3rd May 2007
Chris Heard over at Higgaion pointed out a recent article in Inside Higher Ed about declining university class attendance. The article provides a bunch of data — quantitative and qualitative — about the decline in class attendance at American universities and colleges. The article notes a number of possible reasons for the declining attendance, most anecdotal, such as professors making lecture slides available to students via the web. One study cited, however, found “a surprisingly little correlation between observable characteristics of a class,” such as whether an instructor used PowerPoint or a chalkboard, and enrollment patterns. All in all the article is rather thoughtful; I encourage you to read it — and make sure to read the responses as well.
Chris’s own view is somewhat similar to my own:
In my opinion, class attendance is not a self-evident good, nor would I consider it an end to be sought in and of itself. Rather, class attendance is a means to the greater end: education. Unless students are getting something from being in class that they cannot get elsewhere, thereâ€™s really not much point in having them. My official attendance policy is â€œskip at your own riskâ€?â€”and, by the way, this includes mentally â€œskippingâ€? over the wireless network while your body is in class. In short, the onus is on me to make class time valuable enough for students to want to comeâ€”and to get their moneyâ€™s worth for coming. This was not always my attitude, and I canâ€™t claim that Iâ€™m doing a good job of it, but philosophically, this is how I see things.
I’m not quite sure I agree with the statement “class attendance is not a self-evident good” since that is supposed to be the main avenue for learning, isn’t it? At least in our current educational system. What I mean to say is that the classroom context — including lectures, discussion, group work, etc. — is a crucial part of the learning process. Reading a textbook is valuable, but the interaction with the textbook is what is more important. That being said, I totally agree with Chris’s comment that the onus is on instructors to make class sessions valuable enough that students will want to attend.
I generally have a “skip at your own risk” policy in my junior courses (with no marks for attendance). In my senior classes, however, I typically incorporate attendance and participation as 10% of the the final grade (and two unexcused absences in a once-per-week class means you forfeit your participation marks). This is primarily because I expect significant class discussion in senior classes — and if a student isn’t there, they obviously can’t participate!
I am rethinking my policy for junior courses, however. This is for a couple reasons. First, many studies have demonstrated a correlation between attendance and grade, and in over a decade of teaching I too have noticed a connection. Second, my “skip at your own risk” policy is predicated on the assumption that I am dealing with mature adults in my junior classes. While my students may be 18 years old, that does not mean they are all mature. many of these students are negotiating a major transition in their lives and may not always make decisions that are in their best interest. In light of this, I may start taking account of attendance in my junior courses. While I doubt I will verbally take attendance in each class (take too much time), I will do some sort of combination of verbal class attendance and attendance sheets.
What do you all think?