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Achtung baby

My colleague and friend penshark posted this end-of-the-semester message to some of her students last night on her blog:

Here's one incredibly easy way to keep your grade in better shape: If the syllabus says the instructor deducts for missing classes (or missing more than a certain number), take her at her word.

She’s certainly not the only professor who penalizes students for missing classes. Another colleague says he reduces a student’s final mark by one-third of a letter grade for each unexcused absence. In other words, if a student does B+ work but cuts two classes during the semester, she or he winds up with a B-minus for a final grade.

To me, it doesn't matter exactly what the penalty is, because I don't think students should be penalized for cutting classes.

I understand my colleagues’ reasoning: Sometimes, students would rather do other things than come to class. Obviously, instructors think what we do in class is important and will help students. Therefore, the reasoning goes, professors need to penalize students who cut class so they’ll be less likely to do so.

penshark tells me one of the reasons for her policy involves classroom discussions. If a student isn’t in class, he or she can’t contribute to discussions, even if it’s simply a matter of asking a question. My reply is that a student who feels like cutting class usually won’t add much to a class discussion if she or he is not there willingly. But Penshark probably can draw a student into a discussion, so my argument may be flawed.

Nonetheless, I still oppose linking grades to attendance. Professors whose grades take attendance into account are, in effect, stating that one of their course’s objectives is to teach students to come to class. If that weren’t the case, attendance wouldn’t factor into the grade.

Come to class or else: Is that really what we should be teaching students? I hope that by now they’re smart enough to know that attending and participating in class are keys to success. I shouldn’t have to hold a grade hammer over their heads.

Don’t misunderstand: There still are consequences for skipping my classes. If students don’t turn in an assignment on time because they skip class, they’ll get a zero for the assignment unless they were absent because of illness or a family emergency. If they miss doing something in class for a grade that day, they’ll receive a zero if they were absent without excuse. This policy penalizes absences in its own way, but it doesn’t do so unconditionally, as other policies do.

I’ve just finished my ninth year of teaching, and the attendance problems I’ve seen have involved individual students who for some reason haven’t got their priorities straight. I always meet with them to encourage them to change. It helps that I remember I never was St. Patrick of Academia. I know how easy it is for a college student’s train to jump the tracks; my wreck was particularly spectacular. But I also know it’s possible to clear the wreckage and choose a better course. If students know this about me, if they know I failed and then rallied, then it helps them realize they too can change for the better.

I honestly think instructors have their students’ best interests in mind when they link attendance to grades, but I think they’re misreading the message of such policies. When an instructor penalizes a student for cutting class, what he or she is saying is that a cut class is more important than any assignment, unless performance on said assignment can affect a grade as much as an absence does. Even if that’s the case—that is, if assignments have as much grade weight as a cut class—then attendance still is just as important as any given assignment.

My goals are to teach students how to build on their existing skills and how to develop new ones, and my grades are based on those goals. To base part of a grade on a student’s physical presence in class—even if the student is intellectually disengaged—isn’t compatible with our real educational goals.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 11th, 2010 11:45 pm (UTC)
In Clare courses, we're required to have an attendance policy (or maybe it's just us peons in the grad school). My students get 3 absences before points come off, but I also don't believe in lowering a grade for the student not showing 4 or 5 times. So my policy is in the syllabus, but I'm lenient.

That being said, however, I have a student this semester who missed 11 classes. His grade is a D-. I think that his absences in this case should be taken into consideration, because he should not pass with a D- when he missed so much of the semester.

That also being said, I can't believe a D- is considered passing for Clare 110.
May. 12th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
In the end, what's the difference between a D- and an F? I get the feeling a trip to Oxford isn't riding on the outcome.
May. 12th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC)
Well, one will have him passing, one will force the student to re-take the course (which definitely couldn't hurt)...it's a bit of a dilemma, actually. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do.
May. 12th, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)
You've got to follow your syllabus to the letter. If this guy has played by the rules and those rules point to a D-, then you can't change the rules because you think his absences should be taken into consideration. He's the one who made the 11 bad decisions; he's the one who will have to live with the consequences.
May. 12th, 2010 03:31 am (UTC)
I admit, I penalize students for absences. Yes, the message is "Show up or else." After all, that's been the message at every job I've ever had—and being in college is, in my opinion, a student's "job" for these four years.
May. 12th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
If attendance is 10 percent of the grade, then all a student needs to do to earn those 10 points is be present. That's like telling a worker that all she needs to do is punch the time clock to earn 10 percent of her pay. I've never had a job like that, nor have you, I suspect.
May. 12th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
You're right--which is exactly why I don't make it a percentage. It's more of a condition of employment. Students get a couple "sick days," and then after they burn their freebies they start to get their pay docked by having their grade docked.
May. 12th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
Percentage, grade docked: Half a dozen of one, six of the other.

