Rethinking Professors’ Mandatory Attendance Policies

Rethinking Professors Mandatory Attendance Policies

Rethinking Professors’ Mandatory Attendance Policies

Thomas Hughes

During high school, I was inculcated with the belief that I would have the personal autonomy to decide whether to attend class sessions in college.  At the most basic level, I do have that power.  However, when professors have policies that result in failure of a course for a few absences, I do not really have the choice to attend or not.  In the Villanova handbook, compulsory attendance is required of first year students, but something of an elastic clause grants professors of older students the ability to institute whatever policy they desire.

 At the heart of mandatory attendance policies is the belief that the professor knows what is best for the student.  In most cases, this is probably so.  Conversely, college is also a time for students to learn about themselves and make choices that balance their disparate interests.  For example, if a student is taking an engineering course that has two midterms and a final that make up 90% of their grade, they should be allowed to attend as many or as few lectures as they would like.  If attending class is so valuable for students that they would not be able to be successful in the class without doing so, they will most likely attend class regardless of the existence of an official attendance policy.  

Moreover, if a student knows that the lectures provide crucial information, and still decides not to attend class, professors should allow it.  A professor’s job is not to hold students’ hands on the road to good grades. They should do the best job that they can teaching the material and answering questions, but it is not in their job description to maximize the number of students who earn As.

Aside from the paternalistic conviction that the professors know what their students need, what else motivates professors to institute compulsory attendance policies?  One possibility is a fear of teaching to a class to a couple students who happened to miss the lecture.  That is a reasonable fear, however it is also one that can be easily alleviated by a professor’s own policy of not reteaching material covered in a missed lecture.  Another possibility is that professors are teaching their students what it is like in the “real world,” where you must show up to work whether you feel like it or not.  Again, fairly compelling, yet if you were smart enough to get into Villanova, you are most likely smart enough to realize that you will get fired from a job if you continuously fail to show up.  Even if that understanding was never imparted to you, it is doubtful that the inclusion of a mandatory attendance policy less strict than the one most students had in high school would be the difference between understanding and not understanding such a simple concept.

Perhaps the most intriguing root cause of mandatory attendance policies is the impact that students have on professors themselves.  Professors may fear that without mandatory attendance policies, there would be many empty seats, a direct shot at their ego.  Additionally, what if students were able to rarely attend class, but still do well on the exams and receive a good grade.  What would that say about the professor?  An easy way to prevent such an internal, or possibly external, dialogue from occurring would be the existence of mandatory attendance.

If I were a professor, the last thing that I would want would be a room full of students only present due to the fear of failure because of poor attendance.  Furthermore, I would spend most of my time creating compelling lectures that would earn the reputation of being extremely valuable to attend.  Perhaps the lectures would be so valuable that without attending class it would be nearly impossible to succeed on the test.  Perhaps the lectures merely reinforce what is in the text but provide an excellent forum for students to ask questions to better understand the content.  Either way, the professor would know that all the students attending the class are attending by choice to learn more.  Freedom is always the answer.