The short version: “Because it’s stupid”.
But let’s try to be a bit more academic, for once. In order to do so I will try to break this post down into three parts. First we will look at why attendance is being checked in many cases, then we will continue to examine how attendance could be checked and lastly we will discuss implications of attendance checks before, hopefully, coming to a conclusion that we can either agree or, at the very least, debate on with a connection to what I think I will be doing next semester.
Why attendance should be checked
While working in higher education I talked with lots of people about that. Colleagues, former professors of mine, students. I listened to both sides of the coin and few arguments where repeated over and over again and even overlapped. First and foremost the argument that, surprisingly, had all parties agree on:
According to professors and colleagues many students lack the discipline to come to class when there is no attendance check. Even students agreed that attendance checks lead to higher attendance rate and are therefore good to improve discipline. Educators mostly agree stating that when not checking attendance classes aren’t as full of students as they are when checking attendance. Hence: Checking attendance is an essential tool in order to increase attendance.
My take on it: If students can’t come without being forced it clearly shows a lack of discipline. However, does forcing someone to do something he or she doesn’t want to equal building discipline? I don’t think so. Discipline means doing something that you don’t want at that very moment but you still do it because you know it’s necessary. That is not achieved via forcing students to come to class just to get their name checked, this is achieved by changing their overall mindset.
Avoiding terrible exams / assignments / Fs
If you check attendance and therefore force students to always be in class chances are high that they will, at least, learn something and remember something of the stuff that you teach. Therefore they will probably do better in the exam / assignments compared to when they wouldn’t attend class.
My take on it: Can’t argue with that too much. At the very least students wouldn’t miss quizzes if they are always present and probably won’t get 0s. On the other hand do I want that? Or do I want them to do well because of their interest in the subject and their, tada, discipline? If they know attendance is crucial to understand the subject, do well in quizzes, assignments and exams that should be enough of motivation to come to class and therefore forcing them shouldn’t be necessary.
This is probably the one point I sympathize the most with right now. Students coming late, leaving early or simply showing up in between not knowing what to do or what’s going on is annoying as hell. Not only for me as the person standing in the front talking but also for fellow students who, surprise surprise, actually try to participate and understand stuff. Hence checking attendance in the very beginning or the end avoids all this trouble and forces students to be on time and not disrupt the lecture.
My take on it: Completely understand the idea of it however I still think that this some kind of behavior that is related to students’ personalities. It should be obvious that you wouldn’t want to disturb the lecture or students that are trying to follow the teaching. Therefore it should not be necessary to force students, kindergarten style, to be there sitting quietly in their chairs and wait for the attendance check. I also see a change in behavior towards a more ruthless / unfriendly kind on student side but I think that’s an educational / societal issue that we won’t fix with attendance checks. If you want to fight it, interact with students that come late / leave early. This might be the awkward pressure feeling they need to stop acting irresponsible.
How attendance could be checked
When thinking about whether or not I should check attendance I also thought about the different ways this could be done. A few ideas came to mind:
Paper at the door
This is actually a suggestion found on some homepages of rather famous Universities. The suggestion is to simply have the sign in sheet at the entrance so that every student can sign when coming in. You will probably also notice if someone tries to cheat since this person would take longer to sign. Moreover it’s a rather quick process and won’t take too much of your time.
My take on it: Checking names like it’s 1899. Besides that I’d have to take the paper and then enter the attendance into my computer. In a 100+ students class. How do I say ‘meh’ academically correct? Meh (sic!)!
There must be an app for that! Turns it out, there is. Or, more precisely, there are! When searching the play store (or App store, I’m sure) you’ll find lots of apps that will help you check attendance. From easy ones that just let you check names up to a few more sophisticated ones that also calculate performance or even integrated with your moodle installation (the moodle app that is, if it actually works). There are apps for that, because it’s not 1899.
