The Philosophical Case for Attendance Policies

In the most recent blog, I’ve received comments criticising the notion of attendance monitoring from both a libertarian and a social justice perspective. I think that the libertarian argument is that students are rational agents capable of making their own choices and living with the consequences and I think that the social justice argument is that forced attendance punishes students who are socially/ economically disadvantaged because these students may need to work instead of attending classes.

So this feels a good point to consider the philosophy of attending/ attendance policies. 

(I’m 100% confident that some people are going to disagree with everything the follows.)

Just an image showing conflict between two groups of people metaphorically arguing from libertarian and social justice perspectives. But really it's just colour.

Before talking about attendance policies, I think I need to be clear about the case for attendance itself. Inevitably, I’m going to write from a quite utilitarian/ greatest good perspective and consider the mythical ‘average’ student.

What’s the case for attending?

Firstly, it’s what students sign up to. The contractual argument is probably the weakest reason for attending, but is important to stress nonetheless. Students at my institution agree to commence a programme of study that involves both taught hours and self-directed learning. They didn’t sign up to an online-only asynchronous course. I’m very sympathetic to students who would argue that there aren’t enough options to complete a degree asynchronously, but that doesn’t change the fact that if a course is offered with expected attendance, that’s part of its essential nature. This doesn’t mean that if a student misses any classes they ought be punished or booted off the course, only that expected attendance is part of the social contract and each student is responsible for considering how they meet that part of the agreement.

Secondly, courses are designed with the active involvement of students in mind. If there’s no difference between attending a class or watching a video of the class online, then of course there’s a really good case to say that attendance is unimportant. Although even here, there’s a degree of self-deception at play about the utility of lecture capture. I understand that students who use the technology the most are the ones who already attended the class and use the video for revision purposes, not the ones who watch the videos instead of attending. I’d argue that in most cases, the sector is moving/has moved away from traditional chalk and talk lectures, courses are designed so that students learn from one another. My institution is increasing the use of flipped learning and problem-based learning; these methodologies require students to be in the class and working with their peers to develop a greater understanding of their subjects. 

Why are courses designed this way? I think ultimately if students are to meet the graduate outcomes associated with the course, they need to have experienced complex problem solving and opportunities to practice higher order thinking. Of course, some students can reach these goals by writing the extended essay, but for most, they need opportunities to practise these skills and approaches with peers. The evidence also suggests that problem-based learning may be useful for retention and that communities of peers are extremely important to helping students succeed. Of course community building needs designing into the course, but students to need to be present to build relationships. Some people will argue that MS Teams or Zoom work perfectly well for forming communities – that may be true, but colleagues’ experience of teaching online during the Covid lockdown was that often these weren’t vibrant communities of peers, but ghost towns of strangers. Being on campus also creates space and opportunities for students to engage with their peers through other opportunities such as societies or volunteering. I know that some students with family responsibilities will never choose to make use of these opportunities, but they are part of the bank of resources available to support students. 

Which brings up the third reason: the impact of attendance on other students. Some students will complete their studies with very minimal interaction with their peers or their lecturers. But these are black swans (outliers), they are unusual individuals, memorable because they are quite exceptional (see charts below). Most students who don’t attend do badly. We like to think that student learning behaviour is shaped by the institution and by individual teaching staff, but we tend to forget that student engagement and attendance is shaped by the norms laid out by their peers. Attendance declines over the course of the year.  This may be because students all learn individually that they don’t need to attend, but more likely they follow the norms set by their peers. The psychology of turning up to a class with 100% attendance is very different to turning up to a class with 50% attendance. 

What’s the case for an attendance policy?

Higher education is post-compulsory education. Students have opted to attend university rather than take another option such as paid employment. In a number of countries they are literally fee-paying customers, or at least pay a fee to sit exams. Attendance policies don’t appear to sit comfortably in this context, yet I’m going to argue that they are important. I’d also argue that they are moral.

Firstly, there’s a very strong association between attendance and both progression (re-enrolling in the next academic year) and academic achievement (grades achieved). We know this, but I’m not sure that students always do, and it feels moral to make the case to students for attending.

Graph showing the relationship between average engagement and progression from the first year at NTU, 2016-17. For reference, students with very low attendance have very poor progression and vice versa. Only 12% of students with attendance of 0-10% progressed as did 98% of students with attendance over 90%.
Relationship between average attendance amongst first years and progression (first years atNottingham Trent University, 2016-17).
Graph showing the relationship between average engagement and average grades achieved from the first year at NTU, 2016-17. Asa with the previous graph, there is a correlation between attendance and outcome. Students with 0-10% attendance had an average Grade Point Average of 47% and students with an average attendance of 90-100% had a GPA of 66%.
Graph showing the relationship between average attendance and grades achieved (first years at Nottingham Trent University, 2016-17)

This is slightly old data now and we may find that post-pandemic things have been turned on their head, but there is lots of evidence of a very strong association between attendance and success. Attending classes is one activity that students can do that is likely to have the biggest impact on academic success. Put bluntly, high attenders are more likely to be academically successful. It may be that students with the best attendance are those who find attending to be intellectually and emotionally rewarding, but previous studies have found that attending has a multiplying effect on academic success. 

This is the point where I feel that the social justice arguments are at their strongest. Students with high attendance potentially face fewer barriers to attending and have already internalised the rules about the importance of attending. Strong arguments can be made that if attendance is a requirement then students with additional barriers to attending are significantly disadvantaged. However, there’s a tension: if the course offered has expected attendance, to what extent do students need to take responsibility for doing so? Moreover, if we imply that students can ‘sort of’ get away without attending, we’re doing them a huge injustice, we know that they are missing out on important opportunities to learn and are at risk of ending up with a lower academic outcome. I’m not an absolutist, I think that missing some classes is a pretty normal part of being a student and universities have a responsibility to make it easy for students who can’t attend to catch up, but I’m afraid though that I believe that having a generally good attendance is just as fundamental as submitting assignments.

Secondly, a policy is also a statement of intent. If written well, it outlines the expectations and principles expected, I’d argue that it forms part of the social contract between learners and tutors. This feels particularly important when new students arrive at university hearing so many unhelpful narratives (“the first year is a doss”, “you only need 40%” etc.). For many students the first year is a period of enormous change from compulsory to post-compulsory education, often living and fending wholly for oneself for the first time and even where students remain in the family home they are potentially re-negotiating many of their most important relationships. Data like the graphs above show the risks of low attendance, unfortunately just telling students the risks is often not a sufficiently strong motivator to attend students (like everyone) can deceive themselves that they’ll be the lucky one and break the odds. Having an attendance policy can be a way to focus students’ attention.

Balance of consequences

I feel that in higher education, we need to be wary about writing punitive attendance policies. I know that there are colleagues who would advocate for policies to kick students off their courses for relatively low levels of absence. I understand this point of view and understand that it’s born out of frustration, but I don’t agree. 

I think that there is a moral case to explain to students the importance of attending. I also think that there’s a moral case for offering nudges (or shoves if they can be resourced) to encourage students back to the course. I hope that I’m realistic though, an attendance policy is likely to move some students to attend, but the far more important issue is to ensure that every single class is perceived as valuable and worthwhile by students. 

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