Make Attendance Matter
December 16, 2019
by Mandy McGrew
Educational Specialist for Scholarly Teaching and Part-Time Instructor of American Studies
Kennesaw State University
Faculty members in higher education regularly grapple with the question of whether or not class attendance should be a mandatory course requirement. Decades of research shows that students who attend class regularly end up with higher grades on their exams (Gbadamosi, 2015; Marburger, 2006). Attendance signals how well students are doing overall and according to one meta-analysis attendance is “the single strongest predictor of college grades” (Bergin & Ferrara, 2019). The question remains, though—do students receive higher grades because of their presence in class? Or do higher achieving students attend because they are motivated to come to class, study, and do well on exams? (Credé, Roch, & Kieszczynka, 2010). Moreover, if attending class is correlated with exam performance, should faculty require students to attend class? There is not yet a consensus in the literature that answers these questions (Gbadamosi, 2015). What we, as faculty, can do in response is to consider our personal teaching philosophies and reflect on why and how we institute the attendance policies that we do (Credé et al., 2010). Ultimately, it behooves faculty to move beyond whether or not to require mandatory attendance and instead focus on ways we can structure our courses so that students want and need to be in class every day. Making attendance matter to our students will influence their presence in class.
From a faculty perspective, it seems simple that if higher attendance is positively correlated with higher grades, then mandatory attendance for everyone would mean everyone gets better grades. Attending class regularly means students are forced to come in contact with the course material, regardless of whether or not they are studying outside of class (Credé et al., 2010). Furthermore, the regular intervals of class meetings are similar to the method of learning called, distributive practice, in which studying happens in small chunks distributed over a long period of time. This method of learning is more effective than massed practice in which students “cram” for a test, hence having a positive impact on regularly attending students interaction with course material (Carpenter, Cepeda, Rohrer, Kang, & Pashler, 2012).
So, the question becomes not should students be present for class—the research is clear that students who attend achieve higher grades—but rather, should attendance be mandatory and should there be consequences for absenteeism? Marburger (2006) found that without a mandatory attendance policy, the students in his study were absent more and more as the term progressed. In their 2010 study, Credè ’ et al. found that by instituting a mandatory attendance policy, the effect on grades was small, albeit positive. These results are most encouraging when considering lowering the number of students failing a class; mandatory attendance policies do appear to benefit at-risk students disproportionately (Credé et al., 2010; Gerald & Brady, 2019). So, while Credè (2010) found a weak effect of attendance on grades, they advocate for mandatory attendance policies, because even a small impact is helping the weakest students.
On the flipside, an earlier study showed that mandatory attendance policies are ineffectual because they can result in students feeling a lack of autonomy (St. Clair, 1999). College students often wonder why mandatory attendance is required because they view themselves as adults and consumers of education who should be left to make their own choices about how to spend their time (Gerald & Brady, 2019). Most students understand that if they attend class, they will perform better on assessments, but they want the power to choose whether or not they show up each day (Gerald & Brady, 2019). In their study, Gerald and Brady (2019) gave students a choice of attendance policy, mandatory or optional, and found that most students opted for the mandatory policy. The result was an average attendance of 88 percent at each class meeting—well above what they had previously been experiencing (Gerald & Brady, 2019). When given the choice, students chose to attend. Moore (2003) found similar results in his study and concluded that mandatory attendance policies were not necessary to improve student grades. On the contrary, just reiterating the importance of attending class resulted in higher levels of achievement in his students (Moore, 2003). The practice of allowing students to choose their own attendance policy allows non-traditional students, students working full-time jobs, or students otherwise burdened with stressful circumstances outside of class the flexibility to miss a class without being penalized academically (Gerald & Brady, 2019).
Ultimately, whether or not you institute a mandatory attendance policy in your course is up to you, your context, your needs, and your students (Credé et al., 2010) but having a clear policy on attendance is important for helping students understand your expectations for their behavior (Bergin & Ferrara, 2019). When establishing your policy, consider the following:
- Include information about how students should communicate to you about their absences (Bergin & Ferrara, 2019)
- Share with students that you expect and want them to be in class every day, you will be increasing the likelihood that they attend (Bergin & Ferrara, 2019)
- Design your class so students are motivated to attend. Incorporating active learning strategies into your course helps to engage students and show them that there are things happening in class that they cannot duplicate if they are absent. Create learning experiences for your students that require them to interact with the content and their peers and they will want to be in class so they don’t miss anything (Bergin & Ferrara, 2019).
- Build your course so that being in class is worthwhile to students. By using class time to share information with students, aligned with their graded work, that they cannot otherwise obtain, you will enhance the value of attendance in the eyes of your students. If they can read the notes or watch the lecture elsewhere, they may choose to do so instead of coming to class (Credè et al., 2010)
- Try out Moore’s strategy of regularly emphasizing the value of attending class and the benefits of attendance. This might be enough to get them in the seats each week.
- Communicate to students explicitly and early in the semester about the positive correlation of attendance and grades. By sharing the research on attendance with your students, you will enlighten them as to why they shouldn’t skip out on class.
By making class attendance meaningful to students, faculty can increase the number of students present each day without mandating specific behaviors and assigning punitive consequences for absences.
Bergin, J., & Ferrara, L. (2019, April 1). How Student Attendance Can Improve Institutional Outcomes. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://er.educause.edu/blogs/sponsored/2019/4/how-student-attendance-can-improve-institutional-outcomes
Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H. K., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning: Review of Recent Research and Implications for Instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369–378. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-012-9205-z
Credé, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship of Class Attendance With Grades and Student Characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 272–295. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0034654310362998
Gbadamosi, G. (2015). Should we bother improving students’ attendance at seminars? Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(2), 196–206. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14703297.2013.796717
Gerald, J., & Brady, B. (2019, January 13). Time to Make Your Mandatory-Attendance Policy Optional? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Time-to-Make-Your/245455
Marburger, D. R. (2006). Does Mandatory Attendance Improve Student Performance? The Journal of Economic Education, 37(2), 148–155. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/JECE.37.2.148-155
Moore, R. (2003). Attendance and Performance: How Important Is It for Students To Attend Class? Journal of College Science Teaching, 32.
St. Clair, K. L. (1999). A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education. Innovative Higher Education, 23(3), 171–180. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1022942400812
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