Psychology of Taking Attendance

This semester, the university asked everyone to take attendance in their classes for the first few weeks. The goal was to encourage students to attend class by making it clear there is an expectation. We all did as requested, but then stopped after the required time as taking attendance to most college professors seems to be a waste of time. Additionally most feel that it’s is not the teacher’s responsiblity to get students to attend class. After all, college students are supposed to be adults, and we should treat them as such. So that means letting them decide if they should go to class or do other things. One of my classes is rather large this semester, and taking attendance was extra difficult and long, so I promptly stopped doing so when possible. As one may expect, the attendance dropped noticably. I would say 10-20% of the class stopped showing up regularly. In comparison, a colleague continued to take attendance in his classes. And even though the students understood there was no credit attached to attendance, he reports his class is better attended than in the past. Perhaps he has created the expectation of attendance as was intended.

This bring up an interesting point of psychology. The question is if there is an expectation of a behavior (going to class) with accountability (taking attendance) but no explicit reward or punishment (no points), will people continue the behavior? In two of my classes I give short quizzes over the homework material as a way to determine if people really know the material themselves. The quiz days are told before hand so the student know when it’s coming. Thus during normal class, I may have 70-80% of the class present, but during quiz days everyone shows up. This implies those students only show up to class in order to take the quiz, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. The professional side of me takes that a bit of an insult since it’s a judgment on their part that they don’t find lecture important enough to attend unless there’s a grade involve. Thus the time I put into prepare and deliver the lecture is not worth their time. I could make attendance a grade which would increase the rate of student presence, but I don’t feel that is appropriate for college students, or rather should not be necessary.

So, how to improve class attendance but without outright taking attendance or making it worth points? In large classes taking attendance is very time consuming. Many schools use some sort of clicker system these days which would make taking attendance quicker, but still doesn’t serve any purpose besides a reminder to show up for class. A better solution may be to do a single quiz question during class using the clicker system. It could be based on material just covered or covered last time. It would help to check for understanding and maybe, just maybe get the students to internalize some information. Making the questions worth 1 or 2 bonus points would be a good way to incentivize attendance, but not punish them for missing class. Research has shown that taking notes during class and studying them after class helps with knowledge retention and learning. Perhaps a clicker quiz at the beginning of class on the previous material would also encourage between class studying.

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