Monthly Archives: October 2011

Customized Textbooks

How many required textbooks approximately does a student need every semester? How much do they cost? Does a student read every chapter in the required textbook(s)? Does the instructor discuss with students the importance of every assigned reading from required textbook(s) and how it applies to other course content? If the answer for the last two questions is “YES”, I think it is definitely worth spending money purchasing required textbook(s) because students do learn facts and concepts by reading them and understand how to apply what they learn in the real world. However, most of time the answer for the last two questions is “NO”!

Reading the article “New Digital Tools Let Professors Tailor Their Own Textbooks for Under $20” written by Alex Campbell reminds me of the research on exploring why so few students complete their reading assignments conducted by Associate Professor Amit Sharma in the School of Hospitality Management. Data collected from focus groups indicated that students prefer relevant and applicable readings, such as case studies and journal articles, instead of dated textbooks. Also, many students complained about the price of textbooks especially when those textbooks are seldom used.

Although there are different opinions about customized textbooks, I think it may be a good idea to think about using this new tool. I think that the instructor creates a customized textbook which covers fundamental concepts, case studies, updated information, and other important materials can not only help students save some money, but also increase students’ interest and motivation to read assigned readings and learn.


The article is here:

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Thoughts from Inclusive Excellence Series Workshop #2

This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops, the second of which was held last week:


In the workshop, we imagined the ideal class discussion (the one we each dream about), and we tackled some common issues, or “scary scenarios” that arise in facilitating inclusive discussion.

In this blog post, I wanted to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the workshop, and also post some resources for further reading on the topic.

First, here’s the workshop prezi:

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1. Cultivate a Sense of Community: It’s hard to stick your neck out in front of a group of people you don’t know – or worse, people you suspect might not care about you or what you have to say. In a class discussion, both teachers and students can have these feelings – sometimes simultaneously (crickets, anyone?). In the fantastic Brief Guide to Facilitating Discussion, Katherine Gottschalk gives some great tips for creating rapport in a class. In our workshop, I recommended the following: 

  • community.jpgSpend some time getting to know the students (especially their names!), and letting them get to know one another. Getting to Know You activities and Ice Breakers are clich� for a reason – they are often a quick and effective way to begin building trust and a sense of teamwork between people who don’t know each other.
  • Consider having students complete a pre-course questionnaire or a brief autobiographical essay for their first homework assignment – this can give you valuable intel about why students are in your class and what they hope to gain from their experience (which you can then use to design activities that may be more engaging and relevant to students). Ask students about their background with the material, how they learn best, or their biggest hope/greatest worry for the class.
  • Consider having students generate themes and topics for discussion – this increases the chance that material will be relevant to the students, and gives them a stake in the discussion being successful.
  • Build in multiple ways for students to participate (besides speaking extemporaneously in front of the entire class). Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a large group. Short individual writing activities (like Minute Papers or the Critical Incident Questionnaire), Think-Pair-Share activities, or small group discussions can be used alone or in combination with a larger group discussion. Doing so gives students a chance to chew on the material and formulate their thoughts before being asked to speak to a larger audience.

2. Build a Safe Space for Students to Practice New Skills: Think about your expectations for the students and for yourself, and build a suitable space to practice the skills they need to succeed. 

  • SBTrapeze.jpgDon’t assume students know (or agree upon) what a good discussion looks like. Consider having the class talk about what makes a good discussion, and then develop ground rules together to encourage participation. Revisit or reevaluate the rules if needed as the semester goes on.
  • Allow students to rehearse skills needed for high-stakes discussions earlier in the semester, with lower-stakes topics. For example, a discussion about the banning of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like 4Loco would likely lead to a spirited (ahem) class discussion, and would provide an opportunity for students to practice constructing an argument, using “I-statements”, showing respect for others’ views, storytelling, and avoiding personal attacks. A discussion like this would be best-placed before one on immigration policy or abortion.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of warm-up and ritual. Give students an easy question or simple activity at the beginning of the class to get the juices flowing. Repeat certain activities regularly (for example: a warm-up activity, a Think-Pair-Share activity, a large group discussion, a summary of the main points, and a minute paper at the end of every class). Over time, these rituals will enable the class to spend less time on process and jump into the content more quickly.

3. Plan for Conflict: Conflict is inevitable in the classroom, but it’s not always a bad thing. Depending on its nature, conflict can add energy to a class, increase student engagement, and promote critical thinking.

