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Attendance Counts

By: Nance Hahn
Note: This essay accompanies Hahn’s column (The Dialogue) in the NEA October Advocate.

Seven years ago, when I landed my tenure track dream job teaching at a community college, my new colleagues told me that it was typical to “lose” five or six students from a class of 20. Twenty-five percent? That didn’t sound right. But I’d spent the previous 19 years at a research university, so I realized I knew far from everything about community college students. Still, I was determined to pay attention to the poor attendance and high attrition deemed the norm.

Attendance had always been an interest of mine, maybe because as an undergraduate I cut more than my share of classes, or maybe because although I hate to admit it, I take poor attendance personally. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I take it professionally; I’m not hurt or worried that students don’t like me, but I am concerned that in missing classes they are inevitably missing learning activities and opportunities.

I set out to study attendance, albeit informally, with the goal of analyzing what works at our community college while improving my own students’ attendance.  I observed lots of classes, talked about the issue more than anyone probably wanted to, and okay, eavesdropped once in awhile on classes that were still packed 11 or 12 weeks into a semester. Most importantly, I asked my students to talk and write about attendance—how they thought about it, what factors figured in to the decision to miss a class, and how they felt about racking up “stellar” or “pitiful” attendance records.

What I discovered is that almost everything I observed and heard about what’s likely to improve attendance fits into one (or both) of two quite unsurprising categories:

  • Community Formation
  • Students’ Recognition of Their Own Power and Responsibility

People who feel part of and committed to a community participate in its functions; and attendance, like learning, is its own reward. Martha Kinney and Mary Beth O’Halloran, in their seeming disagreement about whether to use attendance as a “carrot” or a “stick” (“The Dialogue,” June 2010 issue of the Advocate,) both present useful approaches for making attendance count, directly and visibly, thereby highlighting its significance. But attendance—and failure to attend—are rewards and punishments all on their own, without the instructor serving as middle man, except possibly to act as native guide for students’ early forays into the academic jungle.

Furthermore, there’s a facet of the power-responsibility nexus that deserves separate attention. Students need to understand that a college classroom is not like a film screening, a sunset, or a meteor shower, all of which will proceed in exactly the same way, whether they are present or not. In my class they are an integral part of the action, valued participants who ask questions, contribute to discussions, and critically affect the learning of others as well as their own. Even a lecturer is affected by her audience, responding if she is skillful to smiles and looks of confusion, level of attention, and pace (or absence) of note-taking. Questions often stimulate further questioning.

Convincing community college students that they are a vital component of each class can be a hard sell, but over the past several years I’ve come up with an approach that blends building community, making attendance visible to students, and underscoring the value of each member to the class as a whole. It’s been field tested repeatedly, and in fact, every semester a few students tell me that my “attendance policy” has improved their attendance not only in my class, but in their other classes, too.

Ten Tips for Improving Attendance

1.      During the first class, read the class list aloud to learn names, pronunciations, and preferred nicknames. Proceed in a leisurely way. Savor.

2.      Draw attention to your perspective on attendance, clearly stated in the syllabus. Attendance is mandatory, but you neither award nor subtract points for attendance. Attending class is a student responsibility, and responsibility is always linked to power. In this case, students have the power to learn and earn excellent grades, which is inextricably bound to the responsibility of attending class. Quote a statistic or two if you like. Explain that in responding to students who ask about a missed class, the most cogent thing you can say is: “You just had to be there.” Of course a student who misses a class will feel confused, left behind, and so on. Sympathize. Encourage the student to check with a friend or two, even though merely hearing about the missed class is like an athlete hearing about practice or a weight training session. Apply a light touch.

Absences are neither “excused” nor “unexcused”; they just “are.” Consequently you are not interested in doctor’s notes or obituary notices or dental appointments made before the semester started. A student who is too incapacitated to attend class merits your individual attention and compassion.

3.      Starting with the second class meeting, replace “calling the roll” with a sign-in sheet. Head it with course and section, date, and time and ask each student to sign in. Look it over with obvious interest when it comes back around to you, and draw a line under the last signature a moment before the class starts. Without interrupting yourself or anyone else, pass the sheet to any late-comers so they may sign-in. Keep the sheets in a folder you bring to each class so that students can consult it at any time.

4.      If possible, arrange chairs and desks in a circle or horseshoe. Insist that students angle themselves so that each student is able to look every other student directly in the eye. No exceptions. Hang tough on this one.

5.      Obtain permission to circulate (via email or hardcopies) names, emails, telephone numbers, text addresses—whatever students would like to supply—so that everyone in class can easily contact everyone else. One or two student volunteers often handle compiling the list.

6.      Learn names as quickly as you can. Use them in discussion, and encourage students to use them. Notice who’s absent and try to work a comment about it into the conversation. “I wish Nick was here today,” or “I know Carmen would have something to say about that!”

7.      When you lecture, make sure that the lecture does not merely recount assigned reading. When you conduct discussion, never ask a question you know the answer to. When you work in groups, circulate and participate in each group’s activity. Assign a short-term (during this class) goal to each group, and tell them to prepare to report back to the larger group.

8.      Grade participation if you want to, stating clear guidelines about what constitutes excellent, good, fair, and poor participation. Provide individual, periodic feedback on participation at least three times during the semester, with the first note during week three. Help the reticent find ways to participate.

9.      Assign brief in-class writing. Give a “quizlet,” or ask students to weigh in on the issue at hand, apply a principle, write for two minutes on what they have learned in the past half-hour or so, or anything else you like. Grade these A, B, and C. For those who weren’t there and didn’t write -- D and F. Don’t take more than a couple of minutes grading the stack, and return them during the next class. In-class writing cannot be “made up.”

10.  Announce your enthusiasm—for the subject, for teaching, and for your students—at every opportunity. Show them in any way you can that at that moment there is no place you would rather be than with them, sharing what you know about the discipline you love.

(Nance Hahn is an associate professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York. She has taught college writing for 25 years.)