Why taking attendance doesn’t matter


Classes began here last Tuesday. On Monday the fotocopier was whizzing away, printing out syllabi at a mad clip (we have already had the repairman in once, sigh).

Ah, the syllabi, that sacred road map for classes. Our “contract” with our students. Our promise to behave for our department. Our explanation (albeit sometimes not terribly clear and often unnecessarily complicated) of how a student’s grades will be determined, and what matters (and doesn’t matter) in our courses.

Okay a show of hands….how many of you have this kind of a grading scheme on your syllabi:

Final Grade Breakdown

1. Attendance 20%
2 In class participation 20%
3. Compositions (3) 15%
4. Chapter tests (6) 20%
5. Final Exam 25%

I believe we should do away with attendance taking and class participation grades. I will deal with the class participation sacred cow some other time, but for now let me take aim at attendance….

Our job as teachers is to make the face to face class time as compelling as it can be such that the students want to come to class. And by want I don’t mean that they live in fear of being penalized for not coming, i.e. giving in class pop quizzes to those who attend and zeroes to those that don’t. That -is- attendance taking, and a double whammy to boot (you get nailed with a zero on the quiz AND for not showing up).

As the teacher our responsibility is to make the work we do in class a vital component to their learning…. such that if a student misses a class and the conversations that transpire there, s/he has missed out on an important opportunity to grow as a learner.

College students have lives. Active lives. Complicated lives. (Okay….Everyone who has gone to post secondary education please stop reading right now, close your eyes, and remember all of the things you learned in those 2 or 4 years that were separate from the classroom experience. Remember THAT??? Yup. Kay. Open your eyes. Read on.)

At some point in the semester (around the 4th week) some of them have horribly unbalanced lives and have to stop and regroup. If they can’t come to class because they have to take care of themselves, then that is a choice, and a very adult choice that they need to be able to make without fear of repercussions or teacher’s glares or punitive measures. We sometimes forget, as college teachers, of all of the other things students are learning as part of their college experience, and how sometimes their failure to keep all of their plates spinning simultaneously may actually be the best teacher of all.

Image source

Counting the numbers of days that people don’t show up is useless busywork. We have better things to do with class time than counting noses. And just because they are physically there does not mean they are prepared to learn. Last year I had a student come to every class, but within 10 minutes of class starting his head was on the desk and he was out cold. He was attending, but he wasn’t participating.

Mandatory attendance policies promote zombies such as these cherubs below to occupy our classes.

“But if we don’t take attendance, they won’t make an effort to come to class.” I hear this time and time again, and it makes me sad. Students should come to class in order to accomplish something, and that accomplishment should be more than sliding in the door before the professor locks it. It is as if teachers believe that being a witch about punctuality is synonymous with academic rigor…which it isn’t. In the students’ minds it simply means you are a witch 🙂

Attendance takers have been in the news recently. Northern Arizona University invested $85,000 in federal stimulus funds to scan students IDs as the enter large lecture halls, they say, to check on attendance and make sure students get to class. Yes, the studies are there about the relationship between attendance and academic success. But seriously, if (just) my ID checks in and takes a seat in the ampitheatre, can you guarantee that I participated? How about if I learned?

Oh and in case you wondered? Of course, there’s a app for that.

I stopped taking attendance in my classes years ago. And my students still came to class. Sure there are always a few who miss more classes than they should. The old school approach would be, as I said before, to find some way to nail them with a surprise quiz and “make a statement.” The thing is, the students are the ones making the statement, and that statement has to do with the priority of your class in their world. It just is not a top priority, and that’s okay. But guess what? In the end (and I have seen this semester after semester) their work and what they get out of the course will ultimately reflect those choices.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Lana · October 28, 2010 Reply

    Dear Barbara,

    If this were an AA class for professors, I would have to say: “I am a professor, and I grade attendance.” I would also have to say: “I am a professor, and I give grades.” I believe that I may confess here that I absolutely /hate/ doing both. I look forward to reading backward in your blog to find the most important things you do to “keep students coming.” Thanks for saying this.

    • Barbara · October 30, 2010 Reply

      The question that is not being asked is whether a students’ attendance can be equated with productive learning. I would say no. And I would also say that we as teachers (and it doesn’t matter which rank of teacher you are) have fallen into bad habits of believing that we have to do things in the class room ” because that is what you do” or ” that is how it has always been done” or “you ALWAYS take attendance…”.

      Bleech. Attendance is a teacher’s way to assure a captive audience. I also believe it makes them lazy. Teachers end up focusing way too much energy trying to control vs thinking about making their teaching so compelling that students don’t want to miss a class.

      By allowing students the liberty to come and go as they please, and instead focusing on making every class worthwhile for every student so that what happens in the classroom and with the class community is essential to the learning process (and without trickery, please) students simply won’t miss class.

      A colleague of mine in the Conservatory of Music teaches his theory classes without an attendance policy as well. And he has seen the same results. When students don’t feel as if they are being patronized, and when they are treated like adult, capable, responsible learners…amazing learning can happen.

  2. Lana · October 28, 2010 Reply

    A couple more questions: How do you do it?
    1. Do you give any kinds of deadlines for homework, have any kinds of requirements for collaboration/participation?
    2. Do you think actually meeting with students one-on-one on a regular basis motivates/prods/encourages their positive development in the course? (I’m now requiring students to speak with me one-on-one for 8 minutes a week while the others are in session — by themselves! without “supervision!” — and in these individual 8-minute sessions I have a conversation with them in German, and at the end I comment on what they are doing well and on what I want them to develop/improve upon for the next time. I’ve noticed a couple of students who didn’t do much the first time are “coming round” and doing better.)

    • Barbara · October 30, 2010 Reply

      Our job, I believe , as teachers, is to map out a series of trails that could lead towards learning…but not just one trail. On those trails, yes, there are stopping points, assignments, deadlines… I think students expect that we will provide guidance on how to get started and nudging during the different points that they might get lost or confused or start veering away from their learning objective.

      I do not believe in participation grades. Participating is like breathing…you need to do it. Everybody needs to…even the teacher. If you stop, then things won’t go to terribly well for you, regardless of whether I grade you or not.

      Formal assessment is one thing. Informal assessment is another. Once every three weeks I ask the students to give me an anonymous evaluation of the class, my teaching, their learning. And then I report back ( immediately with the results, and make changes as needed by the evaluations). I mention this as a way to say that yes, I believe in assessment, in feedback, in evaluation…but it need not be graded and it should go BOTH ways.

      I have a post brewing about office hours. Give me a bit and I will write it up and share it and await your comments….

      Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: