How should we handle student attendance and participation?

Last semester, many of us experienced a noticeable increase in student absences from our classes. There are, of course, plenty of possible explanations for the increase: Covid-19 and other illnesses, mental health issues, and perhaps also the impact of more than a year of disrupted learning and remote instruction. In a (well-attended!) CfT session held over Zoom on Thursday January 6th, faculty members shared some of the challenges they had faced relating to student attendance and participation over the course of the last semester, and exchanged thoughts and ideas on how best to deal with the issue of attendance in syllabi and course policies. A full recording of the session can be found here.

The main challenges mentioned in the discussion are likely to be familiar, but nevertheless worth restating. Some of the questions raised included:

  • How best to balance understanding and flexibility in difficult times with the need to set clear boundaries and maintain consistency and fairness;
  • How to articulate expectations for attendance, particularly when related to illness and Covid-type symptoms;
  • How to deal with cases in which students miss a large number of classes then appear toward the end of the semester asking for help with passing the course.

The ensuing discussion was very rich and fruitful, with a range of helpful suggestions on policy and approach. Some of these ideas can be found in the collaborative Google doc we edited during the session, but a few main themes came through clearly:

  • The importance of articulating the benefits of class attendance—not only for individual students, but also for their classmates—in the syllabus and throughout the semester;
  • The value of encouraging students to take responsibility for their own attendance and participation, for example by having them complete self-assessments or set their own goals for participation (individually or as a group);
  • In classes where attendance is factored into the participation grade, the idea of allowing two or three ‘no questions asked’ absences (while perhaps also making it clear that it is up to students to use these absences in a responsible way);
  • In classes where no penalties are imposed for absences, the policy of asking students to inform the instructor anytime they needed to miss class, as a way of establishing accountability;
  • Emphasizing for students that there will be norms and expectations around attendance (and communication about illness and absence) in the workplace, and encouraging them to see their experience in the classroom as continuous with their lives after college.

As a resource for faculty members, the CfT is putting together a document with a range of sample attendance policies from different kinds of classes and disciplines. If you would be willing to share your attendance policy with us, we’d be very grateful indeed! Just email your policy—or whatever you say about attendance and participation in your course documents—to Mark or Emily, and we’ll include an anonymized version in the document we’re putting together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.