Now and again I ruffle a few feathers. OK, more than a few. I don’t mean to, but I sometimes have a unique perspective on teaching. Lately, if you want to get a good, heated discussion going, mention the phrase “attendance policy” (I originally mistyped that as “attendance police”- I nearly left it for entertainment purposes). Why, one may wonder, is a mere attendance policy such a hot button issue? Well, it’s really pretty simple. Many of these policies have nothing at all to do with learning. Seriously. Nothing. Here’s a short list of some of the attendance policies that I’ve encountered lately:
* Three strikes and a student’s grade gets lowered. (An aside: I don’t know why the baseball analogy, and not football – 4 downs, or basketball – 7 fouls before the double bonus. )No matter what level of work the student is doing in class. No matter what the student is earning on tests or assignments. The absentee student loses points and often an entire grade. Harsh.
* A second type is even more confusing, conflating behavior with attendance. These policies usually have very elaborate points schema for how to score “attendance”.
* A third is mixing attendance with in-class participation. I know the theory “if a student isn’t there, he/she CAN’T participate”. Yes, true, however, the demonstration of the participation is what’s important here.
When a faculty member develops a policy, it is usually with the most noble of intentions. However, the policy sometimes has unintended consequences. Let’s review those that I mentioned.
The “three strikes” policy has a few permutations. Sometimes the policy will state three “unexcused” absences, with no description of what an excused absence actually is. This is sometimes intentional and leaves students with the impression that as long as they tell you ahead of time, it’s “excused”. Some faculty ask for some kind of documentation for the absence. After all, medical/dental/psychological/legal professionals generally work a 9:00 – 5:00 day. In the case of a family death, I’ve seen faculty ask for death certificate copies or newspaper obits. In a few horrifying instances faculty have asked for the phone number of the medical professional or institution so they can “check”. Here’s my advice, stay away, far, far, away, from asking for this type of documentation. This is HIPPA territory. I even checked with one of our university legal eagles. The bottom line – health and wellness issues are the third rail of “excused absences”. Do not touch. Yes, students may be…ummmm…obfuscating, but, it simply isn’t worth the possible angst it will cause you. And frankly, I don’t think I’m smart enough to decide if a sick child or an extra shift at work is a good excuse or not.
Attaching in-class behavior with attendance is truly confusing. Some policies take off attendance points if a cell phone rings, if a student is texting, or if a student comes in late, as well as a standard deduction for absences. What message is being sent by mixing up in-class behavior with attending class? That these activities are the same? And are they? And worse, how much valuable teaching/learning time is wasted with taking role and ticking points off a roster as transgressions occur. You are a discipline expert. Do you really want to document behavior instead of discussing viral replication?
The third policy substitutes a “fanny in a seat” for actual in class work, and the students know it. If there is actual work required, no matter what it is, and the student is a no-show, he/she will lose those points for the day. They are thus automatically penalized for not attending. They are also not practicing what you have decided that they needed to learn for the day and will probably suffer the consequences on a future test or assignment.
An attendance policy is certainly discipline and course dependent. A studio course, or a limited meeting course, will certainly have different requirements. But, no matter what path one chooses it is in everyone’s best interests to describe your policy as clearly as possible. This is no place for grey areas or fuzzy math. Also think about how the actual mechanics of the policy will affect your teaching. The following is an example of a clear participation policy, with the bonus of rewarding attendance.
* Students will earn participation points by taking part in daily classroom activities. There will be, at least, one learning activity in each class session, and these activities must be completed during the class period in order to receive credit.
* Activities may include:
- Short essays
- Problem solutions
- Mid-semester evaluations
If you find you are having behavior problems in your classroom, sadly, you are not alone. Give SITE a call and we will be happy to help you better manage these specific problems. However, with the policies above the message seems to be that learning may be secondary. I know you don’t believe that.
Finally, food for thought.
Over 120 years ago, Harvard University issued a statement to faculty that grades were to be assigned on the basis of academic achievement ONLY, and no deductions were to be made because of absence, tardiness, and other forms of student misconduct (Making sense of college grades: why the grading system does not work and what can be done about it, Milton, Pollio, and Eison, 1986).
Writers in the measurement field (Gronlund, 1990; Mehrens and Lehmann, 1991) advise against including student behavior factors (e.g., students’ effort, interest, attitudes, improvement, class participation, and attendance) because they contaminate [emphasis mine] the grade as a measure of achievement of the course objectives. (Jacobs, & Chase, 1992)
And you didn’t think I’d write an entry without mentioning course objectives, did you?