeping students in college leading to their graduation and institutional success. That, in turn. can return a significant percentage increase in retention and revenue? What’s more….”

Oh no. Wait. That’s what I say. Silly me. What was I thinking?

That is me saying that every college and university should have a clear, consistent and meaningful attendance policy that states that being in class is so important that students must attend all classes? Important because students who do not attend classes are at greatest risk for dropping out. Important because students who miss classes are not gaining the value of the teacher’s instruction and thinking on the material. Important because the student also loses out on the very important teacher-student communication and relationship. Important also because it is the student and faculty interaction that is the reason we have faculty at a college or university. If students do not need teaching faculty to learn from in classes, the need for faculty disappears.

Yet every time I raise the topic of requiring attendance, someone is bound to disagree AND speak out. (There are always people who disagree but remain quiet until later when they get animated and assertive among like-thinking people because that’s the academic passive-aggressive way we do things.) And when they disagree in a workshop for instance, they do so vehemently. Example, a week ago I was giving a workshop in retention and customer service at a large community college. I mentioned that the college had about a thirty percent four-year retention/graduation rate that would be significantly improved with a consistent and encompassing college-wide attendance policy. A policy that would make attendance mandatory. Immediately a faculty member passionately shook her head no and raised her hand. I saw her and asked her what she wanted to say.

“Students are adults and they need to learn to be responsible for their own choices They need to learn there are consequences to their actions” she said as does someone at most every presentation and workshop I have ever given. This statement of course indicates the belief or assessment that students have not yet learned to be responsible so we should teach them that. By allowing them to be irresponsible!

By allowing them not to come to class and learn the material properly we allow them to become intellectually bankrupt on the subject. Then we let them prove their irresponsibility by putting material from class lectures on the exam knowing that if they did not attend class they cannot pass the exam. Hmmm. Sort of like letting someone have a mortgage they can’t possibly pay for and we know it but sell it to them anyhow. I suppose that’s sort of teaching them financial planning by going bankrupt? Who knew Countrywide was a teacher?

The students in our classes are not yet responsible or even learned enough to make many decisions. That’s why when we assign homework we give a date for it to be handed in. That we can eve be fairly firm on. “It is due on next Tuesday. If it is not in then, I will not accept it without a valid reason.”

Why is it so important to not trust them on turning in homework on time but it is okay to let them to not attend a class in which the homework assignment and material related to it are handed out or have been discussed? Am I the only one who sees a major contradiction here? Why not just trust them to hand it in on time? Or better yet, why not trust them to hand it in at all? Why isn’t homework an optional attendance sort of thing. “Hand it in if you think if you think it’s important? Or if you can pass the class without doing or handing in enrollment, fine?” Contradictions anyone?

Why do we even believe they are responsible enough to make the right decision to attend or not attend class? What is it about enrolling at a college or university that makes anyone believe these people are responsible or even sensible? This is especially so for freshman which by the way is who the faculty member who asked the question at the workshop taught.

The Tinkerbell Theory of Student Maturity I suppose it is the widespread academic belief in fairies that does it. You know, Tinkerbell, the maturity fairy of the Tinkerbell Theory.

The Tinkerbell Theory is most clearly elucidated in the belief colleges have that their students know how to be students. Actually, too many schools have a misguided belief in Peter Pan and fairy dust. They believe that somehow magic occurs on the stage in the local school auditorium at high school graduation. An immature high schooler starts across the stage. And with him or her walks all the attitudes, ways of thinking, and attitudes ingrained over 12 long years. These are the same very characteristics that made the soon-to-be high school graduate have to prove he or she was capable of succeeding in your college. Then, he or she stops and just as the high school principal hands him or her a diploma, a small, invisible maturity fairy flies overhead and sprinkles magic knowledge dust on the graduate. POOF!! You’re a college freshman! What was a latent college student suddenly sheds his or her immature ways and is suddenly metamorphosed into a mature college student ready and capable of meeting the demands and dictates of college!

And if for some odd reason the fairy dust did not complete the transformation, the next ten weeks of summer vacation complete the transformation. After all, that freshman is no longer a high schooler. He or she is a freshman at Neverland U and all our students know how to be students. After all, they are here at college.

But this is far from the truth. Peter Pan was fictional and so is the belief that incoming students are college students upon walking on campus. (The Power of Retention: More Customer Service in Higher Education; p. 157)

The Tinkerbell Theory also applies to upperclassmen (or upper-class people which is a phrase that yes is PC but sounds like I am talking about some characters in a .Shaw play) Perhaps not as obviously but it does apply to most of them. Simply because they have been attending your college does not make them mature or responsible. And we all know this. We even complain when they act irresponsibly.

