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Attendance: Options and Considerations

At Montclair State University, instructors determine their attendance policies. Each instructor should assess what works best for their course’s learning objectives and clearly state these policies in the syllabus.

Instructors can help minimize student absences through careful course design, adherence to their policies, and communication. As the University attendance policy notes, “[s]tudents are expected to fulfill all course requirements, and although attendance is not always mandatory, it is desirable.”

The approach to student absences may vary between courses, depending on discipline, instructor pedagogy, and course design. Instructors have a great deal of autonomy in deciding how best to support student success and academic continuity.

If attendance matters to learning in your course, require it, allowing for some limited number of absences without penalty (the equivalent of two weeks of class — 4 absences if class meets twice a week — is standard), and penalties following an incremental schedule, for example, a half grade for each additional absence. It is helpful to make clear that managing attendance is students’ prerogative and responsibility — no doctor’s or other notes required or desired.

With that said, demonstrating empathy while being clear about your expectations is important. Be strategic with developing the tone of your communication. That is, your communication can be compassionate and foster a rigorous academic experience.

The point of expecting and requiring attendance is to maximize student learning. Some instructors choose to track participation or engagement in lieu of attendance. For example, Emily Kline, a former doctoral student in the Psychology department, addresses attendance through participation points, using the following policy:

Please note that attendance is expected but absences alone will not adversely affect students’ grades. However, participation points (composing 10% of your final grade) can only be earned during the scheduled class session; thus, missing class equates to missing participation points for that day.

Participation and engagement policies may be especially important for asynchronous online courses. Design your online course to include weekly required forms of engagement such as assignment submission or discussion board posts.

Despite a clear attendance policy, things happen – students get sick, struggle with transportation issues, or face family emergencies. Having plans and practices in place to deal with these issues can help both students and the instructor navigate the semester.

If you feel a student needs help beyond what you can provide, reach out to campus partners.

Communicate Your Expectations

Make sure your syllabus policy provides a clear attendance policy and indicates if and how you are counting attendance toward the final grade. In place of an attendance policy, you may consider grading participation or engagement; if so, make sure that is clearly communicated on the syllabus.

Chenneville and Jordan (2008) found that “graded attendance policies increased class attendance.” However, they note that despite “student knowledge of the importance of attendance,” students had a “desire for choice and autonomy in educational decision making” (p. 33). Therefore, instructors might want to negotiate the terms of a graded attendance policy with students to allow for flexibility while still incentivizing attendance. This can also be helpful since individual students may define “regular class attendance” differently (p. 32).

In creating your policy, articulate the number and/or type of allowed absences, potential penalties regarding clearly defined excessive absences, and what students should do if absent. Make clear any system for defining excused vs. unexcused absences, keeping in mind that requiring doctor’s notes or other documentation may negatively impact students who don’t have easy access to health care (our commuter population may not wish to come to campus to use the Health Services if they are unwell) or who have an illness that doesn’t require a doctor visit. Many instructors find it useful to not distinguish between excused and non-excused absences.

Consider the following to help with policies:

  • Keep track of attendance: use Canvas to your advantage; create badges in Canvas for specific reasons of absences for your records.
  • Establish a system for missed work: decide note-sharing policies for the class and whether an absent student reaches out to peers or the professor for notes; set protocols for submitting work; offer extra resources (e.g. CAST/tutoring or student hours).
  • Reach out: follow up with absent students who do not contact you and/or submit progress reports through Navigate. Emails to absent students are best written in the empathy sandwich style: That is, start with understanding and compassion, then explain your concern and expectations, and close with a positive, resilience-focused message.
Reach Out With an Empathy Sandwich

Demonstrating empathy while being clear about your expectations is important. Much like the classic “praise sandwich” approach to offering feedback on student work — positive, criticism, positive –, we recommend an empathy sandwich if students have missed class or work. That is, start with understanding and compassion, then indicate what you will provide and what you expect, and close with a positive, resilience-focused message.

For students who will be absent:

For example, “I am sorry to hear that you will not be able to attend the class due to illness. Health permitting, I recommend that you keep up with the due dates and activities provided in Canvas, and that you closely review the class notes [or recorded video] I post. Please keep in touch with your peer group about what they learned in class because I don’t manage to cover everything in my notes. I wish you well and have confidence you’ll be able to catch up and persevere with your studies. Feel free to be in touch with me by email or attend my Zoom Student Hours; also consider an appointment at the University’s tutoring center, CAST, if you are having trouble with any of the material. Best, Prof. X.”

For students who have missed work:

“I hope everything is OK. I see you have missed the last few homework assignments[ [or test or major assignment]. The homework assignments are meant to give you a space to start working with the concepts we are exploring this semester; they do not need to be perfect. Please reach out via email or come to my student hours so that we can get you on track for success in the class. You may also wish to take advantage of the University’s tutoring center, CAST, if you are having trouble with any of the material.

