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Should Professors Use Grading to Enforce An Attendance Policy?

This question received such a tremendous response after its original publication in June so we decided to ask it second time in the October issue of the higher education "Advocate."

  1. Read the full story and comments below
  2. Add your own comments, and
  3. Take our poll!


Nance Hahn, associate professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York said "when you're absent, you both affect and miss an experience that just plain cannot be "made up." See Hahn's extended essay, "Attendance Counts."


Linda Laine, a lecturer in the mathematics department at Honolulu Community college said "students may miss four classes in the semester without lowering their grade."


See page 11 to read the full article.











Here's what "Advocate" readers had to say about this issue.


(October Advocate)

Rani Carson
I teach art at Suffolk County Community College and I agree with Nance Hahn.  However I think Linda Laine has a point too, which may be truer of teaching mathematics than subjects like English or Art. 

Frank Siskar
I found the article about attendance extremely interesting.  I do agree with Nance Hahn; attendance is vital to the learning /teaching process for all concerned.  I do have an attendance/involvement policy in the English and Speech courses that I teach at Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minnesota. 

David Himmler
I read with keen interest the article p.11 Oct 2010 with the question about using grading to enforce an attendance policy. What is missing for me on both sides of the issue is for what are we preparing students? I inform my students in the syllabus that I conduct my classes on a business model. That is, it is part of being a good employee to notify your supervisor or whoever is in charge of employee attendance when you will be absent and for what reason. Most jobs allow some sick days and if the employee is truly ill his/her absence should not count against them. However, it is well established that many people abuse that system as do students.

I remind them that not showing up for work and having no legitimate reason to miss  work will catch up with them on performance reviews in the work place which may result in termination or lack of promotion. The classroom is no different. It is an act of being irresponsible not to inform your teacher of a forth coming absence. Yes,  unexcused absences will result in lowering a grade. I do believe we are entrusted with not just imparting a body of material to our students but helping them to be responsible to what they signed onto and to those around them. The classroom is more than a place to get a grade or fulfill a credit or two. My students know from day one what is expected of them beyond the mastery of the subject matter. Being absent is not fair to the other students. Never missing a class is not an automatic A either. It is both mastery of the subject and attendance.

Every semester I have students who continue to go AWOL.
Yes, their grade in some cases is lowered. I believe teaching responsibility in areas beyond the grade is one small contribution we can make to helping students learn that education is just not all about grades but about the whole person and how they will function in society. Just as in the real work world employers have incentives for attendance and results so in education I believe it perfectly legitimate to use grading to enforce attendance policy. We already use grading to get the best performance out of our students.

Kathy Lawrence
First let me answer as an ex student, NO. I should not be graded on attendance, only on the understanding of the material! As an older, adult student, my outside the classroom life was very different than the true to age student. I took a nutrition class, very excited about all it had to offer. I could not attend one class held at a grocery store, with a specific project attached. I offered to complete it on my own time, not for the points attached to my grade, but more so, because I was very interested. My professor said no!! It certainly changed the way I viewed her as an "educator". Just as in life, students may have outside forces that keep them from class, I think there should be discussion on WHY someone may be missing class. I volunteer with high risk young women, most with children and no support. I try very hard to keep encourage them that they need to stay in school .However, sometimes the outside forces, transportation, childcare, money, get in the way. So again I ask that there be a discussion on reasons for missing class. Another question that I feel needs to addressed, should our education system have some  type of back up system for when a professor is out? My younger daughter is currently attending a community college. One class that meets twice per week, has not had an instructor 3 times. There was no e mail, only a note on the door the day of class.My daughter e mailed the professor, no response! Finally this last week a sub showed up for the class, but could not give the test(that was already overdue). The sub told the class he his unsure of the plan, as he believed the professor was injured. I think our school system needs to have a better process. I have already paid for a service that now is not complete! I think most educators would be unhappy, if they paid for a service that was not delivered, and there was no communication regarding a plan to complete it !                                        

Jonathan W. Iwanski
I think you could have found better examples of people with attendance opinions than a writing instructor and someone who lectures about math.  We all know we need not read and write in the same room as another person in order to make our points clear (You can understand this email, I presume.); conversely, simply talking about math gets nobody anywhere (Just give me your notes, and I will figure it out myself.).  Instructors who need to reward people for attending class and penalize others that do not-solely for the purpose of convincing them they need to be there at all-are apparently doing nothing their learners deem important or useful to their personal educations.  When worthy teaching and learning take place, students arrive at class and results of their own free will.  If students feel they can meet the goals described in the course description without your help, you need to ask yourself why you are standing in front of the class and how you are contributing before forcing students to be there with you.  You can try and make people sit in the same room with you, but you cannot make them learn.  If people will not attend classes unless instructors count bodies each day, what does that say about these teachers?  Whatever they are doing obviously does not warrant the attention of their students, or they would come to class on their own.  As soon as you need to force people to do things they should want to do anyway (like use your expertise to learn a skill), you have to wonder how much of an expert you really are and if you are worth their time.

(June Advocate)

Carol Martin
There is a simple and effective way of making attendance part of a student's grade. 
You call it a participation grade to be averaged with other quiz and test grades to calculate the final grade.
I give students 100 points at the beginning of the class as a participation grade.  Each absence for any reason results in a 5 point reduction (not there, can't participate).  The 5 points can be earned back by seeing me during office hours to discuss the assignment missed that will show me the student is keeping current with assignments. 
Few students will give up a 100 point test grade that is so easy to maintain;  they will also not let it harm their grade.  It is a great incentive and it lets me know who is serious about learning. 

