As educators, we can’t imagine why anyone would skip our amazing class. And while we wish that our magnetic instruction alone would fill seats, most institutions require an extrinsic policy to nudge students our way.
But how does one strike a balance between incentivizing attendance and recognizing that students simultaneously juggle other classes, jobs, families, health, and all of life’s other competing priorities? Should our instruction always take precedence over all the above?
This year, our university’s Spanish courses experimented with a flexible policy centered around making up missed material rather than more traditional penalization of absences. Moving from punitive measures to a more inclusive approach benefitted both my students as well as me, and while it may not be feasible to copy our exact method in other programs (particularly in the K-12 setting, where students are required to attend by law), hopefully you will find some useful takeaways which you can consider adapting in some fashion for your courses in the fall.
Our Previous Approach:
Before talking about our current policy, let’s look at the problems it was trying to fix. Previously, students could miss a fixed number of class sessions without penalty, but each additional absence subtracted points from their final course grade.
Problems we experienced:
Tough conversations: Students saw their permitted absences as “days off” and regularly used them up in the first weeks of the course, only to have emergencies arise later on. As an instructor, it felt very dehumanizing to tell students with a recent death in the family that they’d lose points due to their poor planning.
Inflexibility: Perfect attendance was simply infeasible for certain students who, required by the university to take the course, faced a long commute or overlapping job responsibilities. These students did not lack any desire to learn, but absence penalties doomed them to a lower grade.
COVID: After returning from online instruction, we implemented an exception to our policy: COVID-related absences did not count against the permitted total. Yet, certain students rightly complained when similarly contagious illnesses such as pink eye did not qualify for this exemption.
Students falling behind: Ultimately, students in all the above situations missed out on learning opportunities when not attending class.
This Year's Experiment:
This year, we instead let students make up absences for full credit by submitting a video of conversational activities completed with a partner. This approach had several advantages:
No more tough conversations: no matter the reason, students were entitled to full credit for missed sessions so long as they made up the work.
Minimal grading burden: Tabbing through a video, I could verify within less than a minute that they’d given the work reasonable effort.
Flexibility: For example, one student had to leave campus for an extended period due to mental health reasons. Under our previous system, making the responsible decision to prioritize their own well-being would have resulted in failing the course; with our new system, however, they were able to focus on recuperating, then make up the work.
Students stayed caught up on material: This was particularly important for student athletes, who we know can miss large amounts of class time.
The Biggest Surprise: Students Missed LESS Class with a More Relaxed Attendance Policy
The graph below shows the median number of absences from my courses per student per academic quarter (~40 students per quarter):
Allowing students to complete make-ups reduced absences overall
Although absences increased towards the end of both years, attendance was substantially better with the make-up policy. This could have been because students no longer saw themselves as entitled to take a fixed number of days “off”, or, more optimistically, perhaps the less draconian policy encouraged something of an attitude shift toward the value of class time. Being farther from the outbreak of COVID could also have played a role here.
Visualizing the number of absences AFTER make-ups demonstrates the truly remarkable result:
Consistently few classes were missed and not made up under the new policy
Here, we see that the number of days students missed out on learning entirely (i.e. absent from class without completing a make-up) plummeted in comparison to our old policy. Moreover, the amount of missed material stayed constant all year, with students making up more classes as the year went on (likely indicating growing comfort with using them).
Even if the make-ups didn’t perfectly substitute the classroom experience, students’ engagement with the material obviously increased—ultimately, the goal of any attendance policy.
Concerns You May Have:
Do I have to design special materials for the make-ups? Personally, I already put step-by-step instructions in all my PowerPoints, so I just sent these to students. Alternatively, our textbook (Contraseña) has dozens of conversational activities which students could complete with a partner; while I personally like these to preserve the interactional element of a typical class, I suppose you could even use more widely prevalent worksheet-style activities.
What if students can’t find a partner or don’t want to record themselves? Our students could partner with anyone (even outside the university) capable of completing the activities. This includes our school’s language tutors, who signed written forms for students uncomfortable with recording themselves.
What if students try to make up everything at the end of the term? Our policy stated that make-ups would only be accepted one week after an absence; this was mostly a “cover your butt” line, and instructors were encouraged to be flexible with this limit within reason.
What if students try to take the class remotely? Our policy capped the number of make-ups students could complete, but again, this was primarily to avoid deliberate abuse. In my experience, few students got anywhere close to our limit (~20% of sessions), and extras could always be permitted where necessary.
How can I ensure students learn as much from make-ups as they do from class time? Honestly, they probably won’t. Requiring a video ensures some level of effort, and you could set a minimum time length per session. But even in a normal class period, students make mistakes and have lapses in attention; what’s important is that make-ups guarantee at least some level of engagement with the material, where skipping class doesn’t.
As stated at the beginning of this post, our system may not work for your situation, but hopefully it’s given you food for thought. Even in K-12 settings, some students are habitually truant despite mandatory attendance laws, and finding a way for those students to earn some credit even when absent could keep them from falling irrecoverably behind. In my case, the change let me quit playing heartless policeman, students appreciated the flexibility, and we both benefited from them staying up to date on the material. I am sure that I could lean even farther in this direction—I know some programs believe in making attendance completely optional—but until I’m brave enough to try that out, this has been a great solution for me!