Hey Control Freak Profs., Quit Hassling Students By Taking Attendance

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by Christen Pudlewski Embry

I have been teaching college classes as an adjunct for 11 years and I recently made major changes to my attendance policy. Basically, I don’t have one. I would argue, in fact, that every student you penalize is an indication that your policy is failing to “make” your students come to class. My attendance levels are the same now as they were when I had a tough attendance policy.

I’d like to pose some questions to my colleagues: have you ever been sick, had an emergency, missed your train, had a death in the family, been in a car accident, or simply needed a mental health day? Have you ever had to cancel a class, cut a class short, or grade items late for any of the above reasons? If you answered no to all of those questions, you are either a saint or a liar. Until we are all able to claim sainthood in this way, why do we expect our students to be perfect?

This Fall semester, I am teaching five classes: one online class for a private university and two in-person classes each at a public university and a private one. My in-person classes meet once a week for 16 weeks or twice a week for 10 weeks, depending on the school, for 16-20 total class meetings. My attendance policy was like that of a lot of other professors: miss a certain number of classes, usually 25 percent, and there was an automatic deduction to a student’s final grade.

I now have a significantly different approach to attendance than many of my colleagues teaching on campus college classes. While their policies can be draconian, with no excused absences, absences being acceptable only for certain reasons, or points off per absence, my attendance policy is that I have none. I don’t penalize students for missed classes in any way. However, each of my class sessions features at least one activity in which the students must participate to earn points. Participation comprises 20 percent of my total class points on average, and I always have more activities than the minimum. For example, if the maximum participation points for the semester is 20, I offer activities and discussions totaling at least 24 points.

However, students who miss the class before an assignment is due miss the in-class activity or discussion connected to the assignment, providing additional insight into what they should be doing. And they aren’t present when I go over the directions, answer questions, review the rubric, and expand on my expectations. Therefore, students who miss class tend to earn fewer points on assignments than those who come to class.

The reasoning behind my new “non-policy” is three-fold.

First, you can be “present” in the classroom without being “present” in the discussions or activities. Attendance only guarantees butts in the seats, not brains working on problems. I’d rather have a student miss class and sleep in their bed than snoring in my back row.

Second, coming to class with the flu, pink-eye, hand-foot-and-mouth-disease or even the common cold guarantees an outbreak of absences the next week when everyone else gets sick. Or a class cancelation when I get sick.

Third, I treat my students as if there were adults. They know that if they are missing class it is going to impact their learning. In fact, students who don’t attend class tend to do worse on graded assignments, and I tell my students that at the beginning of the semester.

For those of you who argue that we need to teach our students to be “responsible” by punishing them for absences, I’d like to remind you that most jobs come with sick days. Shouldn’t classes? As adjuncts, we may forget that most jobs have sick and vacation time since we certainly don’t get any. Also, it’s our job to teach the course materials to our students, not to teach them “responsibility.”

And to the argument that your class is so important that students should be there: we all put a lot of work into designing and teaching our classes. We are understandably proud of them and the course content is important, or it wouldn’t be included. However, your class is not as important to a student as the last chance to visit a dying grandparent, an interview across the country for their perfect job, supporting a friend who has experienced a trauma, or the time to recover from an illness. All actual, verifiable events that have happened to my students just during this Fall semester.

Obviously, I am still keeping track of attendance for reporting through the various school systems that record that information. And if a student is missing classes, I will reach out, but penalize them? No. They lose the participation points for that day, but that’s all. Their grade will not be directly impacted by an absence unless they miss several participation opportunities/classes during the semester.

I understand that tough attendance policies often result from faculty having been “burned” by students in the past. Of course we’ve been taken advantage of by students who appeal to our better natures and yank at our heartstrings with tragic stories that end up being fabricated. It is a horrible experience, but ask yourself, should one (or two or even a dozen) student fibs result in you retaliating against all future students? And would a student need to tell a dramatic story to get an excused absence if you weren’t penalizing them? Or would they just not be in class, perhaps after having emailed you a short apology?

Let’s all reconsider the reasons behind tough, penalty-based attendance policies. In fact, if a faculty member can’t explain how an attendance policy benefits students, it’s time to try something new.

Christen Pudlewski Embry has been an “adjunct by choice” since 2008. She currently teaches at two private universities (DePaul University and National Louis University) and one public university (Governors State University), and previously taught for a for-profit online university (which shall remain nameless). Her career background is in communication, journalism, and media. She teaches and develops courses on topics ranging from Communicating and Dating to Social Media Networking to Reality TV and Society, along with the old standards of Interpersonal Communication, Public Speaking, and other communication topics. She is currently an Ed.D. student at National Louis University in Postsecondary Teaching and Instructional Leadership. Her goal is to work on curriculum to increase the media literacy of college students.

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