Thursday, September 29, 2011

Weighing The Merits of Attendance Policies

“I'm a grown god damn man, for Christ's sake.” This is what Carlos Fonts, a twenty two year old English major at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explained to me when I asked him about his feelings regarding mandatory attendance policies.

Here at Umass-Boston, every single professor creates some sort of attendance policy for the courses he or she teaches. Generally, the number of allowed absences ranges from two to five. Exceeding the allowed number of absences will usually result in automatic failure of the course. While it is easy to understand the need that professors have to quantify student participation in some way, such concrete attendance policies fall short as true and accurate indicators of commitment to and success in mastery of a subject.

There is no doubt that, if one attends every class, one is much more likely to have a more valuable learning experience than another person who is often absent. However, this is not always the case. Physical presence in class is not, as many students can attest to, necessarily a signifier of academic commitment, or even of basic mental engagement.

A student may attend every class, blessing his peers with their physical presence, while sticking his face into a computer screen, browsing Facebook and playing computer games all semester. This student may never speak unless called upon, and might not even bring his textbooks to class. However, there are often no clear-cut punishments for this sort of behavior. While I am certain professors take note of such things, and frequently reflect them in a student's final grade, there is rarely, if ever, the threat of automatic failure. Does a student who attends and actively participates in 80% of classes deserve to fail more than a student who attends 100% of classes, while actively participating in none of them?
Another thing to consider is the actual composition of a student's final grade in a course. Many professors at Umass conveniently put a proportional breakdown of the semester's assignments in the syllabus. Here is an example of the grade breakdown from a Fall 2011 lower level English course which allows five absences (Three excused, two unexcused):

Class Participation/Workshops – 15%
Quizzes – 10%
Paper #1 – 15%
Mid-Term – 20%
Paper #2 – 20%
Final - 20%

This is a typical grade breakdown at Umass. Class Participation, which almost always includes attendance, comprises approximately 15% of a student's final grade in a course. It makes sense that a student's participation grade would be negatively affected by excessive absences. However, the issue lies in the automatic failure of the student after 4-6 absences. If it is true that class participation is only 15% of the grade, then why should a student who receives A's and B's on all other assignments automatically fail the course for missing six classes? Is this student accomplishing less than a student who is there every day, but receives C's on all other assignments? Did the C student somehow earn the right to remain enrolled in class, while the A student is forced out because of absences? Clearly a student who receives C's is deriving less from the curriculum than a student who is earning A's. Clearly, the A student does not require as much class time to learn the material as the C student. If students are judged on an objective scale of progress and accomplishment (as they should be, in the interest of fairness), then how is it fair to punish students who clearly have a better grasp on the material, despite their lack of presence in class? Do the ends justify the means in this case? They certainly should. If one student can write a thorough, in depth, and ambitious final paper, despite having missed six classes, does he actually deserve to fail? Has he somehow gotten less out of the course than the perpetually present student who simply does not understand the material, and writes a mediocre, contrived final paper? Should the C student be rewarded simply for “trying harder”? If a professor grades students based on effort, then they should be fired. It is not fair to hold one seemingly more capable student to a higher standard than a student who is less apt to succeed in the class. We are not in elementary school, and if you struggle because of ineptitude, then you deserve to fail. If you prove that you are able to keep up with the material and achieve the course objectives, despite absences, then you deserve to be in class.

One of the converse arguments that is of merit is the claim that there is a chance that another, more committed student could have taken the frequently absent student's place in the course. This is only true when applied to full courses that students were turned away from due to high enrollment. There is no logical rebuttal to this argument, other than the fact that both students paid the same amount of money to enroll in school, and are thus equally entitled to the service for which they paid.

Of course, this a multi-faceted argument, and it is plain to see why professors implement attendance policies. It makes their jobs and grading easier, and is usually a fairly accurate indicator of success or commitment to a class. It is in the exception to this principle that the problem is present, and it is a shame that some students fail courses that they perhaps did not deserve to, based on a concrete, unforgiving policy that may or may not be an accurate indicator of anything at all.

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