Calling Roll

More and more research is indicating that attendance policies only hurt their intended beneficiaries.

By Kara Mercer, Northern Illinois University


Unlike high school, college allows for more freedom: Your education is more versatile, girls can show their shoulders in class and, best of all, college is optional.

While it’s beneficial to earn a college degree, there are no laws requiring you to seek higher education. In high school, teachers take attendance to make sure no one is truant. All states have compulsory education laws, with certain exceptions for private schools and homeschooling.

So, in high school, you can get in trouble with the law for being absent for a number of days, or for failing to notify the school. In college, though, you can get a steep grade reduction even though, in most cases, you don’t have to be there.

Some professors don’t enforce attendance policies or take attendance at all. The policies can change based on class size; in larger classes, with over forty students, roll becomes tedious.

Take Attendance Out of the Equation

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Other professors will deduct percentages from your final grade for missing more than two classes in a semester. In a smaller class, keeping track of attendance is easier. Lecturers who teach in more intimate courses can also add class policies for participation in discussions, but even in smaller classes, taking attendance could hinder the classroom environment.

When professors don’t take attendance, going to class becomes a choice. Students may not necessarily want to be in class, but they know it’s important, and they are less likely to distract from the lesson.

Professor Kelli Marshall says she was inspired by another lecturer, who realized that attendance is a sure-fire way to have distracting students in class. Students who are only in class due to an attendance policy are going to behave as such, and many engage in distracting activities, such as texting or making noises, causing other students in class to lose focus.

Since higher education isn’t a legal requirement, students have to pay for their own education. And, yeah, parents often financially support their children throughout their higher-educational endeavors, but other students don’t receive support.

Some undergraduates receive state or federal aid as well, but they will eventually have to pay all or most of the money back. While there are minimal fees for high school education, college is an investment, so attending class should be the choice of the student.

Most students can estimate how well or poorly they are doing in a class, and they can judge whether skipping or missing due to an illness is feasible. While attending a university, students should be able to make their own decisions.

Emergencies happen, people get sick and with the stresses of college, you sometimes need a mental health day. Some days, you need to stay home in your jammies and catch up on sleep, or your favorite shows. There are countless reasons students miss class; I sometimes skip classes I’m doing well in, so I can work on something from another class.

More professors should follow the example of Michael Bugeja, who wrote an article on his uncommon attendance policy. Bugeja allowed students to miss class as long as they emailed him before class or within 24 hours of class, and they told the truth about why they skipped. The policy made undergraduates sort out their priorities and fess up when they were playing hooky because of a hangover.

Attendance can be important for class discussions and deeper understanding of the material, but missing class doesn’t mean students can’t learn the content. Teachers have taken advantage of online platforms, like Blackboard Learn, to post lecture notes and quizzes for students to access from home.

Take Attendance Out of the Equation

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Instead of harsh policies restricting students to a couple of skips, or none at all, professors can take online platforms a step further and, instead of holding class, make some assignments due online. Students would still engage with the material, but they would have more time to work on other assignments.

College is meant to prepare students to take on the responsibilities of a career and make them successful in a future occupation. When you have a job, if you don’t show up to work without an explanation, you can lose your job.

Some professors that enforce stricter attendance policies view roll-call as a way to attribute consequences to missing class and to make students accountable. In a profession, though, there is a monetary incentive, whereas there’s no incentive to attend classes.

In my four years at a state university, I’ve experienced a wide variety of attendance policies. I’ve had some lecture halls where attendance wasn’t required, and others where a sign-in sheet was passed around.

I’ve had smaller classes where attendance didn’t affect my grade, and others where if I didn’t show up to three classes out of the fifteen-week semester, I lost a letter grade. None of the attendance policies made me want to go to class.

Required attendance is daunting, and I worry about my health or emergencies in fear of missing class, especially in my once-a-week, three-hour lecture class, where attendance and tests were the only grades in the class. The only thing that gets me out of bed for my 9:30 a.m. Spanish class are the extra-credit opportunities.

Professors have alternatives to taking attendance to ensure classroom contribution. Reserving the right to have in-class quizzes, participation grades or some kind of reward for having perfect attendance, like points added to an assignment, can get students to go to class, and their final grades can be based on missed involvement opportunities instead of absenteeism.

Professors should stop knocking down grades for missed classes and instead, focus grades on assignments and work capability. Not only do strict attendance policies promote distracting behaviors from students who don’t want to be in class, but anxiety from missing out on assignments as well.

Students should want to go to class to further their learning by participating, but some days are harder than others.