Course syllabi lay out the specifics of the class: quizzes, required readings, supplemental materials, etc. Failing to understand the syllabus is very much equivalent to failing the course. Yet there is one feature of nearly all syllabi that haunts students from the first day to finals week (and unfairly so): the attendance policy.

Professors often require students to attend lectures by apportioning attendance to the overall course grade. But why? Grades should be dependent on a student’s work—nothing more. And despite that commonsensical stance, attendance policies permeate college syllabi nonetheless. The common defenses to attendance policies are as follows:

Attendance policies teach responsibility for the workplace since employers require attendance. Students should be prepared for this reality.

But there is a distinction between college and work. In the workforce we must abide by the employer’s standards because we are selling our time and energy to the company. In the classroom, however, we are not choosing the professor, curriculum, or syllabus standards. We, as students, are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars for the class subject. In other words, the dynamics switch and it is no longer the students obligated to a superior, but the university obligated to the students—obligated to provide accredited classes that will equip its students with the skills needed for a career. What matters most in an employment situation is regular, consistent attendance. It doesn’t matter if you are a great barista at Starbucks, eventually the shift manager will drop you if you don’t show up. What matters most in a classroom setting is mastery of the subject/topic, nothing more. It shouldn’t matter if the student is absent or quiet in the back row, the grades they receive on their tests and essays should determine their comprehension of the course materials.

Also, the notion that college students must be taught or prepared to confront the reality of daily work schedule is preposterous. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, over 70% of undergraduate students are employed (part-time or full-time) while enrolled in their studies. Mandatory attendance policies are a solution to a non-issue as students are gaining real experience on how to operate responsibly in the workforce.

Moreover, students have been indoctrinated with strict time schedules since kindergarten. With approximately twelve years of rotated shifts in the public education system, college students are fully aware of what mandatory attendance is before enrolling in their first introductory writing course. Higher education should not be an extension of this. We are adults, and attendance should be the least of professors’ considerations.

More students attend class if attendance is imperative to their grade; students perform better in the course if they attend class.

Of course more students attend class if their grades suffer otherwise. Treating attendance like a graded assignment will elicit a stronger reaction from students because our grade now hinges on how many hours we sit in a chair.

I can attest that attending class is helpful in some classes because they are discussion-centered or because the professors expound on material otherwise unavailable. One of my past classes, Critical Theory in Literature, revolved around class discussions, and attending class was crucial to passing the quizzes. This does not condone the attendance policy for that class, though. My grade suffered when I missed a class discussion on Oscar Wilde or structuralism, but how is it fair to add additional penalties on top of that? Students do better when they understand the material; that is a cause-effect relationship. Sitting in class is correlation, not causation.

Students owe it to the professor to attend every class. That is the respectful thing to do.

We actually don’t. I mean no disrespect to professors. In fact, I envision becoming one in the future someday. But this notion that we owe professors our time doesn’t make a ton of sense. Think about it, why? We are paying the university for a satisfactory or exemplary academic experience, not the other way around. As for our professors, we choose them mostly by random since their syllabi and pedagogical styles are rarely (if ever) disclosed. We don’t know what we signed up and paid hundreds of dollars for until classes start, and then what? Drop the class? 

We are expected to accept this unfair weight on our grades because … dogma. Granted, not every professor weighs attendance the same way: some grade chair-sitting as 5% of the course, some 15%. The point is that we are adults. We shouldn’t have to be academically penalized because our sitter cancelled last minute and we have to watch our kids. We shouldn’t have to be penalized full letter grades for not sitting in a chair if we’re acing all our assignments. It’s 2017: Let’s update our pedagogy.

Broderick Sterrett
Broderick Sterrett is a new writer on the Opinion Desk. Pursuing an English BA at the University of Utah, he is ready to test and hone his writing on worthwhile topics to share.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Finally someone says it, great job! A fantastic read from a great perspective. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I have a little (long) story of support.

