Does Attendance Matter?

I find it ironic that, while every K-12 school in the country emphasizes attendance as one key to academic success, we in the higher ed community pretend like it doesn’t matter.  Or at least that’s how it seems to me when I’m told that I can’t count attendance as a graded component of my classes.  Now I understand that this is a complex issue that can’t be fully addressed in a blog post (or based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject).  And I know that the cynical view of the K-12 attendance emphasis is that those schools are only concerned about apportionment funding which is reduced when students are absent.  But I’m still going to try to convey my thoughts on the matter with regard to my tiny little corner of academia.

As you would most certainly know if you’ve read any of my prior blog posts, I teach both online and on-campus classes.  And in most cases I offer an online-only section for every class that I teach on campus.  (I also have classes that I only teach online, but they aren’t really relevant to this discussion.)  As a result, I have a scientifically weak but anecdotally strong (hah!) scenario for comparing online and on-campus performance.  Without a doubt, the on-campus students perform better when compared to their online counterparts.  I personally believe that there are several reasons why on-campus students tend to do better:  they are more likely to be full-time students, they are making a bigger commitment right from the outset because they travel to campus every week, they have the opportunity to develop a peer group that is more meaningful than just chatting with other students in online forums, they (sometimes) experience positive peer pressure to perform well academically for fear of public embarrassment, etc.  Another aspect that matters to me is my ability to connect with students in the classroom, and on a personal level because I see them around campus over the course of several months or even years.

OK, so we’ve established that I believe on-campus students have a greater chance for success and probably have a better instructional experience overall.  (Although I do believe some classes like software training can actually be better online, but I digress.)  So what does this have to do with attendance?  If you go back and look at the reasons I listed above for on-campus student success, you’ll see that almost all of them require regular attendance.  And, once again anecdotally, I have witnessed a direct connection between success in on-campus classes and regular attendance.  Now I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing that I used to think–the students who attend regularly were going to do well regardless, so I’m making a correlation that is completely unscientific.  Yes, that may be true.  And it may be true that applying arbitrary attendance pressure to “truant” students will not increase their chance of success.  But my gut tells me that getting these students to attend more regularly does make a difference.

When I first started teaching at community college, the attrition in my classes was pretty bad at time.  I can remember more than one class that began with fifteen students attending lectures, and ended with two or three.  I was briefly puzzled by this, but after a while it became clear what was happening; students would realize at some point during the term that they could just stay home, do the reading, and submit assignments without penalty.   But it was clear to me that students who performed this calculus and decided to stop going to class did worse as the term progressed.  There was a definite drop-off in their performance after they stopped attending regularly, and they were more likely to stop participating altogether before the end of the term.  So after thinking about this for a little while, I decided to change my class policies and award a significant number of points for class participation.  (Which is something we ARE permitted to do.)  The transformation was pretty miraculous.  I’d say attrition rates in my on-campus classes are now less than 10%, which appears to be very very good for community college.  And, as an added bonus, it has made the classes more rewarding for me to teach, and has absolutely fostered greater camaraderie amongst my students.

So, if I’ve solved the attendance problem with my classes, why am I writing this post?  It’s primarily just to share my approach, which did require a fair amount of work to institute:  I had to rewrite every syllabus for every on-campus class, weight the various assignments differently to find a balance, and restructure my lectures to allow for increased student participation.  None of these are bad things, and in fact they have been completely beneficial, but they required a lot of work.  And I know that many of my colleagues are hesitant to go down that road and increase their already heavy workloads.  in summary, I feel that many more instructors could move to solve their own attendance issues, which I believe will absolutely have a positive impact on student success, if we could just grade on attendance.  The other steps to actually increase classroom participation could then be optional, but at least there would be more butts in the seats which I think is good for everyone.

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