Russell Eisenman
I wish I did not have to use grades to enforce attendance policy, but I do.  At most schools where I have taught, most students do not seem that interested in learning, and if they can get the grade they want without coming to class or without reading the textbook, they will do so.  They are wasting their education.  By making them come to class I have a shot at educating them (and have actually had some very good experiences, even here at a Hispanic-serving university).  So, I agree with Martha Kinney and not with Mary Beth O’Halloran.  I hate that it is like this, but mostly it is, from what I have experienced in 45 years of teaching at various universities. 

O’Halloran advocates getting students to be self-directed, using the carrot approach, which she calls “positive and freeing” instead of the stick of penalties for absences. Sounds good, but she never tells us how to do it.   Sadly, I do not think you can with most students today.  Perhaps not with most students yesterday, either.  Using the stick mostly goes against what I feel and believe, but you have to be realistic.  How does O’Halloran educate those students who almost never come to class because she lets them get away with nonattendance?

Debbie Felton
Just a few quick comments about the "Dialogue" section from the June 2010 NEA Advocate, on "Should professors use grading to enforce an attendance policy":

I would have liked to see the respondents consider different types of course.  For example. I do not take attendance in very large, general education requirement, lecture classes (100-500 students), although it can be done with the "clickers" so popular these days.  If you force hundreds of students to attend when they just aren't that into it, you may end up with a harder to control class or at best an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.  Also, even with the clickers, students can still ditch class by giving their clickers to friends who come to class, so your attendance record isn't necessarily going to be accurate.

But in smaller classes, such as language courses, where practicing the language on a daily basis is really essential, I do make attendance part of the grade.  Same for other classes, even up to 100 students, if discussion is a crucial part of the learning process.  I tell students that they are not enrolled in an independent study; that just showing up on exam days and passing exams does not necessarily show anything other than short-term memory; and that it's the dialogue among students, the sharing of points of view, that is part of the point of being in a classroom setting.

Mary Garcia 
I just read the opposing views on whether grading should be used to enforce attendance policy.  I agree that it should be used given that many students do engage in that “Magical Thinking”. They also believe that if they can get the notes via technology or a classmate that they can really learn.

I think the student that does not attend classes, is either struggling with responsibilities or has difficulty with setting their priorities.  The not factoring attendance as part of a grade also is a detriment to the student who is attending class and doing “the work” as the perception on occasion is that their effort, learning the material, and really being a student may not really matter, as others that do not attend class may get a good grade rather than “earn” the grade.  The student who needs to miss a class is understandable, but when not factored into a many faculty have had students that had not been in class for some time and they are seen in the beginning and close to the last class and some sprinkled attendance during mid-term time.  I understand that we are not in High School, however in order to assist the student in staying on track, especially the first-year student, it is important to set the tone, attendance tracking can be a useful tool/vehicle to facilitate this.

Though tedious to keep track of attendance, I find it worthwhile and it adds a seriousness to the course that is important.  The student needs to be a student through the process of learning while present, doing the course work outside of the classroom and being a participant as expressed by the faculty.  The student pays for a course, that unless it is an online course, should require attendance and active participation.  The faculty teaching the course puts in a great deal of time, effort, preparation and experience into their course and that should also be respected and accounted for.

GwenEllyn Anderson
I was surprised by the question posed in the June issue under The Dialogue: Should professors use grading to enforce an attendance policy?

I understand that it is illegal to use attendance as part of the grading policy or is that only in Oregon?

We get around it by including participation as part of the grading policy and you have to be in attendance to participate.

Paul Frisoli 
In response to the June Advocate question on whether or not grading should be allowed to enforce an attendance policy, the answer is obvious. Simply have some aspect of the grade that is dependent on coming to class, but not simply the attendance itself. For example, in my algebra class, there is a 5 minute quiz at the end of every class. Skip class, get a zero on the quiz.

The added benefit of such an approach, as opposed to explicitly having attendance be part of a student’s grade, is that students can’t get credit for merely showing up and sleeping through an entire class. Also, teachers that do not want attendance to be part of grading can continue with their usual grading system.

It’s also worth noting that some courses include “class participation” or similar aspect as part of the grade, which is clearly dependent on the student’s attendance.

Thomas Boll 
I'm responding to the YES/NO on the above question in the June 2010 issue of Advocate:

When I did my undergraduate work back in the early 1970s, my classmates and I did not get points for attending class. We were expected to be there, and if we weren't our grades would suffer because we wouldn't know the material. Those who skipped a large number of classes invariably were not around the next semester. They flunked out.

When I returned to school for coursework in the late 1990s at a community college, I was shocked to hear the professor say that if we had perfect or near-perfect attendance and a certain grade or above, we wouldn't have to take the final. I knew then that some things had changed and students needed an incentive in addition to learning the material and getting a good grade to come to class.

I strongly oppose Mary Beth O'Halloran's suggestion to award "attendance points." It's another example of giving people something extra for doing what it is their responsibility to do: show up!

Here's more from the original June dialogue


Martha Kinney, an assistant professor of history at Suffolk county community College in New York said "many students engage in 'magical thinking,' assuming they can grasp the material by coming to class infrequently."


Mary Beth O'Halloran, a philosophy teacher at Century College in Minnesota said "teachers recognize that we personally learn best when we are self-directed and excited about our project."

See page 11 to read the full article.