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.