    • Think about how you typically respond to conflict, and plan some strategies that work for you. If you know you tend to avoid conflict, then focus on coming up with ideas for how to revisit a situation later, if needed (a Critical Incident Questionnaire or a post-class anonymous ANGEL survey could be used here). If you tend to freeze up, practice having students write their thoughts or answer a Minute-Paper question while you gather yourself and decide how to move forward. If you tend to get defensive or respond very intensely in conflict, be sure to have some good questions in your pocket (“I’m not sure what you mean by that, could you explain?”) to soften your response.
    • In Working With Strong Emotions in the Classroom, Heidi Burgess from the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium offers great tips for de-escalating and resolving planned and un-planned emotional situations, like reframing an attacking student’s comment into a less personal statement, and asking the student to explain the reasoning behind their comment.
    • As we discussed in the workshop, it’s important to distinguish between a comment made while legitimately discussing and working through course material, and offensive remarks or jokes made to distract from the discussion or purposely alienate others. The intent of the commenter in each situation is different, and strategies for handling them typically differ as well. In Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Lee Warren presents several examples of finding the “teachable moment” in otherwise difficult situations. 
    • If a remark is made that is unrelated to course material, or is purely meant to disrupt, attack, or alienate, it becomes an issue of classroom incivility. The UC Santa Cruz Center for Teaching & Learning has a number of recommendations for handling student incivility. Here at SITE, we periodically have workshops on classroom management, or if you have a specific situation you’re dealing with, you can always talk to one of our consultants.


The inspiration for this workshop came from materials and presentations generated by the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, this 2-year initiative focuses on promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. The Start Talking handbook was developed out of the initiative by faculty from University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

The handbook (available for FREE in pdf format here) includes specific chapters on developing ground rules, facilitating debate, teaching about race, class and culture, reconciling science and religion, and others.

If you have thoughts or ideas about this material, or know of other useful resources, please post them in the comments section!

Teaching with Clickers: The Pedagogy Behind the Technology

Yesterday Penn State faculty from the Behrend, Berks, and University Park campuses got together (via videoconference) to chat with Brian Young, Instructional Desinger at Educational Technology Services. Brian has lots of experience in working with Penn State faculty to implement iClickers in their courses. Here are some notes on the conversation.

Q: What are the pedagogical applications of clickers? What different ways can instructors use clickers beyond sporadic multiple choice questions?
A: Clickers are one way of helping us focus on what important things we want students to learn. Clickers actually change the way we teach; with clickers, we spend more class time asking questions and helping students identify what is important, rather than simply “downloading” information to students via lecture. Some examples of ways Penn State faculty are currently using clickers: 
-Clickers can be used to test core concepts.
-One interesting application we discussed is asking students to generate questions for periodic reading quizzes. There are many more: 
-Reading quizzes can also be used to stimulate discussion.
-Students can answer a clicker question with more than one answer and discuss with one another why they chose the answer they did.

Q: What’s new about the new clicker system PSU is using?
A: Check it out:
Also, see for “how-to” webinars

Q: What’s a reasonable time to wait for responses from students? What about students with disabilities?
A: Expect to spend more time waiting for students to send their votes in. So be prepared that you can’t put in as much content as you used to. Using the “count down” timer may work better than “count up,” but still harder questions take a bit more time. Time spent on peer discussion can really eat up a 50-minute class session. One instructor at the Behrend Campus uses discussion or peer interaction, and he has found that he is reducing the width of the coverage but going deeper in the content covered. Some other strategies include:
-Consider ways in which students can “pre-think” about the material outside of class. Then, when they come to class, they are simply voting.
-Keep in mind it takes students about 4 times longer to solve problems than it does the instructor.
-If you’re doing a quick question or poll, it’s best to tell students they have a certain (short) amount of time to respond. If they only have 30 seconds, let them know beforehand so they can plan accordingly.
-In some cases, online quizzes on ANGEL are better than clickers, especially when students need extra time to take a quiz.
Q: Are clickers only used for “mega-huge” courses?
A: There are cases at Penn State where clickers are used in seminar classes of 10 people. They are actually a great way of making sure all students get to participate in the discussion (not just the really talkative students!)

Q: I’m thinking about using clickers in my course(s). How do I get students to buy into using them (or heck, even just buy them)?
A: One instructor found in the first two weeks not all students registered their clicker online, and some didn’t buy the device. For the instructor, that means constantly reminding them, updating the roster, etc. A few freebie or low point value questions (such as “I have read the syllabus and understand the expectations of the course. A. True; B. False”) may help push students completing the process. There will be students who forget the clicker at home. One instructor’s approach is to give them two chances to turn in a paper with answers as substitute. But each paper response can only get maximum 70% of the grade the student would get via clicker. Nobody has exceeded the two chances yet in a class of 140 students.
Q: Can I use clickers to just take attendance?
A: You can, but students really resent this. One suggestion is to have graded clicker activities that are worth only a few points. That way missed clicker opportunities are not interpreted as punishment for not attending class.

