Attendance: Requirement or Responsibility?

Last week I read with interest Alex Davis’ recent column comparing the University of Tampa to a “fancy day care center.” His assertion is based in large part on the required attendance policies of some courses. He extrapolates from this idea the conclusion that students at UT are here for the external certification that a college degree provides and not an education. I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Davis’ assertion that students are not here to learn. It seems that Mr. Davis does not really understand his purpose here at UT, and I understand that predicament well. As an undergraduate, I often wondered about many aspects of my educational experience just like Mr. Davis. Now that I am on the other side of the fence as a faculty member, I’d like to propose some serious answers to Mr. Davis’ glib arguments.

Indeed, why do professors require class attendance? Mr. Davis sees education as a product that is purchased and consumed by the student like any other good or service. Moreover, as with any consumer product he expects a certain level of customer service based on the fact that “the customer is always right.” Mr. Davis’ argument might hold true if students knew from the beginning of their educational experience what they needed to know. Unfortunately, learning and education are journeys that unfold piece by piece. One cannot always see the requirements of the journey in advance. Undeniably, sometimes one does not appreciate the journey until the end or even years after completion of the journey.

In line with his “consumer of education” idea, Mr. Davis points out that he has hired his professors. To an extent that is true; but what has he hired them to do? He has hired them to provide him with an educational journey that he will not grasp fully until he has traversed the entire path. I doubt that any professors require attendance out of a sense of ego as Mr. Davis presumes. Rather, professors require attendance because they feel that the face-to-face experience of the classroom is the best way to complete the educational journey.

Why do professors value the face-to-face experience? One of the reasons is assessment. While tests are one way of assessing student performance, for most professors, the student assessment process is constant. We are always evaluating comprehension of the material as we teach. Frequently, I can tell when someone raises their eyebrows or wrinkles their nose that they have not understood the concept under consideration. This helps me to alter my classroom presentation to meet the needs of my students. Surely I could assess performance only on exams, but that would be a sad use of my student’s time as well as an ineffective learning environment. Why let a student leave a class with only a 70% understanding of the material when the experience could have been so much richer?

Finally, Mr. Davis’ article presumes that as a student he has nothing to add to the classroom experience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, why do universities go to great lengths to recruit diverse student bodies if the only communication in the class travels from professor to student? Each student at UT has theoretically come here for a rich participative educational experience. Classroom attendance should not be viewed as a requirement, but a responsibility. Each student has an obligation to participate fully in the classroom discussion in order to provide an academic environment which is engaging and challenging for all. This proposition also leads to the conclusion that students must come prepared to class and be ready to learn.

Mr. Davis might be horrified to know that I expect my students not only to come to class, but also to be alert, well-rested, prepared, and ready to engage in discussion. That is why I grade class participation, not class attendance. In the end, I do believe that incentives matter, and students will respond to those incentives when they can’t always see the end of the journey. Ultimately, what I am paid to do is to motivate and guide students along their educational journey, not baby-sit them as Mr. Davis asserts. Most students reach that conclusion at some point in their educational experience. Until that point, I grade class participation as a part of my responsibility to my students and the larger academic community. Believe me; it would be easier for me if I didn’t assess each student after each class meeting.

Education is not a consumer good that can be bought by the pound. It is an experience (that certainly does cost money) which requires the active engagement of a larger community in order to reap its rewards. The rewards of education are many, but the responsibilities of participating in an active educational environment are real and numerous as well.

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