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. Renaissance 2K says:

    I’m going to echo Valeri’s point. The professor’s the biggest incentive to go to a class.

    If he or she is animated, creative, and easy to understand, it becomes the highlight of whatever you happen to be learning.

    If the instructor is dull, straight-forward, and difficult to understand (either because they don’t address the class properly, they have a thick accent, or they don’t keep good notes), the actual lecture is just a waste of an hour when the textbook and web-posted notes explain everything in a more concise and explicit fashion.

    A few instructors mentioned posting only incomplete notes or slides on their website, which were filled out progressively as the lecture proceeded. Other instructors made attendance manditory; you would fail if you missed three lectures without a documented reason. The former results in students that pay attention for 5% of the lecture. The latter doesn’t even get that 5%.

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  2. Tyler Kochanski says:

    A class I had featured a “Three Strikes” attendance policy (my professor liked baseball); we were allowed to miss class twice, for whatever reason, but if you missed class a third time, you failed the class. That sure as heck made me wake up for that 8am class.

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  3. Doug says:

    Make your class worth attending.

    Certain professors can pack the room to overflowing (Feynman???). Be that professor.

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  4. Trevor says:

    This depends entirely on the desired outcome – what is it you are actually trying to encourage? Is attendance at lectures seen as desirable in itself? Or as a proxy for something else?

    If it is the second of these, then it’s better to tie the reward more directly to the outcome that is desired. If, for example, attendance is actually about learning through the year, then attach some reward to this (frequent tests for example) rather than to attendance.

    Gaming the system, I could turn up to all your lectures, learn nothing, and get free marks – is this the desired outcome?

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  5. KMS says:

    For a large intro class where I used Power Point and worried that distributing the Power Point slides would cannibalize attendance, I told my students that I would only distribute the slides on days where attendance was >=75% of the number of students enrolled. I didn’t count every day, but it’s a pretty easy eyeball test. I also had quizzes that were easy if you read and difficult if you did not (or, I thought they were).

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  6. brian says:

    The only incentive necessary and appropriate is to provide quality teaching that makes it worth the time of the student to attend. If the professor cannot do that, why should the students as consumers be punished by being coerced into attending? The students paid for the classes and should be permitted to choose whether or not to attend. Any additional punishment or incentive merely skews the market for the professor’s services and hides valuable information regarding how effective he is at his job.

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  7. Mariana says:

    Make your class either very interesting, or very hard… when it’s very interesting and entertaining, students attend even if attendance isn’t required. and when a difficult subject, students go to class simply to better understand and actually have a chance at passing the course.
    or you could always take an annoying approach, quick graded quizez every class or every other class that actually counts a lot towards the grade and requires attendance (though this makes most students a bit mad)
    good luck

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  8. lewarcher says:

    To me, the question is not ‘what is the best way to incentivize class attendance’, but ‘should class attendance be incentivized at all’?

    I know of no studies concerning class attendance incentives, and I’d be interested to see if they actually make a difference. My belief is similar to Valeri Inting’s comment, that the best incentive is the professor. Unless the incentive is significant (10% or more), I’d rather self-study a course where the professor reads out of the textbook during the class instead of show up.

    Even if the incentive is significant, what’s the purpose for getting students in the class if the professor adds no extra value from reading the course materials? Is it a higher attendance record that benefits the professor somehow, or is it the belief that students in the classroom equals a better chance of passing the course?

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