Should profs give points for showing up? -

Should profs give points for showing up?

Pettigrew weighs in


Photo by Menno van der Horst on Flickr

With final exams on the way and final grades right behind them, students across the country are wondering where they stand. How much was that mid-term worth? Can I still hand it that essay?

Oh, and what about my attendance grade?

Anyone who’s taught a university course has struggled with the question of attendance grades. The arguments against giving marks for simply showing up are clear. University students are supposed to be adults, and it’s up to them to decide whether they want to be in class or not. Besides, grades should reflect the actual work done in the course: just being there doesn’t mean you’ve learned anything. And giving an attendance grade means taking attendance in each class, and that is boring and time consuming.

But the counterarguments suggest themselves immediately. Students want good grades, so an attendance component should lead to better attendance, which might not guarantee that they will learn anything that day, but certainly raises the odds compared to the alternative. Further, some classes have collaborative projects and assignments that can quickly get derailed when people don’t show up.  It’s hard for an acting class to do its scene from Waiting for Godot if they’ve spent the whole term waiting for Gary.

While some US schools have policies that require attendance grades, Canadians have generally been less zealous. At my university, in fact, academic policy requires that no student can fail a class based solely on attendance, and since no one is entirely sure what this policy means, many of us simply avoid giving attendance grades all together. But even in the absence of such a policy, is it really right to fail a student who passed all of her exams and assignments just because she wasn’t there enough?

One way around the issue is not to give attendance grades per se, but rather, participation grades. This can be tricky because it’s sometimes hard to define “participation.” Since many students are reluctant to speak in front of others, some professors consider coming to class itself, and silently paying attention, as a form of participation.

But then we are back to something like an attendance grade, and in any case, participation in the broadest sense is difficult to measure. When I was at the University of Waterloo, there was a story going around where a student in a large class stood up at the end of the semester and asked the professor, “Do you know my name?” The professor confessed that he did not. “Then how,” the student demanded, “can you fairly give me a participation grade?” Whether the story was true or not, it gives one pause.

Still, participation grades remain common, at least in some kinds of courses, because they give a certain amount of credit where credit is due. Most intellectuals will easily agree that part of what we want to teach students is to participate in conversations, to question, to argue. Why shouldn’t we be evaluating students on those skills?

My own practices tend to be a series of compromises. First, in courses where there is a lot of lecturing and essay writing and where it’s unlikely I’ll learn everyone’s name, I tell my students there is an attendance and participation grade. Its 100 per cent. It’s all attendance and participation—because unless you come to class, and listen, and take notes, and study, and do your assignments, unless you attend and participate, you simply won’t be able to learn what you need to learn in the class.

In smaller classes where I can learn everyone’s name and where the nature of the course lends itself to discussion, I include a component that I call a “seminar” grade. But I make it clear that participating in the seminar means speaking up and answering questions, and asking questions. It’s not just showing up.


Should profs give points for showing up?

  1. I’m just finishing my first year of a distance/on campus graduate degree program.

    This university boasts itself on being a leader in allowing people to take these classes anywhere, at any time, while earning a graduate degree with an added specialization. They also boast a flex-time option for those who work full-time and wish to complete a degree also.

    I would say out of the 100-or so people in my classes (average), about 10 of us are on campus, with the rest logged in all across Canada.

    When I entered the program back in September, I had also enrolled in classes to add a “specialization” to my final degree.

    Unfortunately, I, along with 3 other students (to my knowledge), had to drop this specialization, due to issues surrounding “attendance” requirements. Attendance was mandatory, yet, this program still, to this day, says courses can be taken anywhere at anytime.

    A major marketing highlight of the program is that these courses are scheduled to work around individuals who work 9-5, with classes from 7-10pm. The specialization classes all occur during the day when most of this target group is at work.

    Upon bringing up this issue with the professor and scheduling, the response was basically, “too bad, you have to pick one or the other: your education, or your current job”.

    I have taken online classes before where participation marks are usually a large chunk of our final grade, which makes perfect sense. Online classes demand self-discipline and time organization, and assignments that promote participation online (such as discussions in webCT) ensure that you stay on track. I believe that those students who pick these courses have chosen so knowing what is expected of them as well as what is required to succeed in this alternative learning environment.

    In my current program, lectures are done on campus, and those off campus use WebEx to view them in live time. These are recorded to view later if someone happens to miss a lecture.

    The responsibility and onus is on the student to “attend” to the course work, in whichever way is appropriate.

    I’m still upset that I had to drop this specialization (it being the only reason I took the program in the first place), and very disappointed that this professor was inflexible to create course guidelines that would adhere to the program’s description.

    I feel cheated, and undermined as a responsible and mature, hard-working adult student.

  2. I hate taking attendance and have a terrible memory for names. For medium and small classes, I use activities where the students discuss in small groups and/or answer questions either on paper or online. Then participation (aka attendance) is tracked by the names on sheets handed in or on electronic posts. Tracking using the paper activities is faster than the electronic version; paper also helps to encourage the students to come to class. Electronic posts can usually be done from anywhere, but if the students are not in class, they miss the directions. For large classes, I stick with electronic posts and encouraging students to “take responsibility for their own learning”, but of course attendance is lowest in these classes …

  3. In my experience (two different Ontario universities – one as an undergrad, one as a grad student), “attendance” marks are only given in a few courses, for seminars. They tend to be given for course where it is important for students to actually attend seminars to engage in the learning activities.

    Otherwise, it is assumed that students are adults, and it is their choice whether or not they want to come to class. Most profs I know don’t post all of their notes online, but rather an outline, or, in some cases, their notes are missing key pieces of information. So students need to come to class to fill in the missing information (or borrow notes from their friends/classmates). Still, in my experience as a grad student, the best students are the ones who generally always come to class, only missing the occasional one for illness or other legitimate reasons. That’s enough of an attendance mark in itself – they tend to be the A+ students (although, of course, not every student who comes to every class will get an A+, just that the ones who do tend to be the ones who make it to class).

  4. The point of registering in a university course is to gain access to the raw materials of the faculty, their work, and my peers in a setting that empowers me to build greater understanding. The purpose of all marks is, let’s face it, to separate people who have successfully done so from those who haven’t.
    There’s a kind of satisfaction to the rule against students failing for lack of attendance. If the student has engaged with the material, shown their understanding and added to the greater wealth of human wisdom, but for whatever string of personal reasons (legitimate or otherwise) doesn’t attend a lot of lectures, I think that person has still earned their credit. Look at it from the flip side, as well: if I was a diligent student who’d earned their credit, I would be pretty chafed if some middling student was carried across the pass threshold because of their perfect attendance record.
    As someone who has invested a great deal in undertaking a higher education (both financially and personally), I’d rather not squander of the limited access I have to those resources by head-counting more than necessary.

  5. I have never had a course that had attendance grades. I have had a few courses have clauses written in the syllabus that said something to the effect of “If you miss more than 25% of the lectures, you will not be allowed to write the final, and will fail the course.” I don’t know if such policies are enforceable, though.

    An alternative would be just to give a small quiz at the start of every class. If you’re late and don’t show up, you get a zero, simple as that. You’d probably want to use clickers or something to make this as efficient as possible.