For example, do students suddenly shut off their cell phones in class if they are juniors? Not unless they have been taught to do so. Do seniors not text during class? Only if taught they cannot do that in class. When a freshman returns to campus as a sophomore does he or she come to class on time? Even better, if he or she has passed Comp 1(and 2 if you demand it) is the student’s writing now mature and correct? Etc. Etc……. What else is fictional is that we teach them responsibility by letting them choose to be irresponsible; to go to class or not.

Physical maturity in no way equals mental maturity. Maturity is something that is learned and taught. We accept that as a given with young people for example. We teach them how to share, how they need to clean their room, brush their teeth, wash, bathe, look before crossing, do their homework … If we want a child to become a religious person we teach them and even demand they go to church, temple, mosque… If we want them to play a musical instrument we make sure they attend classes and practice. And we do make them go to classes, if they are our children!!!!!

If It’s Good Enough for Your Kids…. Alright, this will give you all time to think of a better answer than I have yet to receive at a workshop or presentation when I ask the following. When people start the argument on class attendance, at some time I will ask that person or persons if they have children in college. Most every time at least one does. “Okay, Let’s assume you are paying only $10,000 a year for school. Only $10,000. Public university. Your child completed a FAFSA waiver at school (which should be done at every school) so could you call to find out why Jennifer is concerned her grade in a class is not that good. You are told that Jennifer is not attending that class. What do you do?”

The faculty member invariably says something akin to “I’d tell her to get her butt in class , not skip classes and go for extra help!”

So if it is good enough and important enough for you to tell your child to go to class, why isn’t it equally good and important for other peoples’ children in your classes to have to attend? That’s when the “ahhhhhh” and “we fell into that” light bulb moment hits. But fear not, the light gets turned off quickly.

And then I respond “Why didn’t you just shrug your shoulders and say something like ‘well I guess that’s her just learning to become responsible?’ Or don’t you want your children to learn responsibility the very hard way you would let other peoples’ children learn responsibility. By getting to work at some minimum wage job for their semester off? Oh by the way, most every business does not teach responsibility by making showing up for work an option. When workers do not come to work, they learn about looking for another job. Interestingly enough, that is true at the colleges and universities at which we work too.”

Not Enough Time and I’m Not a Disciplinarian Excuses Okay but how does taking attendance make someone into any of the above? It doesn’t. It is like teaching itself. It is all in the way you do it. If one gets to know her or her students, attendance is easy. You can recognize who is or is not in class an check them off. If you don’t know them well enough, then you may not be doing a great job of connecting with them anyhow. Little says connecting an caring like “yes, whatsyourname” or “you in the blue blouse.”

Or it is east to simply go through the roll, call out their names ad see who responds. That way you can check to see who is here and…Wow! Start to learn their names!!!

One could also assign some student to take the roll or pass the attendance sheet around. That is not as effective of course. Some students will work it out so they can skip and not learn from you. And well, you will not learn their names but it is a way to not get too acquainted with anyone in the class. And yes, I know you will say you get acquainted to many of the students in class in the process of teaching. Of course, you can’t get acquainted with those who don’t show up. And we all know the pile of research that indicates that a feeling of association with a faculty member is a very important retention and learning factor.

Just Not Enough Time to Take Attendance Roll I also get the excuse that there just is not enough time in the semester to take attendance every day. Yes, the two or three minutes it might take will kill the ability to learn all the material. It would also take time away from the time devoted to discussion of topics that have nothing to do with the class subject matter such as how stupid the administration is, or how no one should be laid off, or why you’re sorry you are late but the faculty parking lot is far away, or one of so many topics that some waste time on as we pontificate rather than teach.

One might also just start the class on time. As I investigate retention issues and customer service for universities an colleges, I am always amazed at the high number of classes that simply do not get roiling until at least five minutes have gone by wasted. In many cases, the delay is caused by late students, late faculty members, faculty talking to students at the front of the class rather than office hours or after class or the faculty member and class not knowing how to come to a decorous academic order.

By the way, taking or calling attendance is a way to call the class to some sort of order. It can be the signal that the academic world is about to intrude on the more relaxed and disorder of the non-academic world in which people can do as they please without regard for others and a faculty member. Calling the roll also signals that the faculty member is asking for decorum, academic decorum in the classroom. Calling the roll is a well recognized signal to students that a separation from the non-academic to the academic has taken place so get with the appropriate decorum.

Another excuse I hear is that faculty do not want to be made into those who cause students to get into trouble, to report on them. But then if that is a concern why give grades and report them? After all nothing can cause problems more than a not too nifty grade?

I Have Nothing to Offer A quite prevalent response to required attendance is that this is college, an academic environment in which we are teaching ideas, ways of thinking and specific course material and information to students to prepare them for life. We are trying to instill in them a process of inquiry that can lead to mature decisions later on. Okay. Fair enough but can students learn if they are not in class?

