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To The Skeptical Student: Why Teachers Care About Attendance Policies

I decided that this should be my next post since I got into a brief conversation regarding attendance policies and was honestly surprised by the number of people insisting that attending class isn’t necessary, provided that you “learn the material” on your own (we’ll get into what that means below). Perhaps this won’t change any minds, but as an educator I feel compelled to point out some of the reasoning behind mandatory attendance policies so that there can be better transparency among teachers, students, and the expectations on both sides.

Let’s work through some of the more common arguments I’ve seen lately.

Missing three classes a semester isn’t nearly enough leeway. Students are stressed, exhausted, and sometimes you just need a mental health day.

This is absolutely right. Students do need downtime, which is why most syllabi (in my experience at least) site three unexcused absences. Meaning that three times out of the semester you can miss class no questions asked. This doesn’t mean you can only miss three classes though. If after that allotment you get the flu, there’s drama in the family, you wind up in the hospital somehow… things like this are all excused absences and will generally be hand-waved away with condolences and a “grab notes from your classmates.” Hell, you can even fudge things if you want to. Need an extra mental health day? Tell your teacher you caught the bug going around. Either way you do need the rest and most instructors are happy to give it to you*

(*Note that for the entirety of this post I’m assuming that your teacher is an empathetic human being. Yes, I’ve heard plenty of people talking about that One Professor who failed them after their fourth absence, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I’ve been there. I’ve had hard-asses like that. But in my experience they’re exceptions to the rule. Try not to let one teacher’s exploitation of the system color your view of whether the system itself is actually working.)

But even if I do have an excused reason for missing class the professor demands proof of that. What college student has the time or the money to go to a doctor and get a note?

Honestly? Most teachers will believe you if you just tell them there's a problem. You don't always need proof right off the bat. But yes, when you do it can be a pain. Keep in mind though that your college should have a health center and if you see them it’ll be faster, cheaper (possibly even free), and most teachers will accept their notes as well. Some kind of proof does eventually become necessary though because students will lie. No, I’m not talking about the student above who cites a stomach bug because they’re battling their anxiety and won’t be getting out of bed anytime soon. I’m talking about the student who’s claimed to be sick five, six, seven, eight times now. Maybe they have been ill… or maybe they’re just sleeping in and trying to avoid the consequences. There comes a time when a student misses enough class that we can no longer take them at their word and we need an outside party (doctor, parent, etc.) to verify that this is an excused absence.

Who cares though? So they miss class, they sleep in, big deal. None of this is proving that attendance is necessary.

Now we get to the nitty-gritty of it. For me attendance is particularly important because I teach discussion-based courses. If learning English, Film, Television and the like was merely a matter of consuming primary texts, then classes would just be me assigning a reading list and then proctoring a final exam months later.

That sounds great.

Maybe, but it’s not very conducive to learning. Sure, you’re experiencing a new text, maybe you gain something from it, and I could quiz you on the particulars later, but all of that is just surface level stuff. Real skills in analysis develop from conversation. We need other perspectives to help our ideas to grow. We need people to play devil’s advocate to our arguments, to ask us questions, and to have the opportunity to ask questions in turn. Time and time again I hear students telling me that they loved a particular discussion, that they’d never thought of it that way, that they really liked so-and-so’s point… education is all about community; a group of people helping to teach one another (and yes, that includes you teaching me). Education—good education—doesn’t happen in a vacuum with one student sitting alone in their dorm room reading a book.

That’s just English though.

So you don’t have any lab based classes? Nothing that requires group work? Specialty equipment you can’t get at home? Hands-on learning like in the arts: dance, drawing, music?

Fine, but that’s only for a few classes. Lectures you don’t have to attend. You already have all the information online and in the textbook. There’s literally no reason for me to be there.

