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.




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Anonymous said...

Well, now, lots of valid points. I will offer my own reason for not requiring attendance in the classes I’ve taught. I always felt that if attendance fell off or there were students who didn’t come, then there was a problem with the learning activities I had prepared. That is to say, I always looked at attendance as feedback on my teaching and the quality of learning in my classes. Good teaching should equal compelling learning and that should equal excellent attendance.

How did that work out for me? Well, in the words of a student on an end of course evaluation “This is the only class I attended every day this quarter because I knew that if I missed a day, I would miss something important.”

Too often we look at poor student behavior as the students’ fault, but I would suggest there’s another approach.

Anonymous said...

The previous comment included: "Good teaching should equal compelling learning and that should equal excellent attendance."

I would strongly agree with that statement - so, why aren't you assessing whether you're providing good teaching by looking at student attendance during the academic term?

I've always used attendance to see how I'm doing and as a way to get feedback DURING the course as to how well my lessons are coming across instead of waiting until after the end of the course (when we get the end-of-course evaluations back).

Anonymous said...

Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn't express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

Scott Catledge said...

Attendance was mandatory at my undergraduate institution (MSC)--seven absences and you were dropped from the class with an F.
Only one professor (Am His) had nothing to add to the book and one professor (RussHis)had texts that covered lectures, the text, and 27 books of assigned reading. One graduate student added nothing to
the World History survey class.
As a teacher and university professor, taking attendance was mandatory; as a seminary professor it was not in either school but the students did not miss class.
I added info in all classes except foreign languages: to those I assisted in understanding, speaking, and writing.
Twice in public school I discarded the textbook and had students take notes: once because the text was too far above my EDH class; once because it was incredible boring!