Top Reasons Why You Don’t Need to Take Attendance (And Why I Do It Anyway)

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Throughout my paternity leave, my substitute has been working hard to track attendance for me. It’s not something I personally care about, and I decided to reflect on why. Here are some of my top reasons for why I think you don’t need to be taking attendance.

Table of Contents

Defining “Taking Attendance”

In my efforts to put together this list, I found that a lot of folks discuss taking attendance as if it’s some universal practice we all agreed upon. The reality is that there are a lot of ways to take attendance, some of which might be a bit more malicious than others.

Generally, when we talk about taking attendance, I think folks think of a few main techniques:

  • Verbal (i.e., “here!”-style)
  • Paper (i.e., a sign-in sheet)
  • Digital (i.e., clicker-style)

From reading, I’ve learned that some folks actually do seating charts, which is an idea so absurd it never crossed my mind. I’m also not sure how that would be used for attendance, unless you literally scan the class while referencing a diagram.

Then, there are some more malicious techniques. For example, I’m familiar with the “participation” trick, where you don’t directly assess attendance but instead force students to both attend and engage in the material in some way. This might be appropriate for discussion-based courses, but I personally would prefer the students who aren’t going to contribute anything of value anyway to skip.

Finally, there’s a trick I’ve seen, which involves some form of in-class assessment or submission. I think everyone is familiar with pop quizzes, but I’ve seen professors assign regular homework that must be submitted on paper in person. In that case, you’re just asking for students to walk in and walk out.

Of the many techniques, I would consider just about anything that forces students to regularly come into the classroom for a grade to be a form of attendance taking.

Now, let’s chat about all the reasons why I think you don’t need to take attendance.

Motivational Reasons Not to Take Attendance

As a general rule, I’m opposed to taking attendance at the college and university level because students should be motivated to attend (by the way, I might make a similar argument about political candidates; they really should be motivating us to vote for them). Fortunately, there are a lot of reasons why students are already motivated to attend class, whether we track their attendance or not. Let’s take a look at a few.

Students are motivated to attend class by its cost

Here in the United States, colleges and universities are extremely expensive. When I attended undergrad just ten years ago, it wasn’t out of the question to spend around $40,000 a year. These days, that seems less like a stretch and more like the normOpens in a new tab..

Because of the rising cost of tuition, students have become more transactional. In other words, students see education as something they can extract value, and attending class is one of those ways to extract value.

At the extreme, I would argue that the cost of education is so expensive that students are afraid to miss class. There is an incentive to get what they paid for.

By the way, I do not endorse fear as a mechanism for learning. I just think students might cite cost as a reason for why they attend their classes.

Students are motivated to attend class by the quality of education

In an ideal world, students would also be motivated to attend class because their educators are good at their jobs. In other words, they would clearly see how the classroom environment accelerates their learning.

Obviously, I say ideally because not all educators are good at their jobs, especially at the college and university level. Therefore, attendance is often used as a way to force students to attend, despite the lack of educational incentive.

If, however, educators would take the time to improve their skills, students would attend their classes. Of course, I don’t want to talk trash about educators in general. There are plenty of systemic issues in the way of faculty getting the training they need—most of which I would boil down to lack of incentives. Teaching is just not valued.

Students are motivated to attend class by the value of networking

In addition to being incentivized by the cost of education and the education itself, students also attend class because they see the value in networking with their peers and faculty. After all, peers can help you with the material outside of class and faculty can write you letters of recommendation.

Unfortunately, at least in the STEM spaces, networking doesn’t really happen. Sometimes classes will have group projects, but the overwhelming response to these types of projects is negative. Students very rarely get a chance to interact with their peers in a low stakes environment, so it’s not surprising that a culture of competition and individualism has sprung up.

That said, if you can foster an environment where students see the value of working together, then students will be enticed to come to class. At the very least, they’ll want to come to class to see their peers, and ideally that would develop into a desire to engage with the materials. Education really is a positive feedback loop.

Students are motivated to attend class by cultural norms

Prior to attending higher education, students generally attend public education. Through public education, students become used to attending school every day for over a decade. Therefore, when they get to college, students tend to maintain their behavior of attending class.

Of course, I am of the opinion that college should be a place where students challenge cultural norms. They should have a chance to skip class and see if there are any consequences to it. We do nothing to support student learning by holding their hands, or as I see it, forcing their hands. Failing is a part of learning, and students know that. How else would I get comments like this from previous students?

