The Problem with Attendance Policies

Okay, my title is a bit provocative, but so is Northern Arizona University’s recent decision to spend $75,000 to install sensors in large classrooms allowing them to track student attendance using the students’ ID cards.  The Chronicle article I just referenced generated more than 50 comments, which is a lot for the Chronicle, and most of them were as skeptical of NAU’s decision as I was when I read the article.  However, Chronicle reader doclopez99 makes a very good point in the comments:

I did not read anywhere in the report that NAU was implementing mandatory attendance, it states it will simply track attendance. As someone who teaches and works in academic support, I believe this system can provide some valuable feedback. When working with a student I can determine whether they are attending class or not and then develop an action plan based on the information.

Doc Lopez makes a good point here.  Having attendance data can be very useful in working with students who are struggling in a class.  And it’s true that NAU isn’t making attendance mandatory.  The decision to mandate attendance appears to remain in the hands of individual faculty members.  The sensor system just provides an alternate way of tracking attendance.

However, it’s clear that NAU wants to improve attendance:

Karen Pugliesi, vice provost for academic affairs, says the project will help improve attendance, which is key to higher academic performance. Research, she says, shows a real link between good attendance and student achievement. She says the system will improve student engagement and participation, putting more students on track to graduate.

It’s possible that if students know their attendance is being tracked–even if there’s no attendance policy–then they are more likely to come to class.  I don’t know if that argument works in classes of such large sizes that electronic sensors are needed to track attendance, however.  Say I’m one of 500 students in a course.  Will knowing my professor can look up my attendance record motivate me to come to class?  Probably not.

What if attendance is both tracked and mandatory, however?  Might that motivate attendance?  Sure, if you put some points on the line or institute some kind of mandatory attendance policy, then students are more likely to attend.  Ms. Pugliesi notes that “research shows a real link between good attendance and student achievement.”  But does research show that mandated attendance is linked with student achievement?  I find it hard to believe that very many students who would ordinarily skip class are going to get much out of class when they’re forced to show up.  I also tend to side with NAU student Rachel Brackett, who started the Facebook group “NAU Against Proximity Cards.”

“Students should be able to choose to go to class, and if they fail, they have to live with those consequences,” she says. “Part of growing up and becoming more mature is knowing you have to go to class.”

In most instances, I think students should take responsibility for their own attendance.  If coming to class helps them learn and do well in a class, but they skip class, then they’ll have to deal with the consequences.

As I’ve mentioned before, students don’t like to be monitored.  At least when you’re using clickers to track attendance, you can also use the technology to help students learn.  The NAU sensors do nothing but track attendance, and they’re not even likely to do that accurately.  The Chronicle article quotes Ms. Pugliesi as not being worried about students carrying their friends’ ID cards into class to “cheat” on attendance, but there’s a good chance she’s wrong.  Why do I say that?  Because I’ve seen several student comments on Twitter indicating that students cheat in a similar fashion by bringing their friends’ clickers to class.  Case in point:

Here’s the caption:

Lmao, we out of this class, got freddy coverin for all of us, got to love #clickers, attendance made easy

Instead of finding new ways to mandate attendance, I would recommend focusing on more constructive ways to motivate students to take their studies seriously.  One option: Make classes interesting and engaging enough that students actually want to show up.  As I wrote in a recent post on the problem with lecture capture, wouldn’t it be great if students refused to skip class because they’ll miss their best opportunity for learning?

Back to the title of most post: I claim that attendance policies don’t produce meaningful results.  I’m open to other perspectives on this, however!  Do you have an attendance policy?  If so, what value do you see in having these policies?

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