A Ku Indeed!

To Attend or Not To Attend, That is the Question

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on January 12, 2008

(cross posted at Socrates’ Wake)

We’re inching closer and closer to the start of the new semester. That means that it’s time to crank out those syllabi again. One question that I struggle with every time I put together a syllabus is: should attendance be required? Obviously, there are different ways to deal with this.

a. No attendance requirement at all (if anything, a student’s grade would suffer on participation, but in this option there’s no separate grade or penalty for not attending).

b. Attendance is required, and the student is given X number of points for showing up. Here, the student, loses points (whatever amount) based on absence.

c. In addition to (b), another requirement can be added: that for the student to pass the class, they cannot have more than Y number of absences total.

There are probably other ways to do this, of course. My main question, though is this: should we attach penalties to students who don’t come to class? I’m torn on this. Three different positions come to mind:

1. Paternalism: you can’t really get much out of a philosophy class that you don’t attend regularly, so the student should lose points when they don’t show up.

2. Consequentialism: the other students are robbed of part of what they pay for when students irregularly show up. It serves as a disruption to the overall class environment and moreover the regular students lose the ability to interact meaningfully with the absent students.

3. Libertarian: basically rejects the approach in (1), claiming that it is a student’s right to not show up if they don’t want. If that’s how they want to spend their tuition dollars, I shouldn’t be coercing them to show up by threatening them with grade penalties. Moreover, since it’s the student’s right to spend their money as they wish, (2) shouldn’t be an issue either. They didn’t pay to assume the obligation to assist others in their education.

Obviously there are lots of ways of framing this issue, and lots of different ways of listing possible responses to it. So I don’t intend the above to be exhaustive in any way. But it should help to at least get the conversation going.

So, to attend or not to attend? I’d especially like to hear from any students lurking out there. What’s your point of view on this?


12 Responses

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  1. Million said, on January 12, 2008 at 8:09 am


    1) It’s not always their money. Sometimes it’s their parent’s money.

    2) Even if it is, I think the issue comes down to what you define as the aspect of class which counts for grading. Tests, papers, and quizzes are all obviously worth factoring in to a student’s grade. Attendance though… maybe it would help to think of attendance as part of classwork?

    There’s something to be said for “putting in your dues” even if it’s just during the course of a semester.

    3) I can’t see you as anything other than a Paternalist.

  2. Chris said, on January 12, 2008 at 2:05 pm


    On 1) that’s certainly true, and a good point. However still: should the teacher force the student to come and get what their parents paid for? Or should the parents do that?

    On 2) That’s usually my reasoning for grading it. However, at the same time, there’s the part of me that says “hey, if you think you can do well without ever showing up, be my guest.”

    On 3) sometimes. I do think it is obviously better to show up to get the most out of the class. But there’s strong element within me that feels like it actually does damage to a student over the long term to not teach them to take responsibility for their own education. And grading attendance seems to not teach that lesson in a way.

  3. Amy said, on January 12, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I tried the libertarian approach last semester, and I wasn’t particularly happy with how it turned out. Attendance was horrible, and a third of my class didn’t pass. They have to learn to take responsibility for their own education, but as the teacher, I have some obligation to give them the tools they need–which might actually include a grade incentive to come to class.

    It’s not particularly libertarian to assign homework or attach grades to intermediate stages of a term paper. But I much appreciate it when professors do that. So I don’t think attendance should make or break a student, but there’s nothing wrong with having some kind of incentive.

    That said, I’m not grading attendance this semester either.

  4. Chris said, on January 12, 2008 at 3:47 pm


    Every time I use the libertarian approach (and I have), it seems that attendance tanks for about 20% of the class.

    I agree that as teachers we have an obligation to giving them incentives to come to class. I’m just not sure they should be grade oriented. My concern is that grade-orientation buys into what I think has been destructive to their view of education for 12+ years. It’s all about the grade. Rather, an incentive can come from simple approval, from recognizing in other ways that it’s a wise thing, if one wants to actually learn, to show up.

    Homework might be different. It could well be that the teacher can’t assess on a timely basis what the student knows without it, and it is the teacher’s job to try to help the student understand what they don’t. You could think of attendance similarly, but then it sounds more like a participation grade, which I have no problem assigning grades for. But sheer attendance doesn’t tell me anything, since they can just sit there and stare into space and get the credit for showing up.

  5. amber said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:18 am

    Even as a student that admittedly sometimes doesn’t care enough about the consequence, I still think that a consequence should be in place for lackluster attendance.

    A grade is a piece of information used mostly to indicate to future employers or schools the level of performance of the student.

    If a person misses class repeatedly, it seems that it would be likely for them to be a less than ideal worker.

    I don’t think a person should be able to get a perfect grade and miss class excessively, because that behavior isn’t acceptable in most real life working situations.