My grade in the class was my fault and could’ve easily been higher if I went to more of the classes. Anytime I did attend class, Grifski was very helpful, he creates the slides and lectures himself and offers tons of resources on his discord. He is easily reachable to ask any questions and answers them thoroughly. Highly recommend.

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Jan 8th, 2023

If more students had the chance to skip class, they would see the value of attending like this student and would understand the value of this particular cultural norm.

Logistical Reasons Not to Take Attendance

While I think the main reason educators shouldn’t take attendance is related to student motivation, there are also some logistical reasons.

For example, a lot of instructors I know take attendance by paper. Basically, they pass around a sheet of paper that students have to sign. This has all sorts of problems like students signing in for their friends, students getting skipped over by the arbitrary nature of passing around a paper, and students being distracted from the education by the task of signing and passing the sheet. Even when instructors try to correct for the dishonesty issue, there’s still this tense standoff in the classroom that kills any motivation to learn.

It’s also not uncommon for instructors to take attendance by mouth—kind of like homeroom attendance in high school. Nothing is quite as ridiculous as sitting through every name being called every single class. Talk about a colossal waste of time.

Personally, I use online means of attendance taking, specifically Top Hat, but it has its own problems. For starters, students have to accept the invite to the class. Just about every semester, I’ll have like two students who just refuse to accept the invite.

Likewise, to use Top Hat, students have to enter a code when they come into class, which the software just doesn’t let them do sometimes. This causes a lot of anxiety for students (more on this later) who were there and weren’t tracked. Do you have any idea how annoying it is as an educator when a student comes up to me worrying about attendance? It’s literally the least of my concerns, but students become conditioned to obsess about it more than the actual learning.

Mental Health Reasons Not to Take Attendance

In addition to motivational and logistical reasons to not take attendance, I think there are also some mental health reasons.

As I mentioned earlier, students very quickly become accustomed to attendance taking in all of their classes. Part of this is likely from K-12, but at the college level attendance often affects grades. With grades being just about the only thing students care about, attendance becomes a top priority—regardless of circumstance.

This can lead to a lot of really disturbing situations. For example, just about every semester, I have a student who experiences something horrible. It could be a death in the family, a terrible sickness, or a car crash. Rather than dealing with the issue at hand, the student feels the need to beg and plead with me for some form of forgiveness. And in extreme cases, they might even continue to come to class.

To me, the education system becomes at fault for any additional trauma experienced by the student. We should instead be supporting students, no questions asked. Often, I let students ghost me for as long as they need, and we take care of their situation when they’re ready. I know for certain that isn’t the norm.

All of this is to say that attendance taking puts undue stress on students who otherwise should be focusing on their studies. But, I suppose that stress is just a symptom of a larger culture of grading.

Reasons Why I Still Take Attendance

Despite generally being opposed to taking attendance, there are still reasons that I take it. Most of my reasons are not great, but I think you’ll find that these are some of the reasons you still take attendance as well.

To start, I see taking attendance as another form of record keeping. There are a lot of things we can do with attendance records that can inform future decisions. For example, knowing the trends of attendance over the course of a semester can help you figure out what needs to be done to make the material more engaging. Alternatively, it can tell you when students are swamped and not to assign work at that time.

I also take attendance because it allows me to track student wellbeing. While it’s the norm for educators to punish students for not attending class, I see attendance as a way of keeping tabs on folks who are struggling. If someone disappears, attendance gives me proof of that. Then, I can reach out to the student or their advisor to try to make contact.

Finally, I track attendance for bureaucratic reasons. At my institution, attendance is required during the first week of class. I’m not 100% certain why, but I think some of it has to do with scheduling. For instance, if a student isn’t attending class, that means another student could. I also think there might be some governmental reasons, but that might be a stretch.

Opinions From the Community

With all that said, I was curious what other people’s thoughts were on the subject, and I found some of these interesting pieces. Feel free to take a look:

Aside from Reddit, Stack Exchange, and LinkedIn, the general consensus seems to be that mandatory attendance is bad. As expected, a lot of folks still track it for many of the reasons I mentioned, but few people seem to be using it to force students to attend. Though, my Google searches may have been skewed.

At any rate, I’ve spent far too long on this article, and I have a dissertation to finish. Hopefully, you got some value out of this piece! If so, you might like some of the following pieces as well:

And if you’d like to support this educator a bit more, you can check out my list of ways to grow the site. Otherwise, take care!

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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