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. Ben says:

    I recently graduated from an MBA program. Each professor had a different method for scoring attendance. However, after 2 absences you risked losing a letter grade. If students are not showing up to your class, look internally at your lecture style. Punishing students is not the answer. Students that produce “A” level work should receive an “A”.

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  2. Pi says:

    I have occasional quizzes that are included into the grade, but dates are not announced. Also, since we have a lot of group work in class, each group has to rate their members’ performance several times a semester and at the end. The increased responsibility to peers helps attendance. Otherwise I don’t insist: we are all adults in college and life happens all the time, so all are free to make their own choices. On the upside: never had an attendance problem, 8 am or 2 pm classes, no matter.

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  3. Nanno says:

    For a theological class the best way to incentivize more students, in my opinion, would be to make the class about the social value and morals derived form the new testament rather than considering it as “the word of god”.

    If you could you should have “believers” read a book such as ‘breaking the spell’ by Daniel Dennett and non-believers (parts of) the new testament. In my opinion (as non-believer) the questions of why we have religions, why they have so many similarities, how did they evolve and which parts are still relevant are much more important than what is literally said.

    for example: why is it that we gain hope and social cohesion from singing together? whether it is a psalm, the national anthem or a sportsclub anthem? “singing” together is a big part of several religions.

    Fn: I see the Thora, Bible and Koran as social values and morals written down to guide and bind people, to become a society where people respect each other because they know they are treated equally. What better incentive to make them live by these rules than stating there is an all-seeing, all knowing, almighty god who you can either join in paradise or be banished to hell.

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  4. James says:

    the best incentive I’ve seen is to structure the material covered in class so that it is highly/entirely correlated with what is tested on. The second incentive is a half letter grade bonus for near perfect attendance to be added to the final paper/test grade.

    btw:Wow Stephen, one hell of a caviat.

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  5. Todd Sullivan says:

    I know I’m repeating what a few others have said, but I would not have an attendance policy. If the students don’t want to be there, there are 100 ways for them to be physically present and mentally absent. Teach to the students that want to attend.

    I have been in classrooms where I felt that most of the students didn’t want to be there. It is intimidating to ask questions or engage the teacher, knowing the negative response you will draw from your peers.

    And, honestly, there are some people who learn much more from reading books than they do listening to lectures. We all process information in different ways. If a lecture isn’t going to be useful to a student, why require their presence?

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  6. minnmass says:

    Honestly, the best incentive is to be a good professor.

    Professors who give out bonus “attendance” points (be it by adding points for attending or subtracting them for skipping) are announcing on the first day of class that they’re boring, that the only reason to attend lecture is to get the points.

    A good professor will present the material in such a way that the students *want* to be there. Lectures (or, better, discussions) will deepen the students’ understanding of the material (which also has the advantage of helping their grades on tests) and will be enjoyable in their own right. And, really, if the student has “better things to do”, let them fail the final and re-take the class.

    But, asking how to word the “if you don’t come to lecture, you won’t get as many points as if you do” bribe to come is starting at the wrong endpoint and working back to the beginning; it’ll never work. (“Since we all know that JFK’s assassination was just a clever ruse to let him leave the public’s eye, how did they get the footage of his getting shot in front of so many people?”)

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  7. Cp says:

    Bottom line: The teacher is paid to be there by the student. The grade is given based on if the student knows the material or not. If the student knows the material without going to class, why waste the student’s time? As a current student, I pay for my classes/teachers (approximately $170 per hour), so I choose to go. Since I compete directly with my peers for grades and jobs, I prefer them to not show up.

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  8. chief says:

    I had two great experiences in college, where I enjoyed going to lecture.

    First, was my Intro to Materials Engineering class. At the end of each lecture, the professor had a question for us to answer. We could confer with other students in the classroom and our notes, if we got it right 2 points, wrong 1 point, not in attendance 0 points. The next lecture he would go over the question and the right answer, but these answers where not posted for us to access outside of the lecture. But a handful of the questions would be on the tests or very similar ones, so it paid to go to lecture because those questions where great help on the test.

    Second, was my Heat Transfer class. We where expected to read the book ahead of class and then during class, the professor would spend 20 minutes reviewing the concepts and the last 40 minutes going over example problems. I always struggled with the application of concepts, so this really helped me understand how the theories we learned in the book can be applied to real world solutions.

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