a post about attendance (seriously)

You can fairly accuse me of being absurdly quotidian here. And that’s okay! You’ve been warned.

So, I take attendance. It’s just necessary for a writing class, in the age of the process model. If you don’t establish the importance of attending class, and lay out clear negative consequences for missing a lot of class, students won’t come. And since the process of drafting and improving a paper over time is now so deeply ingrained into the fabric of writing pedagogy, if they don’t come, they don’t improve. So in the first couple weeks of class, I always drill it into their heads (to the point of their visual annoyance), if they miss a lot of class, they are bound to fail. Does that mean that nobody misses a ton of class and fails? Nope. They’re always surprised by it, somehow, as well.

However, taking attendance, as in calling out student names or looking to find them and marking a sheet, is a big pain, and can actually take more time than you think. Plus, a delay like that before instruction can lead to distracted and unengaged students; I’ve always found capturing their attention, before drift or chatiness sets in, to be key. For that reason I have taken to distributing attendance sheets to students at the beginning of the class. Here’s a nice wrinkle to it: I make that effectively my tardiness policy, too. If a student comes in late but not before I take back the attendance sheet, so be it. They can sign their name. If they come in so late that they’ve missed the attendance sheet, they can stay and work and be instructed, but they receive an absence. Nice and clean.

On the other hand, it is annoying and more work than you think to hunt and peck in a gradebook for each name on the sheet. For that reason, my attendance system has evolved once again this semester: each attendance sheet has every student’s name listed, along with a space on the side for them to sign. That way, I can check at a glance who was absent, mark them that way in my gradebook, and move on. Better still, by having a set of physical attendance sheets to match the book, I’m protected in case a student wanted to challenge his or her grade. (Nobody ever has, in one of my classes, but it’s never impossible, particularly if you don’t hand out As like candy.) If challenged about the number of absences, I can just check the gradebook, go into the folder, and produce the actual attendance sheets. It’s a good system.

There, I know that will be interesting to about five people worldwide, but there you go.


  1. I’d always thought that the pass-around attendance sheet was just a way to start teaching while the students take their own roll — but this makes sense, too. I’ll keep this in mind for when they set me to teaching around here…

  2. I teach legal writing at a law school, and I certainly agree that “the process of drafting and improving a paper over time” is at the heart of the learning that occurs. In my experience, the students learn most from (1) actually researching and drafting the papers, (2) having an instructor closely read and comment on their work, and (3) revising in light of those comments and in light of their ongoing insights.

    Almost all of those things happen outside the classroom. I have found it relatively challenging to find ways to use our in-class time that are anywhere near as valuable as those three out-of-class experiences. This isn’t to say that attendance is unimportant, but your focus on it here makes me curious about how you use your class time.

    I’m under a few limitations that you’re probably not under. All of my students are writing on exactly the same topic, and much of the grading hinges on the substance of their legal analysis — for example, on spotting areas of ambiguity in the case law that could generate arguments. And (through no choice of mine) the grading is very strictly curved. The effect is that each paper functions more like an extended take-home exam than most undergraduate papers do. In that context, it’s hard to do much sharing of student drafts during the class time.

    So some uses of in-class time might not transfer very comfortably to a situation like mine. But I’m always curious about how teachers use group time to teach a skill that depends so much on individualized attention.

  3. Hey Chris, thanks very much for commenting. I do indeed have a very important advantage: here at Purdue, freshman composition is a 5-day-a-week teaching commitment. Every week, two days are set aside for in-class instruction, one day in a computer lab, and two days for small group or one-on-one conferencing with the instructor. At first I didn’t get it. Now I can’t imagine doing without it.

    I’ll be perfectly honest: conferencing is a pretty big logistical headache. The scheduling deputy for my department is one of the hardest working women in the building. It’s a huge pain to fit everything together for both students and instructors, most of whom are graduate students like me. Plus, this is an unusually large program. Because no one can test out or grade out of intro composition at Purdue, and because we have over 33,000 undergrads, we typically have hundreds and hundreds of sections of freshman comp a semester. And I’ll admit that teaching every weekday can be a bit of a drag. But for all that, I’d never have it any other way. Sitting down with them on a regular basis, making sure they’re understanding the content, and helping them shepherd their papers along– all without getting too prescriptive– is just invaluable.

