June 06, 2005

Why take attendance?

Monday English People OC12 - Why take attendance?:
Homework assignment May 30th for this freshmen class of Pharmacy majors was to answer the following two questions:

1) Why is attendance taken in university classes in Japan?
2) And how do you feel about having your attendance taken each class?

Below are the students' respones to date (June 6th, 22:45JST). Transcribed/pasted exactly as received, no editing.

I received 22 responses (out of 36 students on the roll), 9 of those were handed in on paper, the rest were sent in by email.

The responses are revealing, and have prompted me to do a lot of thinking. Does "attendance" = "learning"? Why should the grade be linked to attendance? What is the connection between attendance and grades?

It seems clear that a preoocupation amongst students is evaluation, i.e. grading. It is also pretty clear that, in students' minds, there is little or no relation between the grades one receives and knowledge or skill acquired; it is assumed that the grade is the result of a "test" (which seems to usually mean a written test, tho perhaps I'm assuming things here). I sense from the responses that students have become so accustomed to being tested, and so accustomed to having testing as the prime purpose of education, that they have lost much sense of or desire for acquisition (of knowledge or skill) other than that necessary to pass the test (and get good grades).

At another school, I had a discussion on how to evaluate, with an older woman who is one of a slowly growing number of "adult learners" joining the regular student body. She said she thought taking attendance into account (i.e. having attendance be a part of the final grade) was important because otherwise the final grade would be based entirely on a single teacher's test, and she would never trust any single teacher's evaluation based on such a test, so using attendance as (part of) the grade was "fair".

Another argument made was that if attendance was not taken, few students would show up (an interesting assumption) and that that would be unacceptable to lecturers (their egos would be bruised).

A few students wrote "I don't understand it", which sounds pretty forthright and critical in English, but I suspect they may be translating the commonly used self-deprecatory phrase よく分かりません ("well, I don't really know much about it, but...") frequently used before making a statement of any kind to ward off any possible assumptions by listeners (or readers) that one is some kind of expert, or has given this matter a deal of thought.

This semester, in one of our freshmen classes, my colleague Pinky and I have created a kind of proficiency exam and set this as the bar to pass the class. We have deliberately avoided mentioning whether attendance will form part of the grade or not (although we religiously take attendance, like almost everybody else; in fact, just last week teachers were asked to hand in forms listing students who had attended less than half the classes by May 30th).

The object of the course is to be able to do 10 tasks to the satisfaction of the teacher. These 10 tasks cover about 15 basic situations or functions in English, including saying where something is, giving and following directions, introducing oneself (interests, hobbies, home, family, school, future plans), describing a process, telling about a trip, and so on. After reading the students' responses to the question "why take attendance", I realize just how revolutionary such an approach might seem: it unambiguously puts the accomplishment of a number of linguistic tasks as the goal of the course, and makes it clear that the succesful performance of these tasks is the key to passing the course. No mention is made of attendance or even effort (two issues dear to the heart of most people in higher education in this country). The goal here is, in linguistic terms, to learn to ride a bike: how often you fell off, how often you showed up with your bike (regardless of whether you actually tried riding it or not), how near you were to actually riding it, are all irrelevant.

Also irrelevant is, how much effort (how long it took to master the tasks) was put in: if someone can do all 10 tasks satisfactorily at the first try (in the first class of the year), they pass! Altho this hasn't happened (yet) and the issue has not been raised, I suspect that many students would feel this is "unfair": why should someone who spent 30 minutes on it get the same (or better) grade than someone who worked hard for all 90 minutes of each of the 28 classes in the semester?

This raises the question of exactly what students think is being evaluated, or what they think should be evaluated. I suspect that in either case, they would not focus as much on the competency or proficiency as Pinky or I would.

In the class in which I set these questions for a homework assignment, there is no such clear linguistic or competency goals, (merely a list of "topics" to be "covered") and I'm realizing that when these goals are absent, it makes it much easier (and tempting) to use attendance as a measure (tho of what, of course, is never clear!).

Pop on over and take a look at the students' responses, if you haven't done so already. And leave a comment, why don't you! It might help nudge students into starting their own blogs.


aaron said...

I like this approach Marco, for I agree that there should be some kind of minimal level of competency that should be demonstrated should a student be deemed to have successfully learned something. For me the problem is the fact that the institution of education isn't set up to accomodate learning very well. Like all natural processes, learning comes and goes in different times and intensities, and expresses itself it different ways. It is really elusive and impossible to capture through a numeric evaluation.

Furthermore, how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!

To me, the answer lies close to the idea of doing away with grades and curriculum altogether, akin to an open school. Students have to achieve a certain level of proficiency in a certain number of classes in order to graduate. They go at their own pace and choose classes that they want to be in. I guess this is not going to be a reality anytime soon, so perhaps the idea of teachers offering two modes of study in a course is a way of compromising in the current system?

Michael said...

In a perfect world, attendance is not needed in a college class. This was my philosophy for many years. I even created online notes in case they missed.

And they missed. Sometimes 70% of the class. Problem is, those that missed did not do the work, or they did the bare minimum.

I teach math. There is more to math than being able to learn how to do template-style problems. There is learning how to "think and reason" - skills that my skippers were not getting at all. So now I am retooling my course and adding group work that counts for points (thus indirectly grading on attendance). Go to http://www.mathmotivation.com/lessons/lessons.html to see what I am doing.

If we as teachers can not make the class time worthwhile, then quite honestly we should be replaced with a computerized online course or course on DVD or CD done independently. We could save the students a lot of money. I am trying to make the class time worthwhile. Let me know what you think.

Marco Polo said...

Michael, thanks for the comment. Don't confuse students attending class with taking attendance. I'm not suggesting students need not attend, I'm asking, why is taking attendance (the number of classes attended) considered so important? In many of my students' minds, passing a course merely means attending a minimum number of classes. My point of view is different: attending class should offer students time to learn certain information and/or practice skills that are needed to pass the course. Passing the course should therefore be assessed by either a) a performance/competence test, or b) an evaluation of the quality of work students have done while in class. Merely being physically present does not count for anything: so are the desks and chairs. Shall I give THOSE a passing grade?