Why I Take Attendance

An interesting conversation has been taking place on one of the listservs to which I subscribe. What began as an innocent query about available apps for tracking attendance, has quickly transformed into a discussion about why attendance should be taken in the first place. There have been questions about the extent to which ‘seat time’ is really an effective way of measuring participation, and discussions of other more administrative reasons for why tracking attendance might be important (i.e. institutional policies about seat monitoring, student loan conditions, etc). What is lacking in these discussion, however, and the reason why I take attendance in my classes, is a more humanistic perspective.

attendance-logoAttendance2 and Attendance by David M. Reed

It may seem paradoxical, since more often than not attendance functions as a quantitative measure of participation (not a good measure of participation, mind you, but at least it can be determined with a reasonable amount of precision), but the reason that I take attendance has to do with establishing relationship with my students. Especially during the first few classes (okay, lets be honest…several…or more), it is helpful to perform role call as a way of learning student names, particularly in large classes when there are a lot of names to remember. Sure, this memory game can be won more quickly through other means (i.e. flash cards with photos, wither taken by the instructor or on file with the registrar), but there are several other benefits to role call, benefits that cannot be achieved strictly through study.

For the last couple of years, I have been using an iPhone/iPad app called simply Attendance, by David M. Reed. What I like about Attendance is its ease of use, intuitive interface, ability to import from *.csv, Dropbox sync, and photo integration (yes, flashcards still have their place). As of the writing of this post, however, I have become aware of a new version of Attendance, Attendance2, which was favorably reviewed by Brian Croxall in a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/attendance2-an-update-for-the-attendance-app-for-ios-devices/41850. In spite of the fact that I am relying on what is now an old version of Reed’s software, the benefit of using an app for attendance has been proven time and time again. If we accept what I have said about the more relational aspects of attendance-taking, it should be fairly obvious that the actual recording technology has little to no impact on the achievement those inter-personal outcomes. Where it does have a demonstrable impact, however, is in the reduction of the number of paper scraps floating around (not so much an environmental issue, and an issue of tidiness), and ease of record keeping. Furthermore, apps like this also enable the instructor to go beyond merely checking ‘present’ or ‘absent,’ but also make it easy to record the condition of an absence, in addition to making quick notes about a student’s participation.

In calling out each student’s name (the most beautiful word in the world, let’s recall, is one’s own name), the instructor is able to accomplish even just a little bit of rapport. In calling out each student’s name, the instructor may extend a kind of personal welcome: “John Doe?…oh, hi John. I’m glad you are here.” In this sense, attendance is not simply a requirement of success in the course, but also an extension of the spirit of hospitality. What of those students that are not present? Well, I do my best to extend my hospitality to them as well. “Jane Smith?…No?…I’m sorry she is not here. She made an insightful comment on the discussion board that I want to talk about today.” For a student to know that they are present in the teacher’s eyes, even if absent, is likely to increase, not just the chances of their physical presence, but the quality of their participation as well.

The practice of talking attendance can also function as an effective way of gauging the ‘temperature’ of the room. Asking whether a student is present is a call to which every student can respond, and respond with certainty. If the teacher pays close attention to the response of each student, and has attended to the quality each response in the past, it becomes possible to establish a baseline (albeit an anecdotal one) according to which the instructor can assess the student’s preparedness and excitement about the course material for that day, but also their mood. This is the kind of thing that more sophisticated analytics attempt to achieve by mapping performance onto dispositional and performance indicators, but that, at the end of the day, is actually exceedingly difficult to quantify. If the instructor is attuned to the moods of individual students, and to the mood of the class as a whole, then they will be better equipped to deliver their course material in a way that is optimal to that particular time and place.

All this has been to say that attendance does not need to be strictly a quantitative component of a course grade, but it may also be a way of reaching out to each student individually at the start of class, indicating that they are individually valuable to that particular classroom environment, and increasing student engagement as a result.