    That’s not really an answer to your question, though. How do I use those two days a week in a regular classroom, set up for lecture? With variety, and not always successfully. I try to never do more lecture than I have to, although some concepts (such as basic organization and structuring of papers) are too important not too. I do a lot of group work, including peer review, even though I personally find peer review very difficult to implement well. Finally, I do try and get students to explain the key concepts and terms themselves as much as possible. One of my favorite activities is in dissecting the arguments of advertisements, and students get to lead the way on that. It’s a lot of fun.

    Hopefully, this blog will explain a little bit more about my classroom practices as time goes on. I will be the first to say that I have a lot to learn.

  4. Thanks for the reply. I feel the same way about peer review — sounds good in theory, hard to make it work in practice. We have some one-on-one conferencing incorporated into our program as well, but the scheduling of it makes it hard to do more than twice per semester (though students can always supplement it with office hours).

    I’ve taken to giving my comments on drafts in audio rather than written form — via an MP3 created on a digital voice recorder. It allows me to explain my comments more clearly in the limited time that I have, and it enables to students to hear my reactions in a kind of “real time” way. Not exactly a conference, but maybe the next best thing.

    Sounds like Purdue really puts it money where its mouth is on writing instruction. If the class is that intense — five days a week — and everyone has to take it, they must have to employ hordes of instructors. Good for them.

  5. I attend the easiest ABA accredited law school in the nation. As part of doing everything in their power to keep their students in good tuition-paying academic standing, they have an attendance policy. I have been one of more than 90 students in a class. The standard method of attendance taking is passing the sheet. Most professors pass their sheet off to their secretary and the secretary enters the absences. One of my first professors recommended that in addition to signing next to your name you should cross out your printed name and continue the line to the signature spot. This helps the secretaries make sure they match up the signature to the name.

    I doubt you have a good opinion of Cooley, and I won’t attempt to change your mind. There are problems with the school. However, I am attending it while working full time. Cooley does make a pretty good effort at accommodating students like me. This is a real problem for their Legal Writing classes. One class a week is not the best model for improving writing. We also have restrictions placed on our out of class conferences with the professor. We get a draft conference, but usually one per major assignment. Is this how it is done elsewhere? I’ll have to ask my friend who has taught legal writing classes at another law school how she did it there.


  6. In high school, one of my fellow students forgot to get something signed which a teacher required to be signed by a parent, so the student (who would eventually be our valedictorian) asked me to sign her mother’s name, which I did. Afterward, she always asked me to sign until one day she actually remembered to have her mother sign it. The signature was rejected by the teacher as being a forgery. The student quickly appologized and promised to have her mother sign that night. I signed it and all was well.

    Having students sign in as proof of attendence clearly has some security flaws.

  7. True, and I wouldn’t trust a sign-in sheet if I taught a large lecture class. However, our freshman comp class are much more intimate, with a hard cap of 20 students. I always give the sheet a quick glance to make sure nothing funny is going on. This system just lets me transfer to my grade book more quickly, so that I can grade them effectively when the time comes.

  8. I also teach expository writing. The first thing to say is that I love this blog.

    On attendance, I take a different view. I call the roll in the first couple weeks and check people off, but because I only have 30 students per semester in 2 classes/week I find it easy to recognize who’s missing pretty quickly. After week 3, I can walk in, sit down and look around, and if the spatial configuration of the room isn’t right, I just ask, “who isn’t here?” The students tell me, though I often already know.

    The missing kid gets an email from me if they have missed more than 2 classes without explanation. But this rarely happens.

    This is an old and profound truth of pedagogy, but teaching to me is an intensely personal and interactive thing. The less formal and more “erotic” the experience the better. Obviously I mean erotic in the Socratic sense.

    As opposed to a formal sheet (or electronic clickers, which are also used at my university), my glance around the room speaks more directly to the students, telling them that our group is an organic whole and and that a disturbance in the equilibrium of the organism will be felt as a matter of course.

    For the same reason, I have never used Blackboard or its equivalents to maintain connection with my classes. It would be handy to have a site to post the week’s assignment, but counterproductive, in my view. If a student misses class, it’s more powerful if they get a nice email from me lamenting their absence and attaching the assignment sheet.

    I get near perfect attendance. It may be I am lucky to teach at a university with small classes and well-motivated students. Still I think that the less overtly punitive and formalistic we can be as teachers, they more effective we can be. We teach through love, and no technology can or has changed that.

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