Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Teach. You Learn. Or Not.

As a grad student and now as an assistant professor, I’ve always operated under a pretty severe attendance policy: for each unexcused absence over two, the student will lose one percentage point off his/her final grade. Every semester a handful of students in my sections lose a letter grade or even two due to unexcused absences. Under the policy, if a student was sick enough not to come to class, she/he was sick enough to go to the clinic and get a note. No note, no excused absence. The intent was to give the students incentive to come to class, of course, but it created a documentation headache for me and occasionally put me in a dilemma about what constitutes an excused absence. And as you might imagine the policy wasn’t universally understood. I’d occasionally get e-mails from a student telling me she/he missed class due to illness. And I’d always answer, “I’m sorry you feel bad. Please go to the clinic and get seen and get a note so I can excuse your absence.” Good classroom management and good public health policy, right? And before this semester I was prepared to go even more explicit. Instead of a paragraph in the syllabus outlining the attendance policy, I worked up a separate sheet covering every point of the attendance policy with a student signature block at the bottom (I’m more convinced than ever that most students don’t read the syllabus). I looked at it for a while and didn’t feel 100% right about it (it seemed, even for Ole Dr. Meanie-pants, to be heavy handed) and showed to a couple of colleagues whose opinions I value. One of them said, “I don’t have an attendance policy. If they don’t want to learn I don’t really want them in class.”

I thought about that long and hard and I recalled an epiphany I had last fall. I was recording exam grades and plugging the numbers into a spreadsheet I used to track grades. I pull one graded exam out of the stack and record a 94% in the spreadsheet. I pulled the next student’s exam out of the stack and recorded 19%. Well, I sat there and looked at those numbers for a long time. It occurred to me that I was not such a great professor that I made that student make a 94 and I wasn’t so inept that I made the other student make a 19. Those two students made fundamentally different decisions about their learning and I had very little to do with it.

So, as an experiment, I scrapped the attendance policy for this semester. It turns out that, so far, class attendance is about the same. The same students who did and didn’t miss class last semester are the same ones missing or not missing class this semester without some Sword of Damocles attendance policy hanging over their heads. Their seriousness about showing up for things for which they’ve registered was probably formed long before this semester. 

Now, I don’t teach any differently in class. I try to be high-energy and somewhat interesting and I try to engage the students and give them time in class to work on speaking and listening in pairs and small groups. I’ll let the exam grades that they themselves earn, though, be the reward or punishment for missing or attending class. We’ll see how it plays out. I may be convinced to change back to some middle ground policy, but I think that for now I’ll let the students take total responsibility for their own learning (it’s college, after all).