Q: So students don’t like it when instructors use clickers to take attendance. What are students’ overall impressions of clickers?
A: In a Penn State survey with 1000 students responding, a majority said that clickers made them accountable for learning the material in their classes. Some thought it was good to held more accountable, and some did not!

Q: How do I start developing good clicker questions?
A: Identify places in the material where students get stuck. Looking over past exams can give clues as to what these “bottlenecks” are. So can looking over comments on student work, and conversations with colleagues. If you are a very experienced instructor, you probably have a really good sense of where students typically get stuck.

Ask the Useful Questions

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education draws me to itself with an article regarding the famine in East Africa.  Millions of people are suffering, it says–suffering in a variety of extreme ways.  When suffering is so wide-spread, efforts for relief become all the more daunting.  ‘What is the solution?’ we clamor to each other, ‘What can be done?’

Often, getting to the solution involves asking more questions–questions like “Who is at fault?” or “What are the consequences?”  The trouble with these types of questions, the authors suggest however, is that they are only ‘a part of the story’.  They say that–instead–we need to ‘identify the conditions that underpin poverty’ so that we might understand why these populations are so vulnerable, and why they are so affected when famine strikes.

As I read, it strikes me that the trouble with questions such as “Who is at fault” or “What are the consequences” is that–though they are important–they are not the most useful questions.  Remaining on the surface of the issue, they do not go deep enough. As the authors suggest, we need questions that will get to the root of the problem instead of looking at what is merely right in front of us.         

Asking the more useful questions helps us to re-structure the system at its roots, so that tragedy on such a grand scale cannot occur again.

Right now, I imagine that you are saying “Excuse me, isn’t this blog supposed to be about teaching?”, and my response to you is:

It is.

Today, in your classroom, you will face situations that ask you to ask questions.  What route of questioning will you choose to take?

Will you remain on the surface, asking questions that deal with what is right in front of you?

Or, will you go deeper, looking for the most useful question to get at the root?

Surface questions deal with today, maybe the semester; useful questions deal in long-term change.

The essence of a useful question is encouragement toward and guidance into the places that really matter.  Useful questions move your students further than where they can see on their own to go.  Useful questions drive them deeper, make them think, make them consider implications and consequences. Useful questions provide them opportunity to live in freedom, beyond the surface. 

The more I think about the role of useful questions in my own life and the lives around me, the more I think that they are rooted in the phenomenology of caring.  In Philosophy of Education, Nel Noddings (2007) writes that the end goal of caring is to ‘relieve a burden, activate a dream, share a joy, or clear up a confusion’ (p. 72).  A useful question is made of the same goal.

If we position ourselves to ask useful questions of our students, we will position them to think deeper, see farther, and reach further as they move out beyond our classrooms. 

We will position them to get to the roots of famine, we will position them to care.

Midsemester Feedback – 10 Tips for a Better Class

It is now midway through the semester.  How is your course going?  How do you know?

Now is the perfect time to start soliciting formative feedback from your students.  Collecting feedback from students can serve many purposes.  You can ascertain what students are and are not learning as well as how they are learning it, get formative feedback on your teaching, tailor your course to student needs, increase student motivation, improve student learning and give students an avenue to openly communicate with you about the course.  These tips will help you collect, analyze and implement student responses and forward formative teaching and learning excellence in your classroom.

1.       1. Tell your students that their feedback is important, why you are collecting it, and what you plan to do with their input.  If you let them know how they are going to benefit from their efforts you will get much more thorough and thoughtful responses.

2.       2. Give your students precise instructions and examples of how to present constructive feedback.  Often students do not have experience giving formative (midsemester) responses and may never have been asked their opinions about their own learning experiences.  One of the best ways to solicit good feedbacks is to make feedback a routine part of your course.

3.       3. Let your students know that you are looking for constructive feedback (keep reinforcing this) that you can respond to during the current semester.  You are much more likely to be able to respond to concerns about the pace of your course or difficulty/style of exams rather than pre-determined situational factors such as location, time that the class meets, text book etc…

4.       4. Make sure that you only collect data that you can and will respond to.  One of students greatest complaints are assignments and tasks that take/waste time and aren’t useful to learning outcomes- asking for feedback you can’t or won’t use wastes both your and your students’ time.

