Optional attendance policies ill serve students (opinion)
At a recent meeting with student leaders, the topic of class attendance policies came up. The students opined that professors teaching in-person classes should require attendance. The result of making attendance optional, they told us, is that most students opt not to attend. And the few who do show up get a diminished classroom experience and eventually question why they are there.
The optional attendance policy is not without precedent or reason. During the pandemic, faculty around the country leaned into alternate modes of delivery, including various iterations of hybrid and virtual. Making class attendance optional was a ready-made approach to deal with a range of health-related and other challenges that students—and faculty—were experiencing. The flexibility was a blessing for many as the virus dealt a landscape riddled with complications.
As we’ve moved away from the thick of the pandemic, however, some newly formed habits have lingered. Class attendance and engagement have dropped off drastically. We can help to reverse that trend.
Of course, from the instructor’s standpoint, the case for remote delivery is easy. After all, students are now better than ever at accessing materials and participating online. So why not allow them to exercise their enhanced abilities, to be agents of their own education? They are, after all—to echo an oft-used refrain—adults.
Certainly. And the pandemic has availed us of new and improved ways to deliver content and assess learning in a variety of modalities.
However, students continue to flock to campuses wanting the in-person experience, one they’ve been deprived of for much of the past two and a half years. The optional attendance policy, unchecked, can compromise what many seek in the college experience. There is a tipping point, as the virus mutates and its threat softens, when lenience becomes counterproductive.
Few would argue that the electricity and dynamism of an in-person classroom environment are hard to replicate. Interactions with peers and professors are authentic. Students who attend class regularly perform better.
There is, however, another and perhaps more important reason to encourage attendance. During what has been referred to as a double pandemic, cases of clinical depression and mental illness have soared, and young adults have been hit the hardest by feelings of social isolation.
Mental illness represents just one secondary risk of the pandemic. Loneliness and isolation, often precursors to depression, impact physical health as well. Lonely people have higher rates of coronary disease, stroke and clinical dementia. That is COVID’s long game. Social media and gaming—ready elixirs to loneliness—contribute to anxiety and depression. Re-engaging young people in authentic, meaningful forums is part of combating the pandemic’s prolonged effects.
Faculty members who know their students are better able to assist them. Universities—bastions of inclusion and community—can thwart trends of disengagement by leaning in and not back. Attendance policies need not be punitive, nor should they submit to an either-or paradigm. Opportunities are rich for incentivizing attendance without requiring it.
We can only assume that a student’s academic experience and circadian rhythms are drastically different if they attend nine class sessions a week, for example, versus three. They engage in more of the daily interactions for which humans have an innate biological need. They avail themselves to more campus activities. They encounter more diverse viewpoints in a digital age of political polarization and disinformation.
Two decades ago, Frank H. T. Rhodes, president of Cornell University from 1977 to 1995 and author of The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University (Cornell Press, 2001), wrote that “community” is key to the university fulfilling its purposes: “Without community, knowledge becomes idiosyncratic: the lone learner, studying in isolation, is vulnerable to narrowness, dogmatism, and untested assumption, and learning misses out on being expansive and informed, contested by opposing interpretations, leavened by differing experience, and refined by alternative viewpoints.”
Rhodes made his observations prior to the advent of Teams, Zoom, TikTok and Instagram. These extraordinary means of connecting us are also disconnecting us. COVID dealt a blow to humankind; its lingering effects now threaten our humanity. We ought not to consent.
The classroom is the cradle of civil debate and inquiry, ground zero for problem solving and discovery. The pandemic has helped us to appreciate just how special and rare the opportunities to convene in the pursuit of knowledge are.
An optional attendance policy with no concessions for human conflict or growth lacks accountability on both sides. Moreover, it signals lack of creativity and engagement. It sends a message that there might not be much going on in the class—so why bother?
By implementing attendance policies that imbue students with responsibility rather than absolve them from it, we can help to re-establish a culture of community and caring. More than our intellect will benefit.