Monitoring who attends class is pointless unless it counts towards students’ grades

Not everyone is here, but I’ll begin. Lecture via wavebreakmedia/www.shutterstock.com

University lecturers rarely get 100% of students turn up to every lecture. Nor do we expect them all to. Those who have got up, travelled to campus and made their way to class are clearly the most motivated and interested in their education. Good attendance rates can indicate that a lecturer is good at teaching – or perhaps that they have secured a good time slot, not too early on a Monday or too late on a Friday.

In a world of student visas and loans, universities are now under greater pressure to show that the students who say they attend university actually do. Monitoring of attendance has traditionally been done at checkpoints throughout the year, such as registration and exams. But now universities are trialling different ways of monitoring how students spend their time, made easier at institutions such as the Open University where much of the course material and interaction is online.

As more universities experiment with electronic monitoring systems, I think more should be done to link attendance to the way the module is taught. Students need to know that if they don’t turn up, there will be an impact on their grade at the end.

If we promote students as adults who are active in their education, I think universities are heading in the wrong direction if they institute policies of attendance monitoring that gives birth to Big Brother. It shouldn’t be anybody but the student who is responsible for his or her class attendance.

Ways to watch

There are some instances in which participation in a class or session is mandatory – such as laboratories in science courses or ensembles in music courses. However, the majority of students whose university careers are built around lectures and seminars have to rely on intrinsic motivation to propel them into the classroom.

There are a multitude of ways to track student attendance that do not necessarily link up with how much they actually participate once they get there. One US university came under fire a few years ago for introducing radio-frequency identification (RFID) trackers, built into students ID cards, to track their attendance.

Attendance monitoring can be linked to academic consequences. Newcastle University’s student progress policy states that there are different levels of reprimand depending how many times a student is absent.

If there are continued absences you may be called to a meeting … In very extreme cases an academic unit may invoke unsatisfactory progress regulations. In very rare cases the university may withdraw students who are not attending their classes.

But this kind of strategy does not address the classroom component of the module. Students are busy, and by looking at the handbook they can see what is required for each module. The expectation might be that they need to show up for every session but the reality is that your marks come from exams and essays, not attendance in class. One example of this is from the University of Central Lancashire, which states in the frequently asked questions section of its attendance monitoring policy that “decisions regarding your academic performance will be based on the assessments submitted and marked”.

Make attendance a requirement

No carrot, no stick. Carrot via Lisa S. / www.shutterstock.com

The introduction of retention monitoring systems appeals to universities that want to increase the percentage of students graduating within a certain timeframe. We tell the students to swipe their ID card or tick a box when they enter the classroom and we tell them that we are tracking their attendance. What we don’t tell them is that this is a situation where the university has no carrot and no stick.

On a course-by-course basis, module leaders are able to decide on the required assessments – and participation and attendance can be built in if approved and quality is assured. But most universities have no carrot here, because for many courses, if a student has access to the right course material and reading lists, it’s still possible to pass the assessment without turning up to lectures or seminars. No lecturer that I am aware of will deny a student a copy of the presentation if they miss class and most lecturers post class materials on the university learning management system.

Students who miss a session don’t get the context of the lesson and how it relates to the bigger picture of the module or course. Yes, students are paying for this education and yes they should be able to choose whether they attend class or not. This does not mean that the lecturer should have to juggle or sing and dance to get students to show up; but it does mean that there have to be meaningful expectations of attendance that match up with the results and teaching of a module.

The days of the sage on the stage are over: the teaching methods of active learning and problem-based learning mean students have come to expect that the pedagogy of the lesson is linked to the participation. Let them be the freethinking adults we assume them to be and make their own decisions about whether or not to attend sessions. But make it count towards their grade too.