Assessment and Evaluation (Grading)

As instructors, our job is to evaluate students on their achievement of the learning objectives of our courses.  All the structures we develop — absentee policies, requirements for collaboration and meeting deadlines, etc., — are designed to support student learning of the course objectives. Similarly, our assessments are designed to further learning and evaluate learning. Thus, the extent to which students demonstrate fulfillment of course learning objectives, regardless of their exact achievement of the individual elements of our courses, is what matters. Strong learning objectives and assessments enable us to fulfill our responsibilities as educators, and over-reliance on grading calculators and point systems may undercut our higher purpose. Use your judgment to be equitable, flexible, and focused on the high-level goals you have for learning in your course.

Why Aren’t Students Attending?

Although emergencies or illness account for some student absences, if you are experiencing high levels of absenteeism it may be that boredom and general lack of interest are the cause. Students may be wondering if the class session is an essential element of learning.

Some tips for supporting strong attendance by increasing class activity:

  • Avoid lessons that merely repeat material from text or homework assignments.
  • Create lessons for in-person days that encourage questioning, discussion, and hands-on engagement.
  • Give credit for course engagement which can be a simple daily exit ticket, small group activity, or other form of active learning or “doing” in the class.
  • Get students moving: if the classroom allows, try to get students moving either in group work or roundtable discussions.
  • If a class is particularly reluctant to speak, try activities that get students communicating without speaking: students can write on paper and pass ideas to other students to generate discussion or work on a Google Doc together.
What to Do about Missed Classes

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Establish a system for missed class. Should students contact you or a classmate for notes or assignments? Should students reach out to ask for an extension? What types of in-class assignments can be made up? What types cannot (such as time-sensitive work like peer review)?
  2. Require students to consult with a University tutor at CAST if their attendance becomes a concern. CAST academic coaches can help students figure out what they need to do to keep up. They can assist students in reading your syllabus, notes, and expectations. To require tutoring, go to the Navigate platform via NEST and “Issue an alert.” Select “Tutoring needed.” This will effectively create a case that a tutor will handle directly, ensuring that you receive an update from the tutor by scrolling down your Navigate homepage to see status updates on the cases you’ve opened.
  3. Post in-class materials on Canvas. This is potentially useful to all students and certainly useful to students who are absent.  Materials might include:
    • Summaries of the class experience. Tip: Instructors don’t need to write these; individual students can be assigned the task of note-taking, posting notes on a Canvas page
    • Instructor notes, presentation materials, and other hand-outs
  4. If your classes tend to be hands-on, activity-based classes, develop alternative assignments that students can complete alone, without being in class. Your guide is this: how can students achieve similar learning outcomes when they cannot attend class?  For example, if students are working collaboratively on a problem set or answering discussion questions, the alternative assignment would be to complete these activities solo. Spend some time now thinking of useful, purposeful alternatives, to avoid last-minute busy work assignments.
  5. If your classes include collaborative elements that require interacting with others, consider assigning students to virtually attend the Center for Academic Success and Tutoring (CAST), the Center for Writing Excellence (CWE), or even to collaborate with a family member or friend.
  6. Provide students with extensions. Have a clear policy on extensions: how should students request them? do they have a number of “things happen” extensions they can spend over the semester?
  7. For office hours (often renamed “student hours”), include a Zoom option.
What Not to Do
  • Don’t change the modality of your course.  While some students may request a change, and you may be tempted, modality is not up to faculty discretion.  If you have specific concerns about your class, consult your chair. Experience has taught us that instructors may be pressured to change modalities. Resist the pressure! Simply say, “No, the Zoom is just for those with excused absences, and is a less effective way for you to learn in this course.”
  • Don’t try to assess the validity of students’ requests for absence when they are health-related; don’t provide health advice.
  • Don’t discuss absent students with other students. Health information is private.
Unresolved Concerns

Using campus resources consistently throughout the semester can also help alleviate the effect of student absences or at the very least alert others to the issues your students are facing. Using these resources helps students see their progress, allows the student’s success team to see what’s happening across classes for a student, and tracks your alerts for your own records.

You can use Navigate to:

  • Issue a warning
  • Message the student directly
  • Reach out to their advisors

You can contact the CARE team to:

Unfortunately, we might not always be able to reach absent students despite how hard we try. Most likely if this is happening, there are larger issues at play. If you had clear policies in your course, reached out to the student, and used Navigate and/or CARE reporting services, then you did all you could.

Dealing with your emotional reactions and stress about semester issues including students with excessive absences is important, too. Reach out to your chair, department colleagues, or the OFE staff to talk through your concerns.

Resources and References

Chenneville T., & Jordan C. (2008). Impact of attendance policies on course attendance among college students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(3), pp. 29 – 35.

Launius, M. H. (1997). College student attendance: Attitudes and academic performance. College Student Journal, 31, 86-92.

Van Blerkom, M. L. (1992). Class attendance in undergraduate courses. The Journal of Psychology, 126, 487-494.

Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2024 12:12 pm


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