Here’s a relevant story: I’m a recitation leader for a film class this semester that has both lecture and discussion-based classes. By this logic a student need only come in once a week for the recitations, right? Well, a few days ago I had a student come into office hours asking for help with the film terminology. I immediately asked if they’d read the PowerPoints and the textbook. They said they had, but that the PowerPoints didn’t provide good examples and the textbook gave too much confusing information—far more detail than a struggling introductory student needs. I then asked if they’d been in class that week. They hadn’t.

Teachers are the mediators. Teachers are the ones who take the simplistic definition from Wikipedia and expand it into something useful; or take that confusing textbook information and summarize it in a way that suddenly makes sense. It’s our job to break down information for you. That’s literally why we’re here.

I’m not stupid though. I understand the textbook, so I should be allowed to memorize it and just take the tests.

Maybe you do understand the information… but maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t understand it quite as well as you think you do. Because I can tell you both from my experience as a student and as a teacher that often times we think we have a grasp on a concept, only to be thrown into a group of 40 other people and realize that it’s actually a lot more complicated than we initially thought. Maybe you, as an individual, really can learn everything straight off of PowerPoints, but most students can’t. Or even if they can get the basics it’s a far less rich form of education than they’d receive if they’d attended class with peers and an experienced teacher.

Seriously. I’m not like that. I understand the material.

Again, maybe you’re the exception. All I can say is that the students who miss class are the ones I see struggling the most. They miss core explanations that put the information into context. They get concepts confused-----the exact sort of stuff we carve out time for because it’s confusing. The ones who miss class are the ones who hand me essays with no logic holding their claims together because they haven’t gotten the chance to test out ideas in a group and practice defending them.

You honestly believe all your kids are paying attention like that?

Of course not. I'm not stupid either and my students tend to forget that I'm still a student as well, even if my schooling is rather different from theirs. I've zoned out through my share of classes. I've checked social media or fallen asleep. Hell, I spent a good chunk of my college years writing fic in the margins of my notes. But showing up still counts for something. I'm still learning even if my focus isn't 100% on the material at all times (honestly that's pretty impossible anyway) and I can't tell you how often I have to answer truly basic questions that would have been cleared up if a student had at least been there. The sort of questions that lead to silly mistakes on assignments and me handing out a grade I really wish I didn't have to.

Well if anything is confusing or seems complex to me I’ll get notes from a friend. And come in during office hours with questions. That’s what they’re there for, right?

This is assuming your friend takes excellent notes that clearly summarize an hour’s worth of conversation, to say nothing of the fact that taking notes yourself is far better for understanding and memorization. But let’s leave that for now. Office hours. Can you make my office hours? If so, great. It might not fit into your schedule though, which means we’ll have to work out some other time to meet. Generally that’s fine and I hardly mind doing it—it’s a part of my job after all—but students sometimes forget that they’re a massive group and I am just one, incredibly busy person. I have eighty students this semester. Let’s imagine for a moment that just an eighth of them, ten students, decide that attending the lectures is useless, but they’re still hard workers who want to make sure they have a handle on the information before the exam. Three can make my office hours. The other seven can’t. Suddenly I’m trying to find seven distinct 20+min slots in my already full week to meet with each student and answer the same questions again and again. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you (again, it is technically my job), but at the very least keep in mind that the more I’m stretched thin the less time and energy I have to devote to your own engagement with the material.

What I’m getting at is we already have that time blocked out. A time when you can review the information, ask questions, and prepare for the exam. It’s the lectures.

I’m still not convinced.

Alright. Even if we talk about how class functions as the necessary practice/immersion in the material that you need in order to gain a firm understanding of the material, a requirement of moving on to harder courses? And that given how busy and stressed students are if you won’t make time to come to class I honestly don’t believe you’ll carve out another hour and a half at a later date to get that necessary practice in? Or how in-class interaction provides me with the personal connection I need to do things like write you a recommendation or advise you on future coursework? Or how about the fact that college functions as a transition between childhood and adulthood? Sometimes you have to do things even if you don’t want to. That’s usually called a job.

