Spring Cleaning: Let’s get rid of mandatory attendance


Kernel Opinion SIG

Jacob Chatfield

Mandatory attendance: the tried and failed way of ensuring college students attend class. 

Most students have seen sign-in sheets or raised their hands for roll-call for as long as they’ve been enrolled in schools at any level. Before college, attendance is enforced by parents and teachers to ensure that kids, who are viewed as incapable of responsible decision-making, don’t miss out on their education on behalf of their immaturity. 

However, when those kids become adults and start college, those same attendance expectations undermine their education. 

In a class with mandatory attendance, there’s a subtle implication that the content of the course isn’t incentive enough for students to go. It implies that, were it not for a sign-in sheet or roll call, students could miss that class and still have it appear favorably on their transcript.  

Attendance shouldn’t be mandatory because of a sign-in sheet; it should be mandatory because students will miss out on important information that will negatively impact them on assignments and exams throughout the semester. A class should be valuable enough to stand on its own without an irrelevant grade for attendance in the syllabus. 

In college, students pay for their courses and professors get paid to teach them. Intuitively, that transaction should afford students the opportunity to choose for themselves how they engage with their courses.

If I buy dinner at a restaurant, my waiter doesn’t hang around to make sure that I eat every last bite. The same should be the case for paid-for college courses. If a student can’t or doesn’t want to attend class one day, they paid for the course and therefore should be able to decide for themselves whether that class is something they can miss. 

However, there is a valid argument in favor of mandating attendance. College is meant to prepare future employees to join the workforce, and employers don’t want to hire people who don’t show up to their scheduled obligations, so incorporating attendance into students’ grades helps demonstrate that value to employers. But professors could incentivize attendance without mandating it.

I’ve had professors that distribute notecards at the end of their classes for students to answer short questions about their thoughts about the information discussed in that lesson. That way, students are rewarded for coming to class in a way that’s less demeaning than a sign-in sheet because they’re challenged to engage with the material, rather than asked to simply sign their name or raise their hand. 

Additionally, removing mandatory attendance could actually increase attendance. Anecdotally, the classes I miss the least are the ones where the professors say they don’t take attendance because they’ll know who’s been coming to class based on who does well on the exams. No one enrolls in college to do poorly, so making classwork essential to students’ success is truly the best way for professors to have high attendance.

Mandatory attendance has been tried for too long. Let’s let course content be valuable enough to get students to class.