Illustration by Valen Lambert.

The attendance trap: time to set grades free


by Jake Hyslop

Over a month into the semester, most of you are probably familiar with your professors and their grading policies by this point. Some require you to show up to every class to get a decent grade, while there are others who simply don’t care if you show up to class (spoiler alert: these are the cool professors).

I stand very firmly in the belief that attendance should not factor into a student’s grades. They should be graded on their performance instead. 

Maybe this is crazy, but if I miss two or three classes, yet demonstrate knowledge of the course materials by performing well on exams/essays/projects/you-name-it, I shouldn’t be punished. That A grade should stay an A. 

Too often a class I’ve had has spent a week or two teaching something I already know fairly well (especially those classes that teach a broad range of practical skills in a major), but I am forced to sit through lectures bored to tears. I often think about the tens of things I could be doing instead, which are more often than not, assignments for other classes I could be using this valuable time for. 

Allow me to introduce the concept of life. Life has this crazy habit of happening. It happens to you, to me, even to the professors here. When a professor has a wedding they plan to attend, or are feeling a little sick, they call off class. 

Tell me then, why when I missed a class due to a personal loss, I was emailed a “sorry for your loss,” followed by a Canvas notification of my attendance grade being lowered by 7%? When I’m paying for my college credits, what valid reason is there for attendance affecting my grade? Professors don’t get paid based on class attendance, so the only person negatively affected when a student misses class is the student. 

Let’s dig into how the supposed function of classroom attendance is to motivate students. I’m willing to bet money that mandatory attendance doesn’t motivate any student to do better in class. It sure doesn’t motivate me to do better in class. 

A student should want to attend class. If a student is paying to take a class, they should be engaged by and with the course material, and that interest will intrinsically motivate the student to keep attending and learning. Requiring the student’s presence, and actively lowering the grade if not graced with their presence will extrinsically motivate the student to attend class. It will not motivate the student to learn. 

Extrinsic motivation, like keeping a seat warm to satisfy an arbitrary requirement, doesn’t hold a candle to the intrinsic motivation of actually being interested in what’s being taught. Otherwise, self-motivation is taken away from the student and butchered in the slaughterhouse of butts-in-seats and vacant stares. 

According to a 2010 report by the American Educational Research Association, while attending class can assist in getting better grades, mandatory attendance has a very small impact on how the students perform. 

For all of you professors out there balking at the idea, slow down and take a deep breath. I promise you that most of us would attend the majority of our classes, just like usual. After all, it’s our money on the line. If you think that nobody will attend your class without graded attendance, chances are your class sucks and you should step it up. Make us want to come to class. If I’m able to accomplish the majority of your coursework well without paying a lick of attention to your lectures, they’re probably not all that engaging. 

Oh, and participation grading is fine. After all, the professor has to keep track of students contributing. In the case of discussion-based classes, maybe offer students who miss class a discussion board on Canvas to post things on. 
Stopping mandatory attendance puts the power and capacity to learn into the hands of the student. It restores that joie-de-vivre that graded attendance robs us of and allows us to feel like students, eager to learn instead of prisoners chained to our degrees.

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