5.       5. If you are teaching a large class you may want to use an online polling system to collect your feedback.  Angel, SurveyMonkey and Google Forms all offer anonymous submission options for you to more easily collect, organize and analyze data. 

6.       6. Focus your feedback questions around the following ideas:

a.       What helps you learn in this course?  Examples?

b.      What changes would make the course more helpful? Suggestions?

7.       7. Assess your positive feedback.  Look at what you’re doing well, what the students are responding well to, and what is aiding in student learning.  Keep it up!

8.       8. Carefully look at your feedback and make sure not to focus on a few negative comments.  Compare the responses to your goals and objectives for the course and assess what changes you can make to facilitate student learning.  You may want to review the data with a colleague or make an appointment with a consultant at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.  To look more deeply into comments and concerns you may find it helpful to watch yourself lecture or borrow students’ lecture notes and compare what you’re teaching with that students’ are writing down.

9.      9.  It is vitally important that you promptly share your students’ feedback with the class and let them know your plans.  You most likely will not be able to attend to all of the concerns and comments, but your students will appreciate knowing what you plan to do, what you cannot do, and why.

10.   10. Follow-up!

Here’s to formative excellence in teaching and learning!

We have a wide variety of resources available at SITE which you can look at in more depth here or contact us at!

Other resources:

University of Sydney’s Quick and Easy Feedback Strategies:

Cornell’s Teaching Evaluation Handbook:

Fostering Inclusive Excellence in the Classroom: Penn State Resources & Further Reading

This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms as a function of good teaching. The series is comprised of three workshops, the first of which was held last week:


The other two workshops will be taking place over the next few weeks, with the whole series to be repeated in the Spring semester:

Register for this workshop here.

Register for this workshop here.

As a follow up to the first workshop, and to spread the information more widely, I’ve posted the workshop Prezi here and included information below on some of the resources available at Penn State in support of student and faculty diversity. If you know of other campus resources that can be used in support of teaching, please feel free to post them in the comments section!

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There are several offices/organizations on campus that provide diversity-related support for students and faculty. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with these resources so that you can refer students (or yourself) for support.

  • Affirmative Action Office – offers diversity education programs, provides links to policies, statements and definitions related to diversity, and responds to complaints of or concerns about prohibited harassment or discrimination on the basis of age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or veteran status.
  • Center for Women Students – provides information to students about gender-related violence, personal health, body image, and classroom climate. The Director, Peggy Lorah, provides free workshops for faculty, staff and graduate students on improving classroom climate for women in higher education. If a student is having relationship problems or has experienced abuse or violence, refer them to talk with Dr. Lorah.
  • LGBTA Resource Center – provides a safe space for LGBTQ students to hang out; maintains a library of literature related to gender, gender expression, sexuality and relationships; runs the Straight Talks program (panels of speakers comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally students from a wide range of beliefs and background who educate the university community on sexual orientation, gender identity, oppression and diversity); coordinates events and support groups related to LGBTQ issues.
  • Center for Ethics & Religious Affairs – CERA offers an inclusive environment to “explore a multitude of faith traditions in a compassionate, open-minded setting [and] aims to promote an environment that stretches beyond tolerance to a genuine appreciation of and respect for religious and spiritual diversity.” CERA also puts on workshops related to faith and spirituality.
  • Penn State Office of Global Programs – provides a hangout space and community-oriented programming and activities for international students. Maintains a clearinghouse of practical information and can put students in contact with tutors or spoken-language-improvement programs (like conversation buddies).
  • Office of Disability Services – Coordinates academic accessibility for disabled students, tests students for learning disabilities and works with faculty to provide accommodations for such students (they provide a quiet place for students to take exams, extended-time, etc). Provides a handbook for faculty.
  • Office of Veterans Programs – Helps veteran students negotiate the campus system, provides resources for such students to apply for benefits/financial aid, provides support personnel to answer questions.
  • Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) – Provides counseling services, support groups, and outreach for students, faculty, and staff experiencing crisis or mental-health-related concerns. Provides information to faculty and staff about worrisome student behaviors, and how to intervene when you are concerned about a student. CAPS will consult with you about a specific student issue, and CAPS staff also provides workshops to the greater campus community.
  • Penn State Learning – provides free tutoring (math, writing, language), guided study groups, and work spaces for students. You can contact them to have a tutor visit your class (say, if you have an upcoming essay assignment) and discuss the services they offer.

