28Jul 2016

To Take or Not to Take Attendance? That is the Question

Roll call, random participation quizzes or a sign-in sheet are several ways to track who is showing up to class. Why do some mandate and track attendance and others do not? Let's explore the policies, reliability and availability of different methods being used in education today.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Attendance

In a previous blog, we discussed the connection between attendance and student success and it's no surprise that the more frequently students attended class, the better their outcomes were at the end of the term or semester. But does this mean attendance should always be mandated and tracked? 


Increasing attendance in higher education classes


Some institutions, like for-profit, for example must track student presence. Some make it mandatory in order to use the data for funding or administrative purposes. The decision is easy, when it's made for you. 


Others are forced in the opposite direction due to large class sizes, making it nearly impossible to get an accurate count without wasting a significant amount of class time. However, this may be the environment with the most to benefit from having this knowledge. When it is difficult to get to know students on an individual level, the ability to identify those missing significant instructional time can help educators identify who may be in trouble before it's too late.

Here are some other pro's and con's of taking attendance from Psychological Science

Pros of Taking Attendance
  • Increased attendance and learning outcomes - taking attendance will motivate most students to come to class and the more they are exposed to the material, the better their final grade.
  • If students are struggling they are more likely to miss class when it seems as though their absence will go unnoticed, especially in large classrooms.
  • It is consistent with the "real-world." Whether you feel like going to work or not, there are consequences of not showing up when you are expected.
  • When used to get to know students individually, it can reduce academically dishonest behavior by building a relationship with students. It also allows educators a chance to follow up with students who may have missed several classes, to find out what the issue is and if something can be done to help.
  • When students come to the instructor at the end of the semester asking for that "bump" to the next highest letter grade, the instructor can make an informed decision, by looking at whether the student was consistently coming to class and putting in the effort.


Cons of Taking Attendance

  • There may always be students looking for ways to "cheat the system" when an incentive is connected to attendance. Examples include bringing their friends' clickers or signing in for an absent classmate. It is impossible to 100% prevent this type of behavior but there are promising developments in these types of technologies. This is where CourseKey's Automated, Location-Based attendance comes in!
  • The classroom is reflective of the "real-world", where there is no one encouraging you or rewarding you for showing up to work. If you don't show up and complete your work, you most likely won't have a job for very long.
  • Students' are paying for school, it should be their choice whether or not to go. Are instructors providing enough learning value during lecture? Do external circumstances like disabilities and illness prevent attendance? This presents a valid point. There are plenty of individuals with gym memberships who rarely go. 
  • Motivation of students may be reduced if they feel forced to be in class, which could prove to be a distraction for students who are coming to class to learn.
  • The administrative headaches of tracking student presence can be time-consuming, difficult to determine reliability, and having to interpet what constitutes as an unexcused vs. excused absense (and of course which are actually real).


Increasing attendance in higher ed classes

Present Factors

  • Physically present - either in the class or streaming online or hybrid classes at the allotted time. Physical presence doesn't always mean students are mentally focused even if present. 
  • Time-On-Task - the time students spend actively engaged and focused in the classroom. Consciously formatting the classroom structure and exercises so students spend a certain amount of time engaging in specific tasks. San Francisco State University's Dr. Bruce Robertson has been teaching a required Marketing course with 1100-1400 students enrolled per semester for the past 15 years. He has taken a multimodal approach, giving students a choice in how they learn and access the material while ensuring they spend a minimum amount of time on certain tasks in order to pass the class.


Attendance Alternatives

If taking attendance just isn't your thing, there are several alternatives for motivating students to come to class.

  • Formative assessements. Implementing these short, frequent "quizzes" into your classroom is a great way to measure student comprehension and provide students with real-time feedback.
  • Creating a participation system. Also accomplished with formative assessment participation points, or asking a simple question at the end of class about what students are taking away. 
  • Having a forum for student expression. This could be asking questions, answering others' questions, adding their viewpoints or experiences, or discussing different answers or options. Check out CourseKey's chat option as an example.
  • Creating group projects. Students must work together, inside or outside of class, and give feedback to their teammates. These can be fairly negative experiences without best practices and a setup with clear guidelines.
  • Attract students to the class. This is easier said than done, and most likely the goal of most educators. Keep your eyes peeled for a future blog on this subject alone. How did Hamilton, a play about history and our forefathers, attract the President of the United States and numerous other influencers and ticket prices that were simply outrageous?


Check out our free Creating Engagement Ebook to learn more!

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What is your current method of encouraging students to come to class?