“Do you know who I am?” Why attendance monitoring is never going to work in higher education

(I hate titles – they’re either really long and boring or really, really click-bait-y (this manages both): the rest of this page is the caveat).

I recently had a lengthy conversation with an excellent colleague about student engagement and attendance. She had been working with students about the problems with attendance and ways to improve it. Her students were frustrated and demotivated when their peers didn’t attend. We know that academics find it frustrating when students don’t turn up, but sometimes we forget that student attenders often feel the same way.

Her students also pointed out what appears to be a newer phenomenon: students leaving part way through the class. I only ever encountered this once as a student. During my first year, one of my peers realised that he was in the wrong lecture, he told the lecturer and then left. The part that always amazed me was that he’d waited until about 45 minutes into the hour before getting up and leaving. My sense of embarrassment is so strong that I’d have definitely just kept quiet and left at the end of the class. However, my colleague’s students were reporting something different.

At my institution, we use a QR system to monitor attendance. At the start of the class, the lecturer puts up a slide showing a QR code and the students register their attendance using their phones. If their phone doesn’t work or they don’t own one, they can tell the lecturer and their name can be added manually to the system. The University decided that this would be a better system than installing card readers and more cost-effective. Of course there are flaws, most commonly, students share their QR codes with their peers and so students can log in from their bedrooms. However, I’d argue that no system, certainly no system designed to cope with large classes, is fool proof.

My colleague’s students were reporting that students were turning up at the start of the class, logging their attendance and then walking out. This feels incredibly rude and self-defeating behaviour. More importantly, why do students feel that they can ‘get away’ with it and how is it that tutors don’t feel capable of stopping them from leaving? Whilst I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the following video currently circulating social media.

It’s an advert for New Zealand lottery scratch cards and, yes it massively overplays the stereotypes, but it contains useful truths for anyone thinking about attendance policies.

The ‘wise guy’ is only able to get away with the stunt because the teacher has no idea who he is. If a student walks out of a class after they’ve signed in to the attendance system, it’s at least partly because they think they’re anonymous and leaving won’t lead to trouble. I also think that for most lecturers confronting students about why they are leaving is a form of social anxiety hell.

  • What if they tell me that they’re leaving because my lecturing is boring?
  • What sanctions can I use to make them stay?
  • That first year is a foot taller than me – how am I supposed to stop him?
  • If I make too much of a fuss, will the whole class leave?

Some ideas about what to do differently

Your attendance monitoring process and subsequent system probably aren’t strong enough reasons to prevent students from playing the system. There is a value in having them as it helps joined up interventions, future tutorials etc, but I would suggest that good attendance is based on other factors. These include feeling part of a community, feeling known as an individual and having a sense of achievement associated with being in class. I’d suggest that lecturers consider the following:

Be a bit smarter about capturing attendance. If students expect to have the QR code up at the start of the session, change it. There’s no reason why the QR code can’t appear half way through the class. This needs managing carefully: just putting it up between slides is a terrible idea. I would suggest that in a lecture you offer a micro write (or some other consolidation activity) and before starting up the lecture again, show the QR code. In an ordinary class, there ought to be lots of naturally occurring opportunities to pull the group back to the screen, just pick one to show the QR code.

Learn your students’ names. Okay this might not be possible in all circumstances, but it’s a vital skill and invaluable to helping students feel part of your course community. If a student appears to be about to walk out, asking them by name what they are doing is likely to be much more effective than asking ‘hey you’. It’s still a social confrontation and awkward, but feels far more appropriate. For this reason I’d recommend that, in smaller classes, lecturers actually use the register rather than QR codes or other systems. It probably won’t take any longer and it’s good to practice saying students’ names. In the same vein, anything that strengthens course cohesion feels important. Sharing appropriate personal anecdotes, asking students to share relevant examples from their personal lives relating to the topic, using students names as often as possible when moving conversation around the classroom all feel essential.

Celebrate victories. Learning is hard. Attending a lecture ought to be more cognitively demanding than watching a film or 60 Tik Toks back-to-back. Humans are not rational creatures. Some students will avoid classes that they find too difficult, promising themselves that they’ll just catch up later. Being upfront about the challenges feels important, but so does giving students some early victories in class to help them see that they are learning and are becoming members of the course community/ subject discipline.

Discuss expectations. I think there’s a very small window of opportunity to first raise this topic. Your expectations about attendance need discussing as part of any induction and they’ll need returning to periodically. Some people will be comfortable discussing how it’s personally hurtful if students sneak out, others may not like doing so as it shows weakness. I probably wouldn’t confront students as they’re leaving, but I’d probably start my next class with a discussion about why it’s an issue.

One thought on ““Do you know who I am?” Why attendance monitoring is never going to work in higher education

  1. Ali

    So your view on post-secondary education is to further the divide between the rich and the poor. Mandate attendance so that those who need to work cannot work to the same extent. Mandate everyone showing up to class so that we really make things difficult for students with different learning styles. Why do you care whether a student is present or not? If they learn better by reading slides and supplementing knowledge using papers or textbooks, is it your place to make things harder on them and appeal to only one learning style?


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