The Importance of Attendance

This week, we’re interrupting our regularly-scheduled series of posts on Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles to dive into an issue that has immediate relevance for us and our students: attendance. Now that low midterm grades have been reported, and students who are in need of different academic strategies are acutely aware of that fact, it may be worth revisiting with them how much impact attendance (and the lack thereof) actually has on their course grade and overall academic performance.

We often assume that students implicitly know that attendance leads to good academic outcomes, and certainly we’ve internalized that truism ourselves. It seems so obvious–you can’t do well in a course if you’re not there, right? That’s definitely the case when our class sessions include material that our students can’t get anywhere else, or what happens in that class session is something that can’t be reproduced by students on their own–a good discussion, for example, or a collaborative activity. But do students always see things as we do? In a daily routine where classes, activities, work hours, family needs, and a myriad of other things all jostle for attention, sometimes students make choices that would have benefited from more discernment about what they need for academic success. What seems like an OK idea in the short term–miss that 10:00 class to study for the quiz at noon, maybe–has negative implications in the long term. And as we look at our lists of students with whom we need to meet about low midterm grades, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that attendance plays a significant role in explaining almost all of those low grades.

So how do we demonstrate to students the value, indeed the crucial importance, of attending class? More directly, how do we do that in a way that goes beyond the simple “attendance good, skipping bad” moralizing that students tend to discount? One strategy is to share the conclusions that various pieces of research draw about attendance habits. It’s fine to say “you should go to class more,” but showing students that one of the largest meta-studies on the subject found strong positive correlations between class attendance and both individual course grades and overall GPA. It’s also useful for us to make explicit why we do what we do in class. Discussions and active learning, for example, aren’t just time-fillers, but pedagogical techniques that help students learn better. Explaining that to our students-both at the beginning of the course, as well as during a midterm reminder-can have a salutary effect.

There are other strategies that we can also adopt in our teaching and in the ways that we design our course activities to help promote student attendance as well. In our exams and quizzes, for example, we can assign primacy to material that we covered during actual class sessions–lectures, discussions, videos, group activities–and clearly demonstrate the importance of both in-class and out-of-class work for our students’ overall success. If we test only over the textbook, for example, we might be sending an implicit message that what happens in class isn’t as important as that reading. From the student perspective, the material they’re tested on is the material they see as important. Also, if class sessions merely replicate what students are doing outside of class (i.e., a lecture which just repeats the textbook), they might receive the message that attendance isn’t necessary for them to do well. Providing outlines or PowerPoint slides to students can be a really helpful practice, but in doing so we ought to make sure that students don’t see those materials as a substitute for actually being present in class.

Finally, the question of attendance policies is germane here. Technically, (almost) all of our students are legal adults, and perhaps allowing them to experiences the consequences of the adult choices they make can impart some valuable lessons. On the other end of the spectrum, there are individual faculty members and sometimes specific departments that have framed attendance policies that only allow for a certain number of unexcused absences before the grade-related consequences stack up. There’s no right or wrong answer to the “should I have an attendance policy” question; there are a lot of moving parts to consider, and many of them can be instructor- and course-specific. Whether or not there’s a specific attendance policy, though, if portions of a student’s grade are directly contingent on their presence in class, then this is another way that we can convey the importance of good decisions regarding class attendance to our students. In-class quizzes or graded assignments can underscore the importance of being in class.

Beyond specific grades, though, we can do much to encourage good attendance by creating a good classroom climate that promotes student engagement and interaction. It turns out, actually, that attendance is one of those seemingly simple issues that becomes more complex as we dig into ways to instill our students with a sense of its importance. Midterms are a good time to remember its importance, though, and help our students to do the same.

Remember that we have tools to help connect students with the assistance they need; if you have a student who is missing class, you can issue an alert on SSC, and that student’s advisor and success network can work with them to remedy the situation.

Have a question? Need help? Looking for pedagogical resources or advice? Want a cup of coffee? Drop by the CETL (Rasmussen 208) or make an appointment, whichever works best for your needs. We’re glad to be of service!

Finally, may you all attack the week with the enthusiasm of this puppy encountering the beach for the first time:


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