This entry deals with a practical issue in the teaching of psychology that touches on issues of student learning and development. Should psychology faculty keep track of course attendance in their classes? When I was a college student, many of the faculty who taught me somehow kept track of class attendance (at least in those classes with 30 or fewer people in them-large lectures with a hundred or more students-not so much). I didn't miss many classes. I went because I really wanted to be there (usually) to be a part of things, to listen, learn, and to share my opinions. I went because I thought it was important for me to keep up my end of the educational bargain with the university and, candidly, with my folks, who were footing the (even then rather large) bill. Although I regularly attended class, I resented the idea that I had to be there or else some punitive measure would be taken (e.g., a lowered grade) or having to "ask" to miss a class. (ugh! I hated that-what about privacy!?). After all, if I missed class, wouldn't the inherent risk (not knowing what's going on, missing test-worthy material) be mine alone? Wasn't attendance tracking best left back in secondary settings like high schools?
That philosophy carried me for my early career. When I first became a professor, I never took role. I told my students I wanted them to come to class, that I would make it interesting for them, but that I would not invade their private lives (i.e., attendance choices) for the simple reason that it was their affair and that missing class could catch up to them (i.e., test grades, class participation grades) if they were not vigilant. They were young adults, however, and could-should-learn to make such choices and to accept the consequences, and so on and so forth.
Then my-holier-than-thou moments in the sun were over and the world changed; that is, college-bound students changed. Absence or sporadic attendance became too frequent an occurrence for my taste, and I had little stomach for listening to a litany of excuses. More to the point, it's no secret that recent generations of college students are less prepared to grapple with college level work and that instructors and institutions need to provide more structure than in the past.
So, about 10 or so years ago, I changed my ways. I started taking role (students sign in on a piece of paper at the start of class) and told my students that they could miss three classes with no penalty and without having to offer an explanation to me (my attempt at preserving their privacy and choice) but that over three absences would result in a lowering of their final course grade. Was (is) this a good idea?
Let's review the points for both sides.
First, some arguments for taking attendance. One of the main ones is accountability: Students should be held accountable for participating in the learning community that is a class. If a student misses class, then she is not actively taking part in the community. On the receiving end, by missing class, she is not learning from her peers or the instructor as both engage with the course material. Where giving is concerned, if she does not attend a class, she is not there to share her reflections on the course material with her classmates or the instructor. These points emphasize a student's responsibility to others as well as to her self.
A more practical analysis highlights the obvious pitfall for the student who misses class for whatever reason: projected performance. Missing even one class can mean missing key course material (e.g., notes) or comments pertaining to assignments (e.g., papers) or forthcoming exams. To be sure, some of the information can be obtained from the faculty member or peers, but not all. A good classroom is one where spontaneity occurs, where discussion takes unpredictable twists and turns, where anecdotes illustrate principles or concepts.
What about the con position? Well, if we want students to behave like young adults, shouldn't we treat them that way? They are free to miss class (and therefore review of material, as well as discussion, announcements, etc.) at their own peril. The choice is theirs to make, real or implied penalties and all. Isn't taking role daily a tad demeaning, anyway (that would be the argument I made in my head as a college student and young professor), both to the student and the professor?
I've made a choice to allow students some latitude while trying to encourage attendance for participation's sake. My solution is not perfect but it works reasonably well. If nothing else, it reminds my students that they are not anonymous, that I want them to be there in the educational fray and that their contributions are truly missed when they are missing. I want them to be more than a face in the crowd, to stand out a bit when they are in my class and when they make related choices (from simply showing up to being responsible, perhaps eventually even to leading) when they go out into the world.