If students can learn as much when they are out of classes as they can from a faculty member in the class, the issue is not attendance at all but the value or lack of value the faculty member brings to the material and learning. If a student can learn the same amount of process or information or whatever just by reading the books frankly that faculty member teaching the class is…well…not worth much. Maybe nothing. Maybe less than nothing since he or she is wasting student time and institutional resources.

Actually, these embarrassments to the profession are the best argument anyone could bring against requiring attendance are the professors who just do not teach well or give a damn about student learning. Because requiring students to suffer through these people is not right. And the professors and classes do add to inclination to drop out or transfer from the school. They also reflect very poorly on you, and colleagues who are dedicated and good teachers who care about learning and teaching well.

Oh don’t get all collegial about it. You know I am right. If the faculty member does not add significantly to the learning and understanding of the material or topics of the class, why have the person in the class at all? Why not just have students read the books and take tests and save the faculty members salary for someone who does add to learning? And yes you know who in your department I am talking about but I know as well as you that thought you know that person is a waste of clean air you will do nothing about it.

Please realize that when a professor tells students that they do not have to attend his lectures and they can pass by reading the assignments, doing the homework and taking tests, he is saying “There is no value to my lectures or classes. I, in fact, have nothing to offer you that you cannot get from a book.” This is a clear admission that I am useless as a teacher. I have no value for you. And in turn that diminishes each every faculty member teaching at the college or university. The fact that “there is room here for someone useless and I am paying for this worthless piece of the faculty” makes students wonder about other professors. And it does not mater if he or she is a brilliant researcher; not to the student in the class trying to get something of value out of it. Nor does the excuse cut it that this is an academic environment and I need to be collegial with my colleagues to the deficit of students and the reputation of the institution.

Anyone who tells students directly or indirectly that attendance to hear and discuss the lectures is not required to pass the course is saying I have nothing of value to offer you. A dead book is just as valuable.”

Weak Administrators and Legal Ramifications The “this is an academic environment” excuse leads directly to another popular reason why faculty oppose required attendance although I have yet to have anyone argue against required courses. Hmmm, we require courses but do not require students to attend them. “How very odd” said Alice.

The reason why some faculty opposes required attendance is they believe that the administration will not support them. They believe that if they are going to fail a student due to missing too many classes, the student or parent will go to a senior administrator who will tell the professor to work something out. Make it go away. Okay. I have to concur that there are some administrators who would do just that. Often while waving what they claim is customer service. It is people like these that give customer service a bad name. What they say is customer service is not. It is just making the problem go away because I don’t feel like dealing with it or listening to an angry parent or student.

Keep Academic Customer Service Principle 11in mind:

11. The customer is not always right.

That’s why they come to college and take tests.

(If you’d like a copy of the 15 Principles of Good Academic Customer Service just click here and just ask)

Furthermore, these people can get away with asking you to make it go away or figure something out because there isn’t an institutional policy that the weak kneed need to lean on. In the same way they can point to an institutional, state, federal or some other agency policy and tell a student or parent “I’d love to help you but my hands are tied because….”

This can occur because there isn’t an institutional policy. With a patchwork of individual policies which hopefully are eluciadated in the syllabus (which is a legal contract I hope you all know since what it is in there is what must be followed in this class) it is much easier for a weak administrator to pass the buck back. If one section of a course requires attendance for all lectures except for excused absences; another has no required attendance; and a third lets students miss three meetings, you can see how easy it would be for a weak administrator to manipulate the situation if a student in the no miss section had two unexcused absences and was flunking as a result. Moreover, just think how well some attorney will be able to present the inconsistencies to a jury when some family sues because junior flunked the course due to the two unexcused absences while other students never went to the same course, different section, and passed.

An institutional policy takes away the possible manipulation and even legal action in which a plaintiff could sue not just the school but you individually. It also would not allow an administrator to suggest, ask, imply, persuade a faculty member to possibly consider passing the student against the attendance policy in the section even if other students may have flunked for non-compliance with the attendance policy for the section. WOW! Couldn’t that lead to a great lawsuit?

But these are the weak people-pleasing administrators. When I ask the senior administrators at the colleges and universities I have worked for and with if they would support a faculty member who followed an institutional required attendance policy. Every one of them stated support for an institutional policy but also realized that this is an academic issue that must be resolved by the faculty.

So now, why oppose an institutional policy? What is the value of a hodgepodge of non-policies? They do not help students. They open faculty up to disparagement and even legal sanctions. Whereas an institutional policy helps students, promotes learning and keeps faculty out of court.




by clicking here

AcademicMAPS is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through research training and academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that seek to work with them
We increase your success
Contact Us Today

“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%.”Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.”
Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.”Shelly S, Lincoln Technical Institute