It’s 9:30 in the morning. I woke up early for this lecture. I have been taking notes on autopilot but the information is going in one ear and out the other. This lecture is so boring. Why did I even come? I lazily navigate to the course syllabus. Thirty percent of my grade is attendance. The add-drop deadline has already passed, now I have to submit myself to another six weeks of suffering, my only reprieve being able to speak my mind on course evaluations at the end of the quarter.
I’m sure many Stanford students have had a similar experience. Attending lectures becomes rote and boring, and there is only one real opportunity to give feedback at the end of the quarter. There is a simple solution to this problem: make attendance at all class meetings optional.
Stanford currently allows professors to make their own attendance policies. According to the Office of Academic Advising, “Stanford has no single university-wide attendance policy, individual departments and instructors have the right to set specific attendance policies for their own courses,” though students are “expected to attend all class meetings.”
A change to this policy would have a variety of benefits.
First, making attendance optional would give students more autonomy. Most students that attend Stanford have effective time management. So, why should instructors impose their notions of time management on students? If students decide that class time is not being used productively, they should be able to not attend and suffer no negative consequences to their grade. Fewer students attending a class will signal to an instructor that their teaching style and course content may need to be adapted to better cater to students’ learning needs. Besides, if the attendance is actually valuable to understanding material, poor attendance should show up in the grades for essays, tests, and projects.
A participation ban would ensure that professors are grading students on actual substance rather than mere attendance. Even a baby can sit in a lecture. Why should a Stanford University student be awarded credit for doing something a baby can do?
One argument in favor of required attendance is that students need to come to some class meetings such as discussions and labs. I don’t believe this is that big of an issue. In these cases, every effort should be made to allow students to complete equivalent work without being present. For a discussion section, for example, students who don’t attend can have their participation grade replaced with a set of study questions to measure their understanding of the material. Lab sections could be an exception that might necessitate attendance, but grading for such sections should be purely based on the work the student puts forth, with no consideration given to how long they stay at the lab.
Banning attendance grading also yields a new and useful measurement of student satisfaction: attendance metrics. If students are required to attend lectures, then attendance metrics will not accurately reflect students’ desire to be in class. But if class meetings are made purely optional, attendance metrics will accurately gauge the utility students gain from coming to class meetings.
Attendance as a metric carries a number of benefits over other surveys such as course evaluations. First, attendance is a simple metric. There is no complexity involved in polling attendance, and no statistical analysis is required to parse the data. Another benefit is that the feedback to instructors is immediate —they can track their attendance metrics as the quarter progresses. This means they don’t have to wait until the end of the quarter to implement changes in their instruction.
By closely monitoring attendance, instructors need to make their content useful and engaging for students. Maintaining student interest and using students' time well becomes a more central focus of the instructor's job.With attendance data, instructors can also gauge correlation between attendance and test performance. If there is little or no correlation, then perhaps class meetings are not well aligned with assessments. Instructors can use this information to change the content of lectures or assessments.
If Stanford truly values student feedback, the Faculty Senate should consider a ban on attendance grading. The administration should then monitor attendance statistics and follow up with instructors with low course attendance. Instructors should be encouraged to also monitor correlation between attendance and assessment performance.
It is time we stop wasting students' time. Give students the freedom to choose how to learn material. If it turns out they’re bad at learning the material on their own, they’ll respond and show up to class. But our requirements and grading system shouldn’t be centered on box-checking and participation. Instead, let’s center students. Ultimately, these changes will lead to students being more liberated and better able to be active agents in their own education.