That’s not at all comparable. Jobs are paying me, so of course I need to be there. But I’m paying the school. And as an adult I should be able to decide if I want to go to class or not. It’s my money.

Yes, you get to decide. No one is stopping you from skipping, but the power to make that decision doesn’t mean you won’t face consequences for it. Yes, you’re paying the school, but what you’re paying for is access to its facilities and expertise. You’re not paying for a passing grade. That has to be earned and a part of the requirements to earn a grade—then used for things like scholarships, internships, and job interviews—is attending the class.

But why? Just make attendance optional. Don’t even have it be part of the grade.

Even if I agree with that, even if I overlook all the benefits I’ve laid out above, a lot of professors can’t. Attendance policies are often university policies. The school (the boss) decides how many classes a student can miss. Or even if they give the teacher some leeway in deciding what that number is (as my school does) there’s still the firm expectation that a certain amount will result in a grade dock and eventually failing the course. Even if I could make attendance optional I guarantee that it would raise a whole new host of complaints.


Meaning that right now participation is worth a decent chunk of the grade and participation is tied directly to class attendance.

Just get rid of participation then. It’s stupid anyway.

Alright. I don’t agree with that, but for the sake of argument let’s chuck it. Now, would you like that 15% tacked onto your paper, your exam, or split between the two?


Exactly. Students already complain to me about how weighted assignments are. I’ve taught a course where there was a large number of assignments all worth small amounts. Students complained about how often they had to turn things in. I’ve taught courses with only three or four big assignments. Students complained about how one assignment could tank their whole grade. You can’t please everyone and eliminating a participation grade—or even just minimizing it—requires that those percentage points go elsewhere.

So what you’re really saying is that the whole system is screwed up.

I'm saying that, like any system, attendance policies have their faults and can absolutely be improved upon. I get that most students do want to come to class, but for whatever reason they can't----be it work, illness, family matters----and we need to keep working on how to balance school requirements with students' Real Lives. Here I'm speaking primarily to those students who honestly believe that attendance doesn't benefit them, that it's just another cruel stressor. As I hope I've demonstrated here the real issue is not whether we should have an attendance policy at all, but how exactly that policy is implemented. I've already acknowledged that many instructors don't see certain issues (like chronic illnesses) as excusable when they should, and students don't always know how to advocate for themselves using disability services or simply communicating with their instructors. But our problems with attendance go far beyond the classroom. For example, many of my students miss class because they have work shifts scheduled during that time. For me the real question is not whether that should count as an excused absence or not, but why is that student working in the first place? That is, why have we created a culture in which education is so expensive that kids have to hold down jobs on top of being a full time student and they're still coming out of college with huge amounts of debt?

What people often forget is that all teachers have been students, but very few students have taught. Again, putting aside those instructors who are just plain mean, we actually do remember what it's like to balance a workload on top of sports, jobs, family, friends, and mental illnesses. Your teachers are still dealing with that workload, except we've swapped sports for grading and bar hopping for conferences----and we're not offered three "freebies" a semester to not teach class. Because as is always pointed out to me, this is our job. But the point is we know exactly how hard it is, which means that when we insist on certain requirements it's either because a) the decision is outside of our control (teachers REALLY don't have the sort of power you assume we do) or b) that requirement is actually beneficial for your education. We have double the perspective you do on this topic. Attendance? Grading? Participation? Extensions? Spend a semester teaching and you'll begin to understand why certain structures have developed and why they remain in place. But most students don't get the opportunity to teach, so they have to rely on trust and transparency-----which is a part of what this post is working to accomplish.

In short, attendance isn't the problem here. Ignorance and problems that go far beyond attendance is. Students need to come to class. That's not the debate. The debate is how we make that doable.

So. Convinced yet?

Hell if I know. I'm just an imaginary, generic student you conjured up to play devil's advocate and it's stupid to ask if we've been convinced of our own argument.

Fair enough, but maybe we've convinced some readers.


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