    In the Spring semester of 2017, I was lucky enough to take a class that did not take attendance. Due to my perpetually busy schedule of classes, homework, extra-curricular activities for campus groups, and a full-time overnight job, I have always had difficulty obtaining a half-decent nights sleep; most of the time, I am lucky to get 6 hours of sleep. Not sleeping can wreak havoc on a person’s health and performance, inside and outside of school, in a variety of ways. This class, where attendance was never taken, was a Godsend for me, my sleep schedule, and my mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

    Now, it is important to note that this class was one of those classes that everyone thinks is absolutely necessary to attend. It was a class designed around watching foreign movies (many times hard to find/buy/torrent), analyzing and identifying the symbolism and methods used to convey purpose and meaning to the film, and was heavily discussion-based. After each movie, our teacher would hold a discussion to ask students about things we noticed in the film, the symbolic meaning to many of the scenes and symbolism, and how the presented ideas were relevant to the time and place it was created (to really ground it in history).

    Many people might imagine that, considering the depth of content and class discussions, attending this class would be absolutely necessary for any student to exceed, but with these people I grossly disagree. While I admit it likely helps many students succeed, I don’t believe it is, nor should it be, a requirement in the formula for success. I, personally, attended this class maybe half of the time – probably less – and, while it made some things difficult, it helped me greatly in the long run. While I did not have the benefit of discussion with my classmates, and while I may have missed many important scenes (and some films altogether), I was happier, healthier, and got a bit more sleep than usual. It stopped me from feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted during every waking moment. I feel that skipping a few days helped me improve my grades in all of my classes – NOT destroy my GPA as some may think.

    But probably my most important point is this: my highest grade of that semester was in this class. Despite having a severe lack of attendance (which, admittedly, was worse that it should have been), I was still able to score exceptionally well on the final few assignments and exams for this class, and I earned a highly satisfactory grade in the process.

    Attendance is NOT directly equal to earning a better grade, and it never will be. For some people, it might help them understand the subject more, thus improving their grade, but for others it is not necessary. For the students who need that reinforcement through class discussion and from the teacher expunging upon the concepts learned, they are more than welcome to have perfect attendance. But those who don’t need these extra forms of interaction should not be punished for choosing not to attend class on a day where they are learning a subject they already know.

    I want to be clear here, I am not necessarily saying that skipping every single day should be accepted. I am simply saying that missing a few days here and there should not be punishable by directly lowering your grade, especially when you complete all of the same work on time. Being present is not what is most important. What IS most important is knowing and understanding the material, and being able to demonstrate that knowledge on assignments, quizzes, and tests. Attendance is not inherently required to understand the material.

    Finally, to the people who may be wondering, “If you don’t want to attend, why not just take online classes?”, I will lend my perspective. I hate online classes. I was in brick-and-mortar schools all of my life except for my senior year of high school, when I was pulled out to do an accredited online school instead. I have experience with both forms of learning, and feel I can safely assess how I feel about each. I did not enjoy online schooling. I did not learn as well. I did not excel in this environment. I learn 10 times better in-person than I do reading words on a computer screen. I do not like learning online, for whatever reason it feels wrong. Something about it just puts me in the wrong state of mind.

    When it comes to learning in-person, I feel more grounded; more present. The feeling of walking around a vibrant, beautiful campus with thousands of other students makes me feel more social, more open, and more accepted. Learning online, I feel cold. I feel isolated. I feel alone. There is no one there but me and my computer screen. Sure, there are other people taking the course online that I can interact with through discussion posts, but being physically present in a classroom surrounded by dozens of other people feels more….real? There’s just no question about it for me, I hate doing classes online. I want it to feel real, to feel personal. I just learn better this way. I want to be there in-person, side-by-side with other pupils pursuing higher education. I want to attend class, I’m not against it whatsoever, I just don’t want to be FORCED to be there every single day or else have my grades suffer.

  2. I respectfully disagree with this. I knew plenty of students throughout high school who would sluff, or were habitually late (especially to 1st period or gym). We must learn to be on time and be accountable for our schedules.

