Save attendance policies for the schoolhouse

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Gabe Darley | Contributing Artist

Strict attendance policies hinder the quality and efficacy of in-person instruction

Gabe Darley, Staff Writer

Tulane University is a higher education institution whose undergraduate students are legal adults who have chosen to continue their formal learning process beyond what is mandated by the state. Though there are other contributing factors that can influence one’s ability to attend college, going to college is still more or less something that students opt into. 

It follows that most of the people who study at Tulane are here because they want to be. While there are a wide variety of reasons for coming to Tulane, the endgame is almost always to earn some sort of official recognition of proficiency in the form of a diploma used later to enter the workforce. This diploma is the recognition by a university that you, the diploma-holder, have demonstrated competency in your area of study.

And yet, one important factor in the Tulane GPA seems to be in direct opposition to this concept: the dreaded attendance policy. 

It does not take extensive historical knowledge to recall the classic American schoolhouse that dominated the pre-government-sanctioned-education era we live in today. To its 11-year-old attendee, the schoolhouse is a vile place, dominated by an unspeakably evil schoolteacher who is, one can only imagine, just waiting to slap the fingers of the first child to speak out of turn with a ruler. This is a place where one can imagine an attendance policy makes sense. In this world, two things are true: first, the children do not want to be there, and second, if they do not come to class, they will have no other way to learn the material and, therefore, could never arrive at proficiency.

Tulane is not a schoolhouse. It does not serve children. There is no horrible school teacher overseeing their education. It is a transactional and elective institution where people can pay money to receive confirmation that they’re at least mediocre in the field of their choice. 

Quizzes, exams, essays and homework assignments are all tangible metrics with which one can measure that competency. These are all methods which inherently rely on some kind of performance. They are rarely zero-sum activities, except in the case of the rare and highly coveted “for completion” grade. 

Attendance, on the other hand, measures a student’s ability to walk to a building and sit down. It does not reflect any mastery of subject matter. It does not show a student’s comfort level with the day’s lecture. It does not ask the student, “What do you know about finding the angle between two vectors?”  It instead asks, “Can you come into this classroom and say ‘here’ when your name is called?” If a student can do that, it does not matter if they are active participants. There is no qualitative question, only a “yes” or a “no.” 

Beyond this failure to align with our understanding of the college diploma, the act of taking graded attendance seems antiquated for a few other reasons as well. 

The first is that Tulane professors are not gods. They are sometimes not even teachers. As a private research institution, more often than not these professors will have the highest degrees in their fields but do not have the skillset to properly relay information to their students. Their primary job, by definition, is to conduct research for the university. 

This has unfortunate academic consequences. In the worst cases, class periods are dedicated to looking at haphazardly-made powerpoints and listening to professors lecture directly and inefficiently off the slides. Why should this class be the end-all-be-all of the learning experience? 

Present-day academia includes limitless other sources of information and learning: video tutorials, external websites and textbooks worth hundreds of dollars that students are forced to buy every semester. 

Students can often utilize this plethora of external resources to build their own competency more effectively than a professor can teach it, rendering attendance to lecture based courses unnecessary. If a student can self-teach an entire course’s worth of material and excel on the aforementioned measures of understanding, why not celebrate that? 

The second reason attendance is an inadequate measure is that the punishment for not attending a class is strictly punitive and not at all restorative. There is no learning process that stems from this loss of points. When a student receives a graded test, they can look at it and use their performance to find their strong suits and weaknesses to do better in the future. 

Missing class is almost never an accident. There is no realization of, “Next time, I should go to class,” because students know they will be losing points. 

The fact of the matter is that if a class is engaging, interesting and well-taught, students will feel the impetus to go. If the class provides something that online resources or textbooks cannot, if it puts the student experience and learning process first, students will find their own cost-benefit analysis of attending to be in favor of attending.  

This has the simultaneous benefit of encouraging professors to create good lecture material. If professors want students to attend their classes, they should value their time and teach as they’d want to be taught. 

This is not a perfect model. There are some classes in which attendance is an essential component. When thinking of English classes, for example, daily discussion of the reading material is what separates the major from independent reading. In this case, participation is a far better grade measure. This may still require attendance, but at least then the measure is qualitative rather than quantitative. It has the effect of making that attendance feel worthwhile and integral to the learning journey. 

There is no need for fear tactics. Students who want to attend lectures will. If a professor cares about the well being of their students and instructs properly, their students will perform well on assignments. To the same extent,  students who do not attend these classes may do poorly, but as adults it is their time and money being wasted. That is a personal risk, the results of which will fall directly on the student.

Ultimately, forcing a student who does not want to attend a class to do so does not create a productive classroom environment. There is nothing to be gained from teaching someone who does not want to be taught.