    I think a grade should reflect a person’s work and work ethic.

    If I were a manager of some sort, I would probably rather have a reliable worker than a brilliant worker that didn’t apply himself or herself very well.

    While I don’t think it should have a severe influence, I think that attendance being a factor in determining a grade is fair and realistic, and probably effective enough to reinforce students to come to class, which is a positive consequence.

    I think it’s such a strange issue. I can’t believe it’s even a problem! I wish my generation was more motivated for the right reasons. I’m ashamed on the behalf of my age group, or maybe for that tendency in humanity.

    I get so tired of hearing complaints all the time from my peers about getting an education.

    I realize that not everybody will love every single class, however, I think it is so disrespectful and terrible to lack gratitude for being able to learn in general, especially whenever there are so many that don’t have access to such nice resources!

    I don’t get it. In a way I don’t even care, I just think, uh whatever it’s their loss.

  6. eyeingtenure said, on January 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    If you really care about attendance, have something due every class period. If you don’t care, then don’t care.

    Or, be a real hardass for the first few class periods to scare off the chaff in your class. That’s the approach that would work for me.


  7. Chris said, on January 14, 2008 at 5:12 pm


    It’s not an issue or caring or not. Personally, I think they should come, because it’s better that they get an education. But, at the same time, just “showing up” doesn’t mean getting an education. So it’s more of question of whether you should force someone to take a product that they’ve paid for but that they really don’t want. Many times, attendance turns into a kind of paternalism it seems — you want to make sure that they take the product. I’m just wondering if that should be the instructor’s role — even one who “cares”.

  8. eyeingtenure said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Let’s start out with an admission. I know nothing of philosophy, only what little I’ve picked up in this entry. As such, I’m probably taking the discussion into a completely different direction.

    Your attendance policy is directly influenced by your view of an instructor’s role. I choose, pragmatically and due to my view of proper undergraduate pedagogy, that of a mentor. I don’t know if this falls under paternalistic as you mean.

    Under this view, the only option, then, is to grade directly on what they have learned in your class, attendance notwithstanding. A sufficiently detailed syllabus gives students the option of studying on their own time.

    The entire grade in our hypothetical class is a single — but in-depth — ream-length essay. This is a mercilessly graded essay that touches on a variety of topics discussed in the course, topics that are briefly outlined in the syllabus.

    Those who show up to class receive help. Those who don’t are on their own, but surely earn their grade as much as their attending peers. Let the whining fall on deaf ears.

    It shouldn’t fall to a university professor to teach lessons in integrity and accountability. Kids should have had that already.

  9. Chris said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:28 pm


    By ‘paternalistic’ I just mean that you would take the view of “I know what’s best for you, and I’ll assure that you conform to that, whether you like it or not.”

    I think by the end of your post, you are agreeing more with the “libertarian” approach, which is that you shouldn’t force them to come if they don’t want. Of course, you have to grade them on tests and exams and such, but grading them on pure attendance is, in a way, saying “this material is important, even if you don’t think it is, so I’m going to coerce you to show up.” At some point, students have to make that decision on their own, and whether they do or not has little to do with their grade (even if it is clearly true that students who are absentee problems rarely do well for obvious reasons).

    Many times my view is exactly what you just expressed. I’ll always work with students to help them to learn, and I deeply care about helping them to do that. But, at the same time, I don’t feel like it’s my job to twist their arms either. They need to learn to figure out why their are in school on their own. There’s no way I can make them care. They need to grapple with their relationship to education on their own. Education takes maturity, I think, and by forcing them to attend under penalty it’s as if we are not treating them as the adults they should be.

    All I can do is show, in the class and in how I relate to them and teach the material, why I think the subject and education in general is important.

  10. Chris said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:29 pm


    Well put! It’s nice to know that there are students like you around, even if you may be in the dwindling minority!

  11. eyeingtenure said, on January 14, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    The trouble with higher education these days is that it’s all but necessary to get a good job. Students pay for school simply for the piece of paper that lets them do some upwardly mobile clerical work the summer they graduate.

    Fewer and fewer students, anymore, go to school for an education. For students, college is a means to job stability and, for the most part, glorified vocational training.

    That’s why, in many ways, that a master’s degree has become what a bachelor’s — ostensibly — used to be.

    That’s where this discussion really has its roots.

  12. Chris said, on January 15, 2008 at 8:00 am


    I couldn’t agree more. For many of my students, freshman year is really “13th grade.” It’s just more of the “high school” required to be a part of the middle class. If so (I think you’re right, though), then I think in the “second tour” of high school (college) we should probably put more of the responsibility for learning and taking an active role with respect to their own education onto them. Many times, we don’t (and one of those ways, I fear, is the attendance policy, where we police them like children).

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