Should we measure class attendance in higher education?

Everyday in school, primary or post primary the teacher called the role, at least in my school anyway. I see the logic behind this and understand the reasoning but higher education is different, we’re dealing with adults so at least it should be different. So should we measure class attendance and if we do should we value it?


Without meaning to sound too much like a politician, my answer to the question is –  it depends! It depends on the situation and it is definitely not something to be measured in isolation.

The two following examples are typical scenarios in higher education.

In a laboratory session for a scientist or a clinical skills session for nurses for example, yes absolutely attendance is crucial as attendance should be compulsory. The thoughts that a chemistry student could graduate without ever attending a laboratory practical should not be possible. I am aware of several courses where at least in theory that is possible. In courses where there is no individual failed element i.e. the student can fail the continuous assessment but do well in the final paper and scrape through with an overall pass for the course because the final result is weighted heavily in favour of the final paper. I’m not here to discuss bad course design and poorly constructed course learning outcomes, we’ll leave that for another post. However  let’s just take this example of lab attendance to explain the “value” of measuring attendance. If we measured lab attendance we can set a requirement like a student must attend 80% of the lab sessions. We therefore must measure attendance to determine if each student meets this requirement to progress. This raises the question – do we value attendance or do we value knowledge/ability to perform that lab activity? Or do we value both? What if a student misses the lab but writes up the lab report illustrating their knowledge of the topic? Should they get marks for this, should course design allow this? Before answering this question – let’s flip this on it’s head – what if a student attends the lab but fails to demonstrate the knowledge/ability in the lab report? How do these two fictitious students compare in your opinion – who deserves to pass?

Moving away from this type of scenario to a typical lecture – should we take attendance? should we value attendance? Technology can make collecting attendance easier but just because we can measure it does that mean that we should value it? In today’s world information is plentiful – it is not limited to within the four walls of a classroom. Instead of focussing on classroom attendance, should we not be focussing on our lecturers –  asking them to produce quality learning resources e.g. small short videos. We should be encouraging them to “flip the classroom”. Therefore engaging the students when they are in the classroom, moving away from the “lecture” to a discussion type situation. There are plenty of examples where flipping the classroom engages the students and this will lead to better attendance.

It is widely accepted from the literature that engaging students  will lead to better student attainment. This is what we should value, therefore this is what we should measure – not attendance in a lecture.

So I go back to my opening statement with regards to should we be measuring attendance – “it depends”. I return to my mantra “we should measure what we value, not value what we measure”.


About Mark Glynn

Head of Teaching Enhancement Unit, Dublin City University

Posted on December 28, 2016, in Learning Analytics. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I suppose that devaluing actual physical attendance might eventually bring the necessity for lecturers and tutors into question. There are many other places to procure appropriate information, i.e. online, than going into a lecture and taking notes or participating in scientific activities in a laboratory – and the danger is that the need for third level institutions could decrease if students were allowed to get their information and skills somewhere other than these institutions. Personally I think that class attendance ought to be measured – and that by doing so educators are valuing their own role as transmitters of knowledge and facilitators of specialized learning environments.

  2. Let’s remember one very basic thing: a class is not necessarily a lecture.
    If students do not need to attend to pass then they won’t (I wouldn’t either).
    I work in an Institute of Technology and missing lectures should not be dramatic but missing tutorials or labs should have consequences on the likelihood of the student getting good overall results.
    One some courses I have 0% lectures and 100% tutorials and practicals. On others I have 25% lectures and the rest being labs and tutorials.
    This require good design of continuous assessments and final exam: e.g. a strong practical contents.
    Finally, because students may not be aware of the strong link between attending and passing the course, I take attendance on random days by calling names (yes it is slow in large classes but it helps me remembering students) and filling a spreadsheet which is displayed on the projector for all to see (a little peer pressure can go a long way). It also allows me to inquire about a student that I have not seen for a while or whose name is in deep red because their attendance is below 50%.
    Finally on some courses (2nd and 3rd years) I have a small element of the overall grade for attendance (about 5%).

  3. I’m giving up to 20% of total marks on my modules to active learning in lab sessions–but not simply giving a mark for each attendance. I normally define up to four tasks I expect to see completed by the end of a two hour session and if someone completes all of the tasks, they earn one mark. I often complement my lectures with multiple choice questions pushed out via Socrative. However, setting up those Socrative questions can take longer than editing a Powerpoint deck.

    • That is great to hear- by simply attaching the four tasks you are by-passing the mistake of just giving marks for attendance

      With regards to your socrative – why not use the Choice or Quiz Activity within your Moodle course and the students can use the moodle app to “make their choice” – i.e. answer your question. This way you get to track student responses, and use them year on year. The grades (in the case of the quizzes) are stored in your gradebook in Moodle which makes life a lot easier from an admin point of view too

      • Many of my students like Socrative In-hand. They ask for Socrative assessments and sound disappointed when I can’t push out quizzes for each lecture. Moodle would work too but I can import a Socrative spreadsheet directly into Moodle with a few clicks.

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