OPINION: Classes should track participation, not attendance

Giving points just for showing up sets students up for failure



Teaching students to expect points just for showing up sets expectations low and puts them at a disadvantage when they enter the workforce. Participation is a more reasonable metric.

DERREK SPEAKMAN, Evergreen columnist

Every student should go to class. While that might be a controversial statement, one must admit attendance is in a student’s best interest if they want to succeed. However, instructors should not give a grade for going to class.

Students shouldn’t be graded for attendance, but participation.

While similar, with both requiring students to come to class, there is an important distinction. Simply put, attendance means “this student gets x number of points because they’re here,” and participation is saying “this student gets x number of points because they’re here and actively engaged.”

Participation can be counted in any number of ways, in-class discussion, quizzes, writing prompts or content questions. Attendance has one way: be present.

And while students may be required to be in class physically, just being assessed on attendance means that students are not required to be in class mentally.

The main issue with receiving a grade for attendance is that students are getting points—which at university is indicative of working on or having knowledge of the coursework—for essentially doing nothing, the bare minimum.

“Points for being in class means you are actually getting points for sitting your butt in the seat, you’re not having to listen to me, you’re not having to respond to a particular prompt,” said Michelle Kistler, instructor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Take the hypothetical of two students, Jimmy and Jane. Jimmy and Jane are both in the same course, which grades attendance at 15 percent. Jimmy gets an average score of a B on coursework and shows up to every class, while Jane only shows up for a third of her classes but performs better with an average score of an A.

With this grading system, Jimmy and Jane would receive a B+ and B respectively; Jimmy would benefit from this system, seeing a slight improvement, while Jane would go down a whole letter grade.

While it sounds nice to give students a boost for attending class, think about what the example of Jimmy and Jane shows. As is displayed by her coursework grades, Jane knows the material and skills better than Jimmy.  Grading attendance places Jimmy higher than Jane (if only incrementally), and a better grade essentially says that Jimmy knew the material better and possibly even worked harder than Jane.

Although it can be said that grades aren’t the best way of measuring knowledge or skill in a subject, it’s the best approximation that exists and is largely accepted to mean as much.

Situations like Jimmy and Jane may occur infrequently, but it shows that there is the capacity for getting a getting a high grade without having the skills or knowledge of someone at the same level or lower.

The benefit of grading participation is that it allows students to engage with the course in a way that is measurable. If Jimmy was doing in-class assignments and being graded on his participation and effort put forth in the course, then it would be fair to say that he very well might be better than or at the same level as Jane. Furthermore, if Jane weren’t engaging in in-class participation, it would be just as fair to say that a B is more representative of her total ability.

In some instances, participation can even provoke learning and discussion which wouldn’t occur with simple attendance.

“I do a lot of class discussion, so their responses are supposed to be to reflect upon the question I’ve posed to them, I then [elaborate on the answers],” Kistler said, “and then many of my students will become verbally engaged in the content too, which is a lot different than giving out points for sitting there.”

This isn’t to say that taking attendance can’t be useful. It works well for record keeping and gives instructors one part to the picture of a student’s engagement.

“I’ve absolutely had students come and say ‘I’ve been really engaged, I’ve been really paying attention, I’m really into this class,’ and then I look at the data, and [I’ve said] ‘how could you be engaged if you’ve only been here three times in the past eight weeks?’” Kistler said.

Kistler said, however, that attendance is only part of constructing that image for how students are doing. She uses attendance as well as quizzes, written assignments and actual participation to create a full picture of students’ academic performance.

One of the best aspects about calling for change in those classes which grade attendance is that instructors have almost complete authority as to how they take attendance for their class—if at all.

“There is no policy that says, ‘attendance can only be taken in these ways,’” senior assistant registrar Becky Bitter said.

Some departments do have policies requiring instructors to take attendance, but typically departments let the instructors decide how they do it, Bitter said.

What this means is that attendance or participation grades can be left up almost completely to instructors — even if their department requires them to take attendance in class, they can always do some form of participation in its place.

With that ability for change there should be a shift from focusing on a students’ attendance to a students’ effort, engagement and participation.

In the cases an instructor can’t find a way to make their class participatory or have some way of engaging students, that instructor should reevaluate the way they teach their class.

“You’re not going to get a good grade or a promotion just for showing up for work every day, so it’s also about life habits and self-discipline,” Kistler said.

University exists to prepare us for entering the workforce, where “attendance” at a job is not just expected, but mandatory. To give students the expectation of receiving anything for doing the bare minimum isn’t just unrealistic, but detrimental.