Attendance revisited

A couple of English teachers kindly posted commments to my students’ responses to the question “Why take attendance?”

JH posted, “In my classes I take attendance. The reason is that we do a lot of learning activities and group work in my classes. If students do not come to class, they cannot do the activities.”

Michael posted a similar approach: “my classes often do group work and the class would not work well if lots of students were absent”.

My colleague asks, what is the connection between “attendance” and “taking attendance”? Does this mean that if the teacher does not take attendance, the students won’t show up? And is that then the reason for taking attendance?

My reason for asking the original question was to try and bring to light some of the multiple (and often unconscious) assumptions that are associated with this simple action of taking attendance. It seems to me students (and perhaps teachers also) give a lot of importance to attendance, especially to the quantity of attendance. This is attested to by the large number of students who approach me towards the end of term and anxiously ask how many times they have been absent.

They seem to be very highly extrinsically motivated, and very poorly intrinsically motivated. In fact, it’s almost as if they have given up trying to learn anything at all, and instead are now completely focussed on jumping through whatever hoops the teacher sets. And that is the better motivated students! The less motivated either stop trying to jump through the hoops, or stop coming to class altogether.

To return to the 2 comments above, obviously students need to be present to do the activities, but, from the students’ point of view, why should they do the activities? Why do they think they are doing the activities? Are they even thinking about this? Or are they merely jumping through hoops?

My purpose is to help students develop some skill or ability: I want them to be able to communicate by the end of the course, even if to a very basic standard. And I require them to give me a practical demonstration of their understanding and competence. Surely this is the reason they need to show up for class and participate in the activities? And if they can demonstrate the ability to a satisfactory standard, then surely they can pass the course? And if that is so, then where does taking attendance enter into it?

However, I see very few signs that developing a competence or understanding is anywhere on my students’ radars; all I see is their preoccupation with jumping through hoops. “How many hoops did I jump through? Did I jump through enough to pass?” I doubt that their attitude is very different in their other classes.

Perhaps they have cracked the code: they’ve figured out that that’s what “education” is all about. I’m not saying that they don’t need the graduation certificate in order to get jobs, or that they are wrong to want this. But all the same, it strikes me as weird that obtaining the certificate should be considered a matter of how many classes they attended, rather than what they actually learned or whether or not they learned anything. Isn’t that a waste of energy and potential?

Why not have students’ demonstrated competence as the yardstick? As I mentioned before,

if someone can do all 10 tasks satisfactorily at the first try (in the first class of the year), they pass! Altho this hasn’t happened (yet) and the issue has not been raised, I suspect that many students would feel this is “unfair”: why should someone who spent 30 minutes on it get the same (or better) grade than someone who worked hard for all 90 minutes of each of the 28 classes in the semester?

At one university I know of, teachers have been warned to take care not to finish class early. Other teachers and school officials are watching!

So what is the standard here? How much time is spent in a classroom? Or some demonstrated level of competence? If the latter, why should it matter how often students show up, or even if they show up at all? The value attached to attendance and its recording strongly suggests that something other than a demonstrated level of competence is demanded.

2 thoughts on “Attendance revisited”

  1. Attendance

    Right back at you– Great blog… Im adding you to my links.

    Ive been struggling with similar questions about autonomy and intrinsic motivation. You’re right, taking attendance sends a not-too-subtle message: “You, the students, are under my authority… you are here to please me, the teacher”.

    If we wish to foster autonomy in our students, we must undermine that sort of thinking. As you note, its not easy.

    One thing Ive realized is that in the beginning, it may be necessary to use external motivators to encourage autonomous learning. For example, tried to use free silent reading at the end of each class- but in my freshmen classes, many students failed to bring a book to read.

    So I bribe them, somewhat randomly, with an “extra credit point” if they bring a book to read. Its ideal, but the students have been bringing books to read. My hope is that the ease and fun of reading for pleasure will take hold… and they will be quickly weaned off the external motivators.

  2. One class I teach this semester is an international understanding class. In this class, the students and I decided that I would not take attendance but that students would promise to miss class only if they had some kind of emergency. Because we have a lot of group work in this course, I explained to the students that an absence would hurt their group. Some students did not agree with this policy because they told me that it would be an invitation for students to skip class. Let me say that regardless of attendance I try as hard as I can to make the class intrinsically interesting to its participants. The result of this policy was that most students attended every single class. However, one student skipped 4 consecutive weeks and I assumed that he quit. He showed up a week before final presentations when his group was preparing. I took this student aside reminded him of his promise and told him that I thought he might be more of a hinderance than a help to his group because he had missed the last 4 weeks. He aplogized to me and I told him not to apologize to me but his group, because those are the people who it affected the most.
    In my class we do activities to learn about other cultures and our own cultures. I would hope that participating in such activities is not simply jumping through hoops but that is inevitably how some students will view them no matter how hard you try.
    This student was in another class of mine this semester and attended alomst every class. The class also had an attendance policy of no more than 2 absences.
    I hope that this student realizes some day that the importance of going to class is not to be present for attendance but to learn, explore, and find something that interests you. Of course, if you don’t show up to class it is harder to do the above but not impossible.
    Next year, I will try to convince my students to accept the same nopn-attendance policy for my international understanding class.

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