Our Daily Bleg: How Should a Professor Incentivize Classroom Attendance?

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Art Wright, a professor*, writes in to say:

I have this problem: I am course-planning for the fall term right now, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to develop an attendance policy.  Many professors deduct points or letter grades for a certain number of absences.  In contrast, I had someone recommend that I give points if students come to most or all of the class meetings.  So I’m left wondering: What is the best way to incentivize class attendance for my students?  What, in your opinion, will get them to attend most – if not all — of the class meetings?

What advice do you have for Art?

If you’re a professor, let us know what you’ve tried that has worked or failed. If you’re a student or used to be one (I assume that means everyone here), what did it take to get you to show up regularly?

*By the way, Art is a visiting professor of New Testament at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Am wondering how readers might answer (or engage with) his question differently if I’d introduced him as such rather than simply as a “professor.” Of all the assumptions we make and biases we carry, it strikes me that religion encourages some of the strongest ones.

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  1. Valeri Inting says:

    The best incentive was the professor himself. It was when missing a lesson felt like missing a book’s worth of knowledge.

    The worst incentive was the deliberate one: the professor requiring you to go to class knowing he was worth missing.

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  2. emmalynnb says:

    I had an economics professor that would give a worksheet at the end of class that helped you practice the lesson of the day. You received points if you completed the worksheet and turned it in, regardless of it being correct or incorrect. In the end, those worksheets added up to the value of a test so if you did each one, you essentially had a 100% on a test. Worked well for encouraging attendance!

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  3. Zzzzz says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. Grange95 says:

    The best attendance policy is not to have one. If you want students to attend class, you need to make the class interactive (e.g., involve students in discussions or projects), and have your grading devices (tests, quizzes, papers, projects) flow from or be tied to class lectures and discussions. If all you do is drone on about what’s in the textbook and test on what’s in the textbook, then students can learn that on their own time and class attendance is superfluous.

    BTW, I was an honors student who was probably notorious for poor attendance at classes that were purely lecture-driven. One truth I quickly learned in college was that professors who made attendance at their lectures irrelevant were the only ones who needed an attendance policy.

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    • Shane says:

      College student from Ireland here.

      Attendance isn’t measured in most of my classes. No matter how interesting I find a 9AM class, I think I would miss it unless there was a bonus/penalty for attendance. ;D

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      • Léachtóir says:

        Irish college lecturer here.

        Remember I don’t have much (or usually any) control over when my classes are scheduled, so the 9AM class might not suit you but tough. Next term or semester, I hope you make it to all your classes :)

        I don’t give penalties or bonuses, it seems there is an institutional issue with ‘marks for attendance’. I would be unable to introduce a direct marks for attendance scheme, even if I wanted to.

        We usually don’t have take attendance at the higher levels (except for student grant reasons), but I get great attendance, even at 9AM. Mixture of making each lecture practical, challenging and instilling an interest in the subject. It helps that I teach subjects like game development, but I also teach some boring subjects and I’ve noticed students sneaking into my classes rather than their own lecturer’s (for the same subject/exam etc.). I’ve asked them why (after class, I’m not evil) and they say I don’t rely on simply reading out notes or slides and I draw them along in a story and worked whiteboard explanations.

        Léachtóir (Lecturer in Gaelic)

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  5. Mitch says:

    You should neither directly reward or punish attendance. Students (or their parents) pay a pretty penny to attend college. It’s their right to choose to attend class or not. Those who attend should test better; that will be their reward.

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    • Lawrence says:

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      • Neil (SM) says:

        That doesn’t really make sense. Suppose it costs you, say $1 to produce a lemonade and I buy it for $.50 , (and your mom gives you grants to make up the rest).

        Once I’ve paid for the lemonade, it makes no difference to your bottom line whether I drink it or pour it down the drain. You don’t lose any money because I don’t take the lemonade.

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      • Peter says:

        In fact, it makes a big difference to colleges whether students do well enough in their classes to graduate. Graduation rates are important for recruiting students, donors, and for general perception of a school. Also, there is a morale issue: as a professor, I don’t want to work at a school where students don’t succeed. Note: it doesn’t follow from this that I’m willing to lower the bar so that it is easy for them to get the grades they need to graduate.

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    • Andrew says:

      Let’s assume a course is interactive, engaging, and conversational. Students who habitually skip class detract from the learning of other students (fewer opinions are shared). Now, obviously tuition transactions are exclusively between students and universities (and not their fellow classmates), so I agree with Mitch that it’s a students right to choose whether or not to attend class. But, that is not to say universities should not punish students who skip class. They are, after all, detracting from the learning experience of their fellow classmates who also pay tuition.

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      • Suleiman says:

        As a student, I don’t feel particularly deprived when those who aren’t interested in a class don’t show up. The extent of their voluntary participation in class discussion is generally limited to requests for the professor to explain basic concepts (in upper-level courses) and repeat lecture material that was covered in the classes they skipped. It’s a lot more rewarding for those of us who do show up and pay attention to have more time to actually engage in productive and creative discussion rather than spending a good part of the class bored and/or frustrated.

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    • Bree says:

      I hate the “student as a consumer” mentality. College is not the same as a movie that you walk out of because you’re bored. If the student doesn’t like their classes, maybe they should reconsider college and go find something else to do until they are mature enough to care about their education rather than waste everybody’s money (their own lost wages, their parents’ tuition money, the government money that goes to subsidies, etc).

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      • Dan Croy says:

        Thank you for pointing out that the student is not the customer (cosumer). Higher education produces graduates who should be, among other things, skilled, employable, and productive citizens. The “customer” is the employer, the graduate school, and society at large. It’s about time the customer starts complaining about the product and higher education starts listening to the real customers.

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      • Thorgeir says:

        A logical extension of the “waste” analysis is that every space at university that is occupied by a disinterested student is a space denied to an interested student, who might not have been admitted in the first instance because of a slightly lower GPA or aptitude test score. Of course, the question is also raised, whether the usual “lecture” model of education is, in fact, the most effective way to impart academic knowledge in most subjects?

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  6. Ravin says:

    Almost invariably, the best incentive to attendance is a really interesting lecture with a charismatic lecturer. Or a cure girl in the class.

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  7. Grange95 says:

    Deducting points for failure to attend or awarding bonus points for attendance is purely a semantic difference. Pragmatically, they are the same. But the professor and students can all feel better about a “bonus” than a “penalty”.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      Somewhat different, I think though. Bonus points often implies adding to the numerator and leaving the denominator constant. Which possibly means you could do perfectly on the coursework and the tests and get an A in the class without needing the bonus points.

      Deducting points from the numerator, however, means that after acing all of the tests and coursework just like in the above scenario you could end up with a B after the deduction.

      So in the case of deductions it would not be mathematically possible to get an A in the class if you miss more than X classes whereas in the bonus points case it would be possible.

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  8. Walky says:

    I haven’t had problems with attendance, but I started having problems with punctuality. So, I developed an addendum to the school’s attendance policy.
    Attendance policy: x percent of no-shows fails the course.
    Addendum: three late arrivals are equivalent to one no-show.

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