Below is a list that I have been working through of texts related to the topic of Inclusive Excellence, in case you’re interested in exploring specific avenues related to the topic. This is by no means an exhaustive list! I’ve included links wherever possible. 

General Diversity



  • Chesler, S. 1997. Perceptions of Faculty by Students of Color. CRLT Occasional Papers Series. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, No. 7
  • Kardia, D.B. & M.C. Wright 2004. Instructor Identity: The impact of gender and race on faculty experiences with teaching. CRLT Occasional Papers Series. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, No. 19
  • Rockquemore, K.A. and T. Laszloffy. 2008. The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure – Without Losing Your Soul. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Sue, D.W, A.I. Lin, G.C. Torino, C.M. Capodilupo, and D.P. Rivera. 2009. Racial Microagressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15(2): 183-190
  • Sue, D.W., G.C. Torino, C.M. Capodilupo, D.P. Rivera and A.I. Lin. 2009. How White Faculty Perceive and React to Difficult Dialogues on Race: Implications for Education and Training. The Counseling Psychologist July 30, 2009.


  • Cress, C.M., and J. Hart. 2009. Playing Soccer on the Football Field: The Persistence of Gender Inequities for Women Faculty. Equity & Excellence in Education 42(4), 473-488
  • Fisher, B.M. 2001. No Angel in the Classroom.
  • Gender & Student Evaluations: An Annotated Bibliography
  • Madera, J.M., M.R. Hebl, and R.C. Martin. 2009. Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences. Journal of Applied Psychology 94(6) 1591-7599.
  • Touchton, J. 2008. A Measure of Equity: Women’s Progress in Higher Education. AAC&U.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

Ain’t Misbehavin’? Civility in the Classroom

I hosted a session on fostering civility in large courses today.

It seemed to be an appropriate time of the semester to do so: midterms are in full swing,
and probably more than a few students and faculty are feeling that the “honeymoon” phase of the course–when goodwill flows between students and professors–is defintely over.

As you look around your class and notice students sleeping/texting/facebooking/etc. you may think “Sheesh. Seven more weeks of this?! And then there’s next semester…will it be like this forever?!”

Not necessarily, writes David Perlmutter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but the key is to realize civility in the college classroom is a two-way street. Check it out and let us know what you think:

To Read, Or Not to Read…

Increasingly I find myself in conversations with folks about assigned reading in higher ed classrooms–and mainly about why students won’t/don’t do it. Instructors say, “I can’t get them to read the text.” And theories abound–They’re not interested. They can’t focus. They live in a culture that skims everything, so they don’t value depth. Their eyes might fall across the page, but they don’t engage with the text as active readers. (Lots of ‘theys” in there, it seems to me.)

If we talk long enough we get around to discussing the characteristics of the texts themselves. Back in the mid-eighties, Bonnie Armbruster and Richard Anderson (1984) introduced the notion of Considerate Texts (or Inconsiderate Texts, as the case may be). Considerate texts are written in ways that actually support the reader’s navigation of the message: clear structure, headings, signals, simple-to-understand graphical aids, etc. Inconsiderate texts, as you might guess, do not bear these qualities.

Sometimes, the conversations eventually even turn toward the instructor: What’s the purpose of the reading? What are you hoping is accomplished by having students engage in the reading? These are interesting questions, because sometimes it’s apparent that reading is the best pedagogical approach; other times it’s not.

Then today, I came across a blog post on Mary Ellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus. She talks about a new instrument–the Textbook Assessment and Usage Scale (TAUS). The point of the instrument and the series of studies where it was used was to have students weigh in about their perceptions of the text, to determine whether text characteristics were related to text reading, and to see if text characteristics are somehow linked to test performance.

You can read the study, which was conducted in Psychology courses, to get the full gist, but here’s the short story–Students often don’t read the text. Right. One predictor of how much they’ll read, however, is their perception of text quality. Characteristics important to students: quality of research examples, quality of visual elements, pedagogical aids, and instructor involvement in incorporating and advocating the text. Elements that predicted exam scores: Quality of writing and of pedagogical aids.

It would be an interesting exercise to administer the TAUS to students, especially before deciding whether to require a text again, whether to supplement it with other sources, or whether to get rid of it altogether. It’s easy to place the blame on “them” for not reading, but it’s also important to consider the factors that influence their reading and make changes where ever we’re able.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

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:

– Quizzes

– Short essays

– Problem solutions

– Mid-semester evaluations

– Etc.

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?