80% of Success Is Showing Up

The title reflects the only words of Woody Allen I’ve ever cared to remember. I wish all students could grasp the concept.

I don’t normally have a formal attendance requirement, but in my intro level course I have a short essay quiz almost every day, of which I keep the top 2/3 or so as part of their grade. A surprising number of students take this lack of a formal attendance policy as an indicator that they can safely skip class…often. As it turns out, they can’t. At least they can’t and still succeed. In upper division courses, where it’s predominantly students who’ve had me before or who are pretty serious students who are taking the course out of interest rather than to just fill in credits, this isn’t a problem. It’s a problem primarily in my intro course, and is spread across the class divisions, from frosh to seniors.

I’m inclined to let them learn the lesson on their own, as a matter of pedagogy. Experiential learning is all the rage these days, so maybe I can just lump it under that happy concept. After all, they need to become adults at some point, and they learn from the experience of bombing my class that being a successful adult means getting your ass to wherever the hell it’s supposed to be at the proper damned time.

On the other hand, I’m sick and tired of handing out a bunch of Ds and Fs to students who are bright enough but do poorly because they’re never there to learn the material. And after all, they’re unlikely to get a job that doesn’t have an attendance policy, so maybe setting an attendance policy is treating them like adults (only kids think adults have freedom).

I’m not sure what to do. It goes against my gut instincts to have a policy that says “miss more than X classes and your grade goes down by Y,” because if in fact they can get a good grade without coming to class regularly, why should they be punished for being efficient? But I think it would be easier on me to avoid having to deal with the overwhelming majority of students who actually can’t do that–and their inevitable end-of-term panic, begging and whining–by resorting to the tactic of scaring them into compliance.

It seems like a cop-out, though, to do it just for my benefit, if there’s no real pedagogical benefit.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to 80% of Success Is Showing Up

  1. Profclaus says:

    I do a similar thing in my classes where I give a quiz about 18-20 times per semester, but I only count the student’s highest 10 quiz scores in my final calculation of their score. I do have a caveat however, that if a score of “0” appears 5 or more times for a student then the grade for their quiz score for the class is reduced to “0” (12% of the final grade comes from the quiz score). Only way you get a zero is by not taking the quiz. I will give quizzes at the beginning of class (sometimes locking the doors at the start of class time to teach those who have a problem getting to class on time a lesson), and at the end of class (after those who decide to leave early have left. Basically each time you miss you roll the dice that you are using one of your “4” absences. I tell the students that I don’t care why the miss the quiz, they are only allowed 4 quiz misses (death in family, sporting event, birth of child,…) I don’t care the excuse, and I don’t have to determine if the excuse is legitimate. This does give the students the “freedom” to miss classes (I might not give a quiz) while also creating a semi-formal attendance policy.

    At the end of the semester, when they re more likely to miss a quiz because they have not missed too many classes, the students can only improve their score (as they would already have 10 graded quizzes, so a base score is set for each student) and it is to their advantage to give each quiz their best try.

    I have only had to give 2 students a “0” on their quiz score in my 8 semesters of general chemistry since I instituted this policy. So the students tend to attend class more, but I don’t have to put in my syllabus that missing x classes will lower your grade.

  2. James Hanley says:

    That’s pretty much what I have penciled into my syllabus for next term, but I’ve been dithering. Maybe I’ll give it a try.

    I also tell students I don’t care why they’re missing class. That’s another reason not to have a formal attendance policy, because if you do students beg you to excuse an absence and not count it toward the limit, and they tend to have difficulty grasping that the 4 (or however many) absences you allow are the excused absences. If they’re not there, they’re missing the information, whether they’re sleeping, screwing, playing video games, or lying in the hospital, and their life outside my class is none of my business, so why should I care what they’re doing? I’m going to excuse them for Aunt Millie’s funeral but not because they’re finally losing their virginity?

  3. James K says:

    One of the commons things my lecturers did at university was have part of your mark be for participation in lectures / tutorials. If you didn’t show up much you wouldn’t be able to score much for partiication.

    As an side, the one Woody Allen quote that sticks with me is “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”

  4. Matty says:

    I once witnessed the following conversation. Teacher: if you miss the test I can’t give you the marks. Student(grumbling): Not fair they wouldn’t treat me like this in a proper job. Teacher(trying to supress laughter) no that’s true, they’d just fire you. On another point I see your argument about all excuses being equal, students private lives should not be your concern but I can also sympathise if a student feels unfairly penalised for being hit by a bus.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Matty,
    I do make exceptions for unavoidable emergencies. Well, it’s possible that getting hit by the bus was unavoidable, but I’m not going to bother investigating fault. But I do require documentation on such claims.

