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

(Digital Vision)

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.


KMS

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).

brian

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.

Mariana

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

lewarcher

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?

Robert

As an undergraduate economics student, I have never missed a single class period for any of the classes I've taken thus far. That being said, I've never missed a class that either had an attendance policy nor have I missed a class that didn't. The most effective attendance policy I've seen by far, however, was no attendance policy, but a graded in-class assignment every class period with no make-ups possible. She did have a late policy, which I greatly appreciated as someone who showed up not only for every class, but on time for every class. It's more distracting for me as a student to have someone walk in late, than it is to not have someone show up at all. I'd rather my professors punish people more for showing up late than for not showing up at all. Basically her scheme was if you're over 15 minutes late, and you still come in to class, you lose two points off your final grade, which was more than you'd lose if you just didn't show up and didn't do the daily assignment.

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Brandt

Having spent the better part of my life in school, I can tell you that attendance increases when 1) The professor is a talented lecturer, 2)The students are already the type that would attend lectures out of a sense of obligation or professionalism (i.e. medical school, veterinary school), or 3) If the prof has some policy- like point deduction- that incentivises attendance.

But here's the thing- especially if you're teaching Econ: the students should have the freedom to decide. If your lectures are interesting and worth attending, if they are relevant to the test and/or life- the students will come. They are the consumers- they pay the money for your product. Like other aspects of life- let the students use that product how they like. Of course, like other aspects of life- come test time, some may regret their behavior.

Weird point incentives are, in my view, similar to manipulating markets. Bad lecturers need them, bad students need them, but they do nothing to change either one.

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C4tA

Any attendance policy just makes more work for you to do, which is fine only if what you are grading your students on is the ability to show up to class. If you actually want to measure what students learn, then provide learning opportunities during class time. You can require students to explain their application in a paper or on a test. Good luck!

Greg

As a recent graduate of both undergraduate and law schools, I found that coming up with ways to explicitly reward attendance (or punish nonattendance) usually just created resentment and scheming to avoid them. The classes I attended were the ones that genuinely added value to my understanding of the material.

Therefore, if your class is merely a recitation of what's found in the book, if you teach from PowerPoint slides which you then post online, and if you test only on materials that can be found in the textbook or on your class website, there is no reason for students to attend.

Instead, if your class is a discussion of the material and genuinely adds value (and testable material!) to the students' education, they'll have no choice to attend, bonus points or not.

john_d

Because classes graded on a curve are zero-sum, deducting points from truants and adding points to students who attend class provide the same grade incentives.

harry63

While I believe the most important element is the professor creating interesting lectures or presentations, I have adopted another policy for small classes (12 or less students) that improves the overall quality of each class:

Attendance and participation make up a portion of the student's final grade. Each day students must earn points for contributing something of significance to the discussion based on the reading or assignment given. If they attend but do not contribute to the discussion, they do not receive attendance/particpation points.

I have found that students complete the readings more often than other systems I have used and are more engaged during class. It is also simple to keep track of as all I do is put a mark next to a student's name when something is contributed.

Leah

Speaking from the perspective of a recent graduate (and one who almost never missed a class), I think the best thing to do is make it clear on the first day (when pretty much everyone is there) that there will be material and examples/problems covered in lecture that is not in the textbook and will be on the tests. You will be making a contribution to these students that is above and beyond what skimming the textbook will give them. From there, it's their choice whether to attend (and ignore the whiners when you make good on your word).

The worst econ professor I had told us on the first day of class that he'd more or less be covering the textbook, and if we could skip class, just study the book, and get a good grade, he had no problem with that. I understand where his mentality is coming from (a similar mentality is expressed in some of the comments here), but to tell a class of students paying thousands of dollars for the class that a $100 textbook may give them an equivalent education was, to me, outrageous.

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kim

Make it clear on Day 1 that you will be including information in your classroom lectures that students will not get from simply reading the materials, and that those pieces will form a major component of your exams. Sure, they could borrow notes from a friend, but I wouldn't want to trust a friend to catch the right information and transmit it accurately!

David M

Hey,

I just graduated, and in my final year one lecturer had a point system for class attendance. Those who scored highest recieved an additional percentage to their end of year grade. Average attenders had no alteration to their result whilst poor attendence was met with the loss of a percentage point. I missed two classes at the start of the year and was immediately out of the running for achieving the additional percent, so from that point onwards the reward system meant nothing to me. Once I realised I had little to gain from attending I felt incentivsed NOT to attend lectures. The best way to ensure attendence is to present interesting information in clever ways that make the class fun to be in. Unique slides combined with relevant commentary do more than any reward system. Interactive classes that encourage participation can also discourage shy/quiet people from class. Allowing the most outspoken students speak all the time is not beneficial to the class as a whole, but merely hones those particular students skills. Students should be systematically drawn into discussions without choice. Just some thoughts

Dave

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Jenny

The class I never missed as a student was the one where the professor lectured as passionately about the subject as a grandmother talking about her grandchildren. His excitement was contagious, and I couldn't wait to go every time. The subject btw for the entire semester was the detailed mechanics and cognitive processes of how we hear. His engaging lecture style brought every student to every class, and it was the favorite of most of us.

Mister M

1) First he should go check his ratings at Rate My Professors. If he has positive ratings then he needn't worry about incentivizing classroom attendance.

2) Make the class interactive and not so much lecture based. If no one shows up, refer to #1

Matthias

In college I always knew how valuable a class would be by the attendance policy. My valuable classes had no attendance policy. The professor knew that if you didn't show up, you would not understand the class material and you would perform poorly on assignments and exams hurting your grade.

Other professors knew that their class time was basically a regurgitation of their lecture slides pulled from a textbook. These ones always had strict attendance policies, usually that punished non-attendance.

J1

I have to confess, I found this one a howler, and assumed (correctly) long before I got to the last paragraph that he had to be a humanities professor. In the college of engineering I attended, the fourth time you missed a class (without a reason that met the "excused absence" parameters) you flunked, period. That method seemed to work pretty well. You attend college to learn, not be entertained (though admittedly that helps).

rory

my guess that the best way to get a higher percentage of students attending class is to get a better time slot (not early in the am; not late in the pm; not on friday).

Alex

I had a language professor who would give weekly quizzes to check what we learned the week before. While it was annoying at first, the quizzes were about 10 minutes long, max, and would tell you if you were falling behind before you bombed a major exam.
Also, missing a quiz resulted in a 0, which if it happened once or twice wouldn't kill your grade, but if it was regular, you'd certainly feel it at the end of the term.