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


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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  1. I did 1 extra credit point on the quiz per day of attendance. If you dont want to attend class, that’s on you. But clearly you know the material, so the extra credit shouldn’t be needed. However, the people who had the extra points were never the ones who needed it…..

  2. Um, the author DOES require attendance; points every day for in class activities. Just like I give points each day students participate in lab. Rest of article is same old stuff, from artificially inflated moral high ground.

  3. Participation in class often is a high percent of students’ grades, depending on the teacher. (For good reason, I would add). So participation and attendance go hand-in-hand in those classes.

  4. To say that attendance should be eased because instructors aren’t perfect is besides the point. It’s not about feigning moral high ground.

  5. Because the department that pays me nothing to work for 60 hours per week requires me to take attendance and lower final course grades based on an attendance policy I had no voice in. That’s why.

  6. Sadly, when I wanted to do skip attendance my dept chair said “no.” On the other hand, given that labs require actual hands on in the lab work, too many absences lead to not enough experience and sometimes, just counting on lab reports to mirror attendance does not work.

  7. Can’t agree with this. My class is absolutely dependent on being there. I do offer make up assignments for absences, but in my classes, the way you learn is by showing up.

  8. Love this. Hand over the reigns to student ownership and stewardship of their own time management. I used to offer “pass” ~ adult mental health days AND … though adhering to the institution policy of only 3 missed classes, remind them [students] all … frequently … that they were now adults. It was none of my business WHY they were managing their time out of the classroom, just to develop communication skills and time make up skills. Emotional intelligence doesn’t teach itself.

  9. whatever. I can take attendance for institutional requirements sake AND allow for all of those life events and being generous with it. They are expected to be there, so am I – AND I have days I dont show up either.

  10. Community colleges are strict about it in NC because their funding is tied to how many “butts in seats” there were the previous year. In the college classes, I believe you have to be dropped if you miss more than 3 times?

  11. The author of the article didn’t say they didn’t take attendance, they just said they aren’t directly penalizing the students for not attending.

      • Yeah, I saw that…I think some of the comments on here look like they misunderstood that. I agree with you and I actually have been doing the same thing for years now.

  12. I couldn’t care less if they come. There are still good reasons to take attendance, including being able to drop them rather than fail them if one of those life events pulls them away permanently. You do you. I’ll assume I have your permission to do me.

  13. The state requires it for the first 3 weeks for state schools.
    So there is that.
    I don’t expect my students or myself to be perfect. I expect them—and me—to show up most of the time.
    If showing up to a brick and mortar classroom doesn’t work for you, take an online class.

    • Julia Holcomb amen. I just have a graded quiz every class period. Keeps them coming. I have to get up and come most of the time; so should they!

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