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




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1 comment:

Susan said...

I instituted something similar when I was teaching a career decision-making course at a major land-grant institution in the midwest. All the students in the class needed to transfer from the initial college of enrollment to a degree-granting college within the university, but many had changed majors, not achieved the grades needed for their original intended major, or were STILL undecided about a major or career path as late as the end of sophomore year.

I started my class off by asking the students whether they thought college would be more beneficial if it more closely resembled the "real world" they would occupy after graduation. All the students said "Yes." Did all the students plan to work after graduation? Again, the answer was yes.

Then I asked them to list all the characteristics of a good boss, and the list included: gives feedback, is fair, explains work assignments clearly, willing to help employees develop, etc. I asked them to name characteristics for a good employee, and the list included such items as being punctual, coming to work consistently, working hard on tasks, asking questions if a work assignment was not clear, and many others. I then asked them to tell me which characteristics of a "good boss" were also true for a good instructor, and which of the employee characteristics related to students. Surprise, surprise, the lists matched almost perfectly.

At that point, I explained that, as the university was on 10-week quarters (with another week for finals), and the class met three times a week, I would permit them to miss three class sessions TOTAL (with or without an excuse). After that, I would fail them. Three sessions was the equivalent of 10% of the class time, and I pointed out that they had already agreed that showing up for "work" was a characteristic of a successful employee as well as a successful student. I noted that most employers won't keep an employee who misses work frequently, so why should I reward a student who missed more than 10% of class sessions with a grade?

The students protested a little, and two students dropped the class because they felt the attendance policy was too strict. However, everyone else (about 35 students) stayed in the class and no one failed as a result of attendance. In fact, no one missed more than 2 class sessions.

I think if students see the value of attending the class - which of course means that the instructor has to provide value - and also understand that it is good practice for the "real world," they will be more likely to attend. And the more they attend and stay connected to the faculty and to the institution, the greater the likelihood that they will be successful.