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. Shane says:

    Maybe have no attendance policy. Try to make lectures as interesting as possible, but leave it up to students whether or not to turn up. They are adults so if they really value the course they will turn up. If they don’t, presumably it will negatively impact their understanding of the subject, which should show up in poor scores for exams or projects.

    I remember in my college years some students were notorious for not showing up in class. But does it matter? That was their loss. The rest of us chose to attend class regardless of whether or not we were being checked for attendance, and it was a little annoying and patronising as young adults if lecturers decided to keep a roll call.

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    • Michael Makovi says:

      My mother was a TA in chemistry at UMBC (if I recall correctly), and she said once, after the end of the semester and exams, a student came to her and asked why he failed the course. She said to him, “I handed out a sheet with my expectations on the first day of class. The requirements for passing the course were right there.” He responded, “Was I there?” She said, “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Look, I’m a graduate student working on my MSc, and I’ve got my own courses and work to keep up with, and I’ve got a husband and a child. I don’t care whether you were there or not.”

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  2. Regina says:

    Most young people, and even some of us older ones, have authority issues. I was a student for a some time and I would have responded much more positively to the incentive. Plus you will have to spend less time sorting through excuses (although that is an opportunity to hear some creative storytelling). Here is a blog post about the power of choice you might find relevant. http://texaslawyer.typepad.com/work_matters/2011/08/the-power-of-choice.html

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    • Regina says:

      I should have mentioned that this is not my blog. Also, if you incentivize, document in syllabus and repeat in lecture that no extra credit is owed even if it was beyond the power of the student to attend.

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  3. Jennifer says:

    As a current I can safely say that I will attend most-to-all sessions of a class if I feel that it is:
    – interactive
    – insightful
    – challenging
    – providing me with a true benefit

    It is not just about the grades. If a class is just plain boring or not relevant for me, I’m unlikely to attend even if it may hurt my grade. I simply don’t like wasting my time. Or, I may show up, but not pay attention, which probably wouldn’t be in Art’s interest either.

    On the other hand, I had one seminar where we would have a reading assignment for every class and discuss it during the lecture. Also, there was a quiz at the beginning of every class, so it had a grade aspect too, but for me it was one of the classes I learned the most from, because the professor was more of a guide than a teacher and we really learned more from each other and the reflection on the topic. Not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but I hope this helps.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Why would you want people in class that are only there for an incentive?

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    • twelch4028@aol.com says:

      Because EVERYTHING WE DO is due to incentives. The only questions are what are appropriate and effective incentives.

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  5. Liz Morgen says:

    I think this is really interesting issue. I graduated from my undergrad in 2009 and there was nothing I hated more than “attendance” being taken for courses with over 200 students in a class. For the honest students that did show up, we watched friends sign in their absent friends, making us wonder why we bothered to show. (This particular class was boring but known as an easy course to earn a good grade).
    When I began my graduate degree, class attendance marks was replaced by class participation marks which helped encourage everyone to participate. Of course this wont work if your class size is larger than say 50 people.
    In the end, the classes I regularly attended were those that were intriguing and presented in an interesting manner (which I know isn’t easy for some subjects and professors).
    If you still want to try something to entice attendance, I had one professor tell us a random fact about himself every now and then that he would ask as a bonus question on tests. Another professor used the sign in system, but didn’t put out the sign out sheets till the end of class (ensuring no one signed in and left) and he monitored the sheet (making sure no one signed their absent friends in).

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  6. Caleb b says:

    Actually, loss-aversion is pretty well studied in humans as overriding any ‘gain’ offered. So you should impose a penalty for missing too many classes if you want the highest attendance.

    Loss-aversion example: let’s play a game,
    1) heads you get $50, tails you get zero
    2) I hand you $50, then if it comes up tails, I take the money back.

    It’s the exact same game but humans AND primates overwhelmingly prefer game 1. If the game is altered so that the participant must perform a task, they will try AND succeed more often if they play game 2.

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    • caleb b says:

      Sorry, I forgot to mention, I don’t agree with taking attendance. Your might be forced by your department, but I think it should be up to the students to attend.

      However, an attendance policy at least provides CYA for grade beggars. They whine, “my grade should be higher!” and you get to reply, “really? Because you weren’t in class very much.”

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  7. Swintah says:

    Teach a great class/give stirring lectures, then you won’t have to incentivize.

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    • BobF says:

      Isn’t incentive’s to go to class, either as a penalty or a reward mechanism, a way to insure people who sit there and update Facebook in class via a laptop. Just say there is no attendance policy, but class participation is a way I differentiate grades. If you say interesting things in class and you are on the border line between grades, you’ll get the bump up.

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  8. Matthew Brown says:

    I guess I would ask….*why* are you trying to incentivize attendance? If attendance is necessary to pass the class, or if your class is entertaining/educational in such a way as to make the students want to attend, then that should be all the incentive you need.

    Speaking from personal experience, not everyone does as well in a classroom/lecture setting…I would regularly skip lectures in medical school in favor of spending that time in the library listening to the prior day’s lecture on tape (which I could rewind or fast forward at my whim, and could get up and stretch without disturbing other patients)

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