    It is funny how students view the real world of work. I once had a guy who kept asking if we had to have class that day, and could he leave, so I finally told him thst, yes, he could leave, I really didn’t care. But, I added, when he tried that at work his bosses would tell him to go ahead and leave and not come back. Oh, he said, I’m the boss where I work. Turns out that through being in the right place at the right time this young guy had become head groundskeeper at the country club. So you have guys working under you? I asked. Sure enough he did. And when you take off early, what signal do you give them about the job? What are they likely to do? It began to dawn on him, and he said, They’re going to slack off! And when work doesn’t get done, who’s ultimately responsible; who’s going to get reamed by the guy in charge at the Country Club? Me! he said, with a tone of outrage in his voice.

    And he never asked to leave early or cancel class again. I can only speculate about how his work habits and efforts at supervisorial oversight at the country club were affected.

  6. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’ve had a few instructors do the “lots and lots of quizzes with the bottom N scores thrown out” thing with very positive effects. It keeps people coming to class and it gives the instructor a really good feel for how well they’re keeping up with the material. That second part can be critical in any class where the material builds on previous lessons. It sucks to realize that everybody stubmled over Lesson 3 by seeing catastrophic crash and burn on the first midterm.

    The common policy was to give 0/10 for not showing up, 1/10 for putting anything at all on the paper. As my signals professor said, “There’s a special place in my heart for people who have a big long string of 1/10’s in my gradebook.”

    Another option that I saw was a calculus “quiz” that was just a random sampling of homework exercise questions. If you did the exercises, you could just copy your work in. If you didn’t and knew the material well, you could usually solve the problem in the time allotted. If you didn’t do the exercises and you don’t grasp the material, WTF are you doing paying private university tuition for a degree you’ll never finish?

  7. J@m3z Aitch says:

    If you didn’t do the exercises and you don’t grasp the material, WTF are you doing paying private university tuition for a degree you’ll never finish?

    As I scan the students in my intro class, I never cease asking myself that question. One of my troublesome frosh this term has informed me he’s transferring to a community college in his hometown, and I think that is absolutely the right thing for him to do, retention numbers be damned.

  8. pierrecorneille says:

    When I taught I was (and if I teach again, I will be) very conflicted about attendance policies, and I haven’t come to a conclusion about what the best way to go is.

    On the pro-attendance policy:
    1. Students tend to do better (or so I’ve heard from other instructors….I don’t think I’ve taught enough to come to that conclusion).

    2. When a student is borderline between a better grade and a worse grade, I use “soft factors” like attendance to decide whether to boost him or her up. If I make attendance a requirement, I’m letting students know in advance that I take such things into consideration, so they have more knowledge. Also, I have known instructors who talked of failing students who refused to show up for most classes, and doing so principally because of their absences, when the instructor hadn’t made an attendance policy mandatory. If I am going to fail students for non-attendance (and not, e.g., for poor performance), then I feel I have to make that clear with an attendance policy.

    On the con-attendance policy:

    1. My students have always been adults, and I think it might be a little insulting to have an attendance policy. This is true also because a significant number, though perhaps not a majority, of my students have been non-traditional aged students, some of whom are parents or are mid-career, Or if they are closer to the “traditional” age, then they have usually spend a few years outside of high school, or they often have served in the military and in some cases combat theaters* I got my MA at a school that had a much higher proportion of traditional-aged students, and when I was a TA there, attendance policies probably worked better.

    2. As a counterpoint to one of my “pro” arguments, sometimes attendance policies can be used to justify giving poor grades to a bad student. If a student challenges their poor grade, it’s a lot easier to cite attendance statistics than it is to justify my largely subjective (though I insist that “subjective” does not mean “arbitrary”) grading of their essays/papers. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but to me, it seems a bit of a cop out on my part.

    3. The whole “you’ll need to be on time for your job in the real world” argument rings a little hollow to me. It’s not necessarily wrong, but students will learn that truth soon enough if they don’t realize it already. I strongly suspect (but have no evidence) that most students think of jobs differently from how they think of classes. Also, some employers, even awful ones, often make some accommodations for their contingent circumstances that students face. Maybe I say this only because I’ve been pretty fortunate in the employers I’ve had and because I’m generally pretty good at the “showing up when I’m supposed to” part of work so that the very rare cases when I can’t, the employer has good reason to believe the situation merits it. I can’t say for sure I learned any of this from attendance policies either in high school, university, etc., although I can’t discount that they might have had a conditioning effect on me or that they might help others learn.

    *For the record, with one exception, every student I had who I knew to be a veteran has had a very healthy approach to classes: they’re there to learn or at least do the work.

  9. pierrecorneille says:

    As for the title of this post, I agree. Showing up and on time is a good skill to have. And it’s often the easiest part of a job. At my current job, it helps that I’m almost always the first one there and that I can cover for the employees who come in regularly about 5 or 10 minutes late. I do think I’m otherwise at least reasonably competent, but the panache of being the first one in and (often) the last one to leave probably gives me more credit than I otherwise would deserve.

    Of course, I realize it’s pretty easy for me because I have no children and am, knock on wood, in good health.

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