Most professors at UT require students attend class in some way — whether it’s through quizzes, participation or simply making attendance a part of students’ grade in the class.
Requiring attendance makes sense. While we’re in college, our classes should be our priority, and part of that responsibility is going to class. Students should attend class if they want to succeed in that class, and penalizing students for not attending enforces this. We understand the desire to enforce policies designed to get students to go to class.
But using grades to require attendance — especially punishing students for not showing up — doesn’t always work.
Making students attend class can have negative impacts on students’ health. Many professors require a doctor’s note for a student to miss class because of illness, which encourages students to attend when they feel poor, but not bad enough to visit a doctor. Several students we spoke to told us they had attended class with illnesses such as the flu and bronchitis to avoid jeopardizing their grades. One member of the editorial board went to class despite being sick because of a harsh attendance policy — she left class twice to vomit in the bathroom.
Few students will go all the way to the doctor’s office for a cold, but going to class with a contagious, albeit minor, illness endangers the health of students and professors in the room.
There’s a reason colds and the flu spread like wildfire on a college campus, and requiring attendance — even with exceptions for students who go to the doctor — makes this problem worse.
Requiring doctor’s notes also isn’t a great solution to health concerns, as this can disenfranchise students who don’t have insurance. For students without insurance, going to the doctor for illnesses such as the flu can pose a financial burden. Students’ finances shouldn’t impact their grades.
University Health Services offers cheap medical care for uninsured students, but it is located on campus and many lower-income students can’t afford to live that close to UT. For uninsured students who live in an area such as Riverside, getting a doctor’s note to get an excused absence can mean taking the bus all the way across town — with the flu.
And not every student wants to disclose medical conditions to their professors. Students who have chronic illnesses and don’t want to register with Services for Students with Disabilities struggle with strict attendance policies. One member of the editorial board experiences chronic migraines, but decided not to register with SSD after learning the steps involved in the registration process. Her department has an attendance policy where students who miss multiple classes automatically fail the class. As a result, she frequently attends classes while feeling disoriented, struggling with speech and experiencing painful headaches and nausea.
Attendance also poses financial burdens for some students.
For students who have jobs while attending UT, a flexible schedule can be a godsend. We’re not suggesting students who work don’t need to go to class, but if your boss assigns you hours that conflict with your class schedule you may be forced to choose between a reliable source of income and your grades.
Many professors also require students to purchase subscriptions to services which log their attendance. Services such as Squarecap, Top Hat, Arkaive and iClicker can cost up to $62, and some only track attendance. Some students have to register for more than one service a semester. These services can substantially burden students, just to make sure they’re attending class.
This system can fail students in other ways as well. One member of the editorial board took a class where the professor enforced his attendance policy by subtracting points from students’ final grades for each day they missed. The professor took points for classes during the add-drop period, when she was not yet registered for the class.
Even when students are required to attend class, this doesn’t mean they’re participating in learning on any given day. To be frank, it seems to us like students pay less attention in classes they only attend for the attendance grade. We’ve heard stories of students sharing attendance codes for services such as Squarecap in class group messages, which enables students to sign in from a distance. Other students sign in at the beginning and then leave.
Clearly, a blanket attendance policy doesn’t always work, nor is it justified.
The best classes we’ve taken in college didn’t enforce attendance — instead, they were worth attending. The best professors we’ve had at UT made attending class the best way to succeed by providing the most valuable information possible in lecture, not by docking students’ grades if they didn’t show up. If a student can skip class every day and still make an A, shouldn’t they be able to?
Instead of enforcing attendance by taking a grade, consider offering extra credit for attendance. Or consider announcing quizzes in class, and allowing make-ups for students who miss for a legitimate reason — just don’t demand a doctor’s note. Consider grading based on participation instead of attendance, which would reward students who are clearly engaged with the material, even if they can’t show up everyday.
Professors are understandably wary of letting students off the hook for attending class. They don’t want students to succeed while slacking off. But there are ways to ensure only students who deserve a good grade get one that don’t have as many unintended consequences.
By docking their grades when they miss class, you may be hurting your students.