Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Taking vs Valuing Attendance


The other day, a student came up to me and asked “Dr, aren’t you taking attendance?” and I thought that was a very strange question. I never “take” attendance. My response? “I know all your names. I know who’s here and who isn’t and I know who came in late. I don’t need to take attendance”.

But this got me thinking about a few things

  1. I think it’s important to learn my students names as early as possible in the semester. I have the privilege of only teaching one course per semester and it’s usually around 20 students (when I was younger I TA’d classes of 40 and also remembered their names pretty quickly).
  2. I don’t think taking attendance is a good use of class time. Neither the name-calling type nor the passing a paper around type, and please don’t mention the mobile device type.
  3. I don’t want students to feel obligated to come to class because of attendance
  4. On the other hand… I do value attendance and I need to communicate this clearly to students, and it’s this last part that I need to discuss more here

I need to communicate clearly to students that participation in class matters and that missing class will mean they’re missing valuable learning moments. This isn’t straightforward for me, because even though I put a large weight on participation (grade) on my syllabus, I don’t want it to be about the grade.

One of the things I do is, for students who miss a class, tell them when I see them next, “we missed you last time”, or if they miss more, I email them to let them know they’ve missed things and ask if I can help. I encourage students early on if they have a good reason to miss class, that they get in touch and explain and then we’ll work something out (e.g. They can make up for missing class by doing something similar to what we did in class and blogging about it. Has worked well in the past).

Strangely, even though I tell students participating outside class will count towards “participation”, those who attend often (even quietly) tend to write better blogposts. Or it’s not so strange to me, but perhaps not as intuitive for them.

In any case. I need to be more explicit about this with students. Because the class has no final exam and the content does not always build on previous content (occasionally it does). It’s like those TV series or sitcoms where if you watch it often you know the characters better but each episode still makes sense on its own… Versus soap operas where you really won’t understand a lot of the details unless you follow regularly. Ha. That might be a good analogy.


  1. This is a terrific point, Maha. In general, participation is what we care about, and attendance is only a proxy measure for it (with a lot of false positives, in my experience).

    I’ve been encouraging faculty to split “participation” grades into at least 2 pieces, so there’s a formal requirement on the faculty member to give some feedback about what good participation does or doesn’t look like in the class.

    I’ve also got a colleague who’s gone all the way to having the students self-report their engagement after every class. His point is that during any given hour of class, a student may not have something to say, may get talked over, may be afraid to ask a question, may be concerned about some other issue in their life. But there are always measures of engagement which apply, like how well they did the homework, how carefully they took notes during class, whether they posted to a discussion board, etc. So he lets the students report those things as evidence of engagement with the course as well.

    Obviously, this wouldn’t work for all situations – in a discussion-based seminar, or a team-based lab, or performing arts class, you have to show up and do the task, every day. But I think it’s a neat model for most course designs.

  2. I know exactly what you mean, Maha! One way that we communicate this to first year undergraduate students is to write something like this in the course booklet:

    Essential – Be there
    You ARE the course! The course happens as we talk, listen, engage and generally do stuff together. It’s important for you to attend – to be with your fellow students – to work together to create the course.
    Tip: As the whole course is important, any class missed, for any reason, should be caught up: read your friend’s notes, ask them what happened and why… Keep on top of it from the beginning – you know it makes sense!

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