A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Attendance Conundrum,” caught my attention. It opens by referencing a student newspaper editorial by Sarah Craig, an undergraduate at Georgetown University. For those who don’t want to read the editorial in full, here are, in my opinion, the important bits:
“Limiting the number of [non-penalized] absences per semester often necessitates—and in turn, normalizes— attending class while sick . . . Students have long been told that our studies are more important than our health, resulting in an almost constant deterioration of our bodies and minds in favor of getting good grades. Now more than ever, students should not feel pressured to attend class when they are not feeling well. Additionally, students should not need to provide documentation for their absences . . . Not mandating documentation is especially important for low-income and disabled students, considering documents can be incredibly inaccessible.”
The Chronicle article includes a statement by Jesse Stommel, an assistant professor at the University of Denver: “there’s nothing objective about attendance policies at this particular moment . . . They can’t measure engagement or participation or motivation. They become a proxy for the amount of difficulty a student is dealing with in their lives. And the students struggling the most will be the ones least likely to feel comfortable asking for exceptions to an attendance policy.”
Note how attendance policies are framed as an issue of accessibility and equity. There is scarce mention in either the article or the editorial of the degree to which classroom presence actually increases learning. The focus on physical location and time as determinants of learning is not uncommon, in fact, it’s baked into U.S. higher education in the form of the credit hour. The Taylorist measure of time expended is what matters; mastery is not.
My anecdotal experience is that class attendance and academic performance are positively correlated for the undergraduate population that I teach. But I can’t say that the former causes the latter given all of the confounding variables. Students wealthy enough to live on campus, within walking distance of classrooms, are better academically prepared for college and can attend class more easily than poorer students who went to lousy K-12 schools, work multiple part-time jobs, and live off campus.
As a result, I try to ensure that students can do well in any course I teach whether or not they can be physically present. And I don’t punish them if they are absent.