    Furthermore, there are plenty of classes out there where only a few assignments are graded. In those classes, it is of great benefit to have an attendance roll because then one D- doesn’t drop your entire grade as badly as it would otherwise.

    “I have learned one thing.’ As Woody [Allen] says. ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life’. Sometimes its easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both”-New York Times, August 1977, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/10/showing-up/

    Let’s not encourage our students to lie in bed and be lazy. Let’s encourage our students to show up.

  3. I applaud you, Broderick Sterrett for stating your honest opinion. It reflects a common student perspective that is also held somewhat by instructors.

    One encouraging trend on the horizon for those who feel this way is competency-based education which is being gradually incorporated into academic environments as well as trade training. The competency trend is more targeted toward assessing what you already know and infusing you with targeted information you need to do a job expertly, as quickly as possible. I would argue that competency is less targeted on liberal arts, broad knowledge application, wisdom, ethics leadership, and well-roundedness as a human being. Ideally you would receive all types of benefits from your education, including immediate relevance to your employment future as well as a basis for creative problem solving and critical thinking.

    Consider this:
    For instructors, there are other, unavoidable factors in play.
    Even with your tuition, Universities receive taxpayer money to educate you and maintain systems. The business-thinking legislators in charge of policies and funding want proof of success, including grades, employment, completion rates, etc. They aren’t looking at generational investment and the future of the planet so much as annual returns. They appear to be fine with profiting on the nation’s youth while shrinking the middle class—or cutting education drastically and leaving you to the mercies of for-profit institutions. [History side note: FYI, In the reign of Ronald Reagan, education was re-imagined as a strictly personal benefit to an individual’s competitiveness rather than a benefit to societal survival and health overall. In that 1980’s perspective, policies reflected a belief that the cream of society had already risen to the top and could be identified by their money. Any interlopers trying to step up into a different economic class were going to pay dearly, and that’s how we got here, with: 1) unbridled usury in the form of student debt, horrific tuition rates, and interest on loans for those who invest their time in education, often underemployed at the same time and still falling short on funds; 2) an unquestioning acceptance that money bestows the right to make rules further benefitting the few with the ill-effects shared by all; 3) irrational gambles on the imagined innovations of a struggling upcoming generation inheriting the mess of irresponsible pollution, societal ills, sociopathic corporate crimes against humanity, and an outdated, religious-toned work ethic based upon a formula “fear+struggle+productivity=worthiness to live”–rather than cultivating intrinsic motivation and value of all life. But, I digress.]

    Business-think puts pressure on organizations, administrators, and instructors that our jobs will disappear if you—the student—don’t excel. We know that you don’t learn if you aren’t there in class. In the exceptional cases where you “ace” exams, as if classes are an incremental CLEP test, you completely miss that part of your social contract is to add value to other students’ experiences. Sometimes attendance is overemphasized to prevent the entitled, complaint-based manipulations and threats of lawsuits which have hijacked so many k-12 systems.

    The increasing “business model of education” has led to students viewing their professors more as suppliers of an optional product, and less as expert authorities. Sort of like, “I ordered this food in a restaurant and paid for it so I don’t owe it to anyone to eat it.” The problem is that your instructors have to answer to administrators, legislators, and our own consciences. In a less sympathetic moment, I may be thinking that even if you pay me for my teaching time, I have to professionally endorse you to join me that club called: “College Graduates who are qualified and functional on this topic.”

    It is tough for your instructors to accept that our every word is not scintillating and vital to your future. We would prefer it that way and plan it that way in our own minds.

    Some instructors don’t want to feel like forced babysitters clamoring for attention from disinterested students who would rather be elsewhere. We would just as soon teach bright-eyed, fully engaged students who are supported in focusing on education. I sincerely wish our society was structured so that you didn’t need to rush from competing commitments and check off exams, like jumping through hoops to get a biscuit. I would be fine if your lack of attendance simply voided your right to complain.

    We have a lot to solve.

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