My take on it: If you want to check attendance by yourself, apps are certainly pretty helpful. If you even set one up so that it integrates with either your google docs grade sheets or your moodle installation (the two most likely scenarios theses days) this is probably a smart way to go. However, there’s still quite a bit of ‘handy work’ necessary. Exporting the data, importing it to your google docs, etc.
Sign in via computer / tablet / online form
Another example that I heard and read on quite a few blogs. Set up an computer / table where students could sign in in an online form upon arriving to class. Similar to the sign up sheet mention above just paper less and, if you don’t screw it up, easily integrated into your moodle / google docs. Smart solution, right?
My take on it: Bit annoying that students would have to queue to use the table / computer to sign in unless you give them the link to the online form so they could sign in via their phones / computers but then they could, obviously, cheat again. Nothing seems to be perfect. Question would be if you would actually be trying to prevent cheating or if you would rely on them realizing that cheating doesn’t help them in this case but only hurts their friends who aren’t coming since they won’t know what happened in class.
Take pictures of your class in the beginning and at the end and then see who’s there. That requires some time and getting to know your students but also helps with, well, getting to know your students. Combine this with a seating list if necessary when you don’t know your students from the get-go and there you go. I haven’t read much about that idea, but that’s what I did in a few classes, mainly to get to know students names faster and be able to judge their participation in class better and faster. Not necessarily in order to check attendance but this could be done just as easily with that method of course.
My take on it: I used that approach to get to know my students faster, not to check attendance. Therefore I like it to use it for the first, not the latter.
Giving out secret, unique keys to your eLearning
So another idea here (which goes to show that I really thought about it): If you use some kind of eLearning platform (moodle, your private wordpress site where students download slides, etc.) you could generate a unique access key to each lecture that would only let students access your material once. Once they access they would have to fill out some kind of quiz or questionnaire and then get to download your slides or just leave it with that. Obviously you could also just have online quizzes once in a while but making it regular via handing out unique access keys (that expire!) increases urgency and shows you who is doing it within a set amount of time.
My take on it: I thought that’s a good idea until realizing I’m becoming more of a parole officer than an educator.
Implications of checking attendance
Checking attendance is not only a tool for us, the people in front of the class, but also sends a message to our students. Several messages even. Some straight forward, some rather subtle.
Credits for showing up
I wasn’t used to that from my Uni days. We never had attendance checks, yet I barely missed classes. Not because I was a good student, but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to learn all the things covered in class by myself. What puzzled me even more when getting into higher ed that some Unis really give credit for just showing up. You get your name checked and expect credit for that? Why? That’s like coming to work and just sitting at your desk, playing computer games, and not doing anything worth getting paid for.
“If you don’t force me to be there, I won’t be there” — that’s the message that’s being sent when relying on attendance checks to make students come to class. As students mature and grow up they have to learn to make decisions by themselves. That’s part of Uni life, part of becoming an adult. Later on in life nobody will force you to make the right decisions so if we don’t encourage students to learn making those decisions by themselves and keep pulling them around by their hands, when should they learn it? Learning to be a responsible human being is also an important part of Uni life, even if it’s not in the curriculum.
Make classes better vs. You can’t get to everyone
During the lead up to this article I was actually in the process of thinking about a creative way to check attendance. I even thought about a solution where I wouldn’t have to give credit for attendance but would say ‘if you miss more than 20% of the class, you won’t be able to take the final’. While writing this article however I came back to my initial belief that attendance checks are unnecessary — or better — not helpful. Neither in a students personal development nor in class development. After all, do I want to have bored or scared students sitting in class who are just there to get their names checked? No. I want students who come to class because they want to learn something and because they like what we do. That, obviously, means I have to think about the way I deliver classes and have to try to improve in order to reach as many students as possible. On the other hand I also have to accept that it’s rather unlikely to be able to reach and get to every single student that is enrolled in class since some simply don’t give a %^&* about studies — this also wouldn’t change with attendance checks though.
What’s your take on the issue? Voice out in the comments below! Looking forward to opinions from students and teachers alike.