Calling all readers: I need some advice on attendance issues!

It’s rare for me to post two days in a row, and it’s rare for me to post something short and sweet. Let’s say it’s a rare day, then.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been experiencing that thing that lots of teachers experience this time of year on uni campuses everywhere: a marked drop in attendance in some classes. I was particularly surprised this morning to find 12 students missing in my modern theatre class, as it was a very special day: we had a Skype visit from the First Nations artist Tara Beagan, and the class had prepared for that visit in advance, posting a number of excellent questions for Tara to our class blog. It was a chance to talk to a working Canadian artist about all manner of stuff, not limited to the reading; it was a chance to listen rather than talk a lot (also rare in my classes!); and it was a chance – most important – to experience something fun and different. Worth getting up for, right?

Hmmm. Apparently not so much. Or not for everyone.

So what’s the issue? In the spirit of my post last night, I’m going to start by assuming it’s not me, it’s them – that it’s about stuff going on in students’ lives (midterms, papers, angst in general about workload), not really my business. But that prompts another question: HOW do I get students to come to class, regularly and on time, despite this stuff? Because it is THEIR JOB to come to class, after all. And because I know it is possible – I have a valued colleague who never has serious attendance problems. I know she’s dynamic in the classroom like me, but she’s also a bit of a hard-ass, and there we differ.

Is hard-ass-itude required to enforce attendance? Is there another or better way that you have found to ensure students come to class, without openly penalizing them or calling them out if they don’t?

Help much appreciated,

Kim

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About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in London, southwestern Ontario, half way between Toronto and Detroit. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. I am a feminist, both intellectually and politically; I believe that my research makes its greatest impact in the classroom. On Wordpress, I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

8 thoughts on “Calling all readers: I need some advice on attendance issues!

  1. I had a very similar experience in my course yesterday – a Skype guest lecturer and an opportunity to ask questions of an expert in the field. My class isn’t early, so that wasn’t the issue, but it is that time of year – midterms, papers, mid-semester malaise. I tie attendance to participation: they can’t participate if they aren’t there. Sadly, there are times, when I have instituted the daily quiz at the top of class in order to get students to attend. However, my approach is this:
    Students get 2 days that they can use as they see fit throughout the semester – for illness, for a mental health day, for laundry – but after those two days, their overall grade is impacted by 1/2 letter grade per absence. It’s a little harsh, but it’s pretty successful. Students show up to class and they don’t complain about coming to class. I also tie attendance to a portion of their participation grade, which makes them feel like they’re getting something for showing up. I also spend a lot of energy about their education being what they make it. They have to make the decision to engage in their own education. Not sure how successful my soap box is, but my attendance has been consistently good through most of my classes over the years.

    • That’s smart, Carroll! I like the idea of “free” days that you use as you see fit, but prudently. Like budgeting. I invite students to grant themselves extensions of two days right after a paper is due, for a small flat penalty; it’s up to them to use it when and as they see fit. I can see the application to attendance being similar! After all, if folks like you are asking them to budget, then they’ll prioritize your class over mine any day.

  2. That’s so frustrating! I’ve started a system in my graduate seminar where they have to submit a participation self-assessment form every week. It’s out of ten and there are points for preparation, attendance, attention, and actual participation. They can also nominate 2 classmates for bonus points. And there is a space where I, as the instructor, can adjust the self-assessment as I see fit. I’ll send you the forms (rubric is included on the form). It’s working. They’re showing up pretty much all the time. All in all, these will account for 20% of their grade. You can blow of one or maybe two without trouble, but if they blow off many more it’ll have a big negative impact.

  3. I read this blog last night and this morning a quarter of my class were MIA. I was so pissed! Blaming myself and thinking bad thoughts about the students. But I said nothing and resolved to bring it up with each of them in a scheduled tutorial. Then, one by one, I get emails and knocks on my door and each student missing today has a genuine and in most cases extremely distressing life or health issue preventing them from engaging. It’s not us, it’s them. You’re right, we can only be there.

  4. We have extremely good attendance in my college program, but the context is very different from yours. We mainly do it through strict attendance policies, but backed up by a good sell job. Because we are job training, we can really sell the “this is your job, and we are your new bosses!” line. Attendance is part of behaving professionally, which we frame as a broad learning outcome. In my class, attendance is tied to a large portion–often half– of the “participation and professionalism” grade, which is usually either 15 or 20%.

  5. I like the professionalism angle a lot, Karen. I mean, sure, we aren’t a training program, but so much emphasis is now put on university as a place to acquire credentials for a job that I think it could sort of work for us too. At least, I feel inclined to try. Yesterday, in a dept meeting held in a former Ivey Business School lecture room, one of my colleagues pointed to a large plaque that declared ‘we train the best in future business leaders’ or some such. And he noted that we should grab that sign and put it over our department’s door. Because English is just as well poised if not better poised to train leaders than Ivey is.

  6. I haven’t done nearly enough teaching to have good advice from that angle, but as a student I always appreciated and respected teachers who were “reasonable hard-asses”. I had a pretty major health situation in my third and fourth years, which meant missing a lot of seminars. One lecturer, perhaps the most “hard ass” I’ve ever encountered, contacted me directly after the first absence and didn’t get angry, but just asked if everything was okay and if there way anything he could do to help make sure I’d be there for the next seminar. This was exactly the approach that I needed, because it opened the door to finding a way for me to keep up on the work even if I couldn’t be in class, rather than making me feel guilty for being sick. It was a great way of telling me that attendance was important, but there were ways to work with and through mitigating circumstances, and it made me really want to attend whenever I could. It made me feel like he cared about *why* I wasn’t turning up, not just whether I was turning up.

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