Here's what your policy does: To address any attendance problems you might have with one or two students—a distinct minority—you give the majority of the students an unearned benefit, unless the definition of "earned" is being a warm body in the right place at the right time.
May. 12th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
I think a percentage does equate to "warm body" syndrome, where students get credit for simply being there. Making attendance a condition of employment means they lose credit for not being there--a perhaps subtle but, I think, crucial distinction. That context doesn't make attendance an unearned benefit at all.

In any event, I do think there's much to Woody Allen's famous quip: "80 percent of success is just showing up." I wouldn't give students credit for simply showing up, but they get opportunities, etc., that students who don't show up never get--and that, in the long run, is what really makes all the difference.
May. 12th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)
May. 12th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
You can't call this a catfight. We're not chicks.
May. 12th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
Catfight, schmatfight. He tosses these slow, underhanded softballs out there so someone will swing, and he knows I like to oblige.

Seriously, this is just a case of two profs looking at the same thing from different perspectives, which perfectly illustrates the mutually held belief that felix and I share: Every prof has something different to offer, so students should try and take a variety of professors during their time in school.
May. 12th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
Exactly right on all counts.

May. 12th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
Leave my girlfriend alone.
May. 13th, 2010 12:00 am (UTC)
Back off, Jimmy Olsen.
May. 13th, 2010 12:35 am (UTC)
Jimmy was a photographer. I'm a mild-mannered reporter, like Clark Kent.
May. 13th, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
"Mild-mannered"? You, Mr. "Blowtorch-and-a-Pair-of-Pliers"?
May. 12th, 2010 05:07 am (UTC)
I think it's very possible in some courses to achieve all the course goals without stopping by class too much. Some people can teach themselves pretty well out of the textbook, assigned study materials, etc. If a student is doing well regardless of number of absences, they've obviously found a way to cope with not being in class. If that's the case, then why penalize them?

What irks me is when a class will have an attendance policy but no participation grade. It's like saying that my participation isn't worth anything, but I'm still obliged to show up. I'm not gaining anything by being there, but I lose if I don't go. I can only lose...

There have been plenty of days in my experience (mostly in Clare courses) where I've argued with myself about going to class, in the end resigning myself to sit through some needless review session or rehashing of a reading I'd already done because I might lose half a letter grade if I didn't show.

May. 12th, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC)
If I were an instructor and you were a student who did well even though you missed a bunch of classes, I'd take a hard look at what I was doing in class because obviously it had little value in terms of meeting the course objectives.
May. 12th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
That was me in most Clare courses. Attendance was a total waste of my time, since the prof basically read to us out of the book we had been assigned for homework anyway, or showed videos that didn't enhance class material, or went over material (Comp and Crit, cough cough) I had learned Jr year in high school. And yet I went (usually) because I didn't want to lose the grade.

Conversely, there were periods in my undergrad career where my attendance didn't do me, or the class, any good whatsoever. I was a lump in a chair, and would have done better had I been allowed to study the material on my own, in a more learning-conducive environment. Mandatory attendance always rubbed the wrong way, to be honest. High schoolers who have no personal investment in their education are required to be there, in a forced-learning environment. Why should college students, who are presumably closer to the "real world" of personal accountability, held to the same standard?
May. 12th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
When I was an undergrad, my class attendance was very spotty. I would say that I went to less classes than any other chemistry majors in the department, but still graduated with honors. It took awhile to break my teachers in with my lax attendance, but when I did, it was easy street for me. After all, college is so much more than going to class:)
May. 12th, 2010 08:13 pm (UTC)
I got a chuckle out of this, Jeff—because nothing you said surprised me!
May. 13th, 2010 02:38 am (UTC)
Very interesting - post and comments.

Surly youth #1 was a master at knowing how far he could push the attendance issue. He knew which professors he could do it with and which he couldn't. But he's a smart kid. When he wanted to apply himself, when he was interested in the material, he showed up, he participated, he did well. Of course not all classes are taken by choice; some are required yet undesired.

Surly youth #2 is much less likely to skip or even consider pushing the envelope, but he's had more trouble communicating with professors (them making it difficult, not him being unable) at ECC this first year than #1 did in six years of college. I wish with all my heart that just one of his professors would've taken an interest in him like what you mention doing in your post - it would've made a huge difference.
May. 13th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
"... required yet undesired." Great phrase.

If professors aren't taking an interest in their students, they don't belong in the field. I'm blessed to work in a place where that statement could be attributed to every one of my colleagues.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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