McCarthy: How much does attendance matter?

Temple’s previous status as a commuter school has forced it to take attendance more seriously than it should.


MarcusMcCarthyIf a conversation ever dies with a stranger, there’s always the weather to discuss. If a conversation ever dies with a Temple student, there’s the “I hate the attendance requirement” rant to fall back on.

I’ve heard it countless times from roommates, friends and classmates. Does a student need to be present in class in order to learn? If so, what’s the most reasonable way to enforce attendance?

Temple was once a commuter school that needed a strict attendance policy, but the times have changed and so must the approach to attendance.

The university itself doesn’t take a stance on how a teacher should enforce attendance, if at all. Instead, Temple’s policy allows freedom for colleges or professors to independently make their own rules. The main requirement from the university is the teacher must state his or her policy  on a syllabus provided at the beginning of the course.

This is not rare among universities: Of the 10 major universities in Pennsylvania, more than half of those institutions lack specific attendance policies.

The trend is similar among top public universities in the nation, with five of the 10 public institutions ranked highest by U.S. News and World Report boasting similar guidelines as well.

Peter Jones, senior vice provost for undergraduate studies and a professor in the criminal justice department, said this could be because Temple was historically a commuter school until the last decade. Jones acknowledged that the individual policies could begin to change as the incoming freshman classes continue to rise in academic standing and live on or near Main Campus.

“When I first came to Temple in 1985, almost all the students were commuter students and attendance at class was very spotty compared to what it is now,” Jones said. “I think that if we got to the point that if faculty saw that students were attending class whether they had a policy or not, they may well back off having policies.”

Additionally, it appears that attendance policies don’t need to affect grading in order to show results.

Lora Jacobi, a psychology professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, studied methods to increase class attendance and presented her findings at the Association for Psychological Sciences’ national convention in 2012.

Jacobi said she observed attendance in her lower-level psychology course of 120 students, where attendance was not recorded. She used this class as the control for the psychological experiment.

The next semester, however, Jacobi taught the same course with the same material and classroom. All that changed was Jacobi told the class of 140 students the first day that she would just take eight photos every day to “monitor attendance.” Attendance did not affect students’ grades: Jacobi said she only monitored the pictures for “the density of the classroom.”

Jacobi said instead of typical highs and lulls caused by tests in the control, the attendance stayed in excess of  90 percent throughout the second semester course. The average exam scores improved by five points and the rate of students passing the class increased from 77 percent to 82 percent.

A similar study was published in 2001 by Elliot Shimoff and A. Charles Catania, former professors at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Shimoff and Catania found taking attendance improved test scores even though the students had been informed that attendance wouldn’t affect their grades.

While there are some courses that should mandate attendance, like lab courses, there are certainly some – like lectures  – that shouldn’t. As such, more teachers should consider an attendance policy similar to Jacobi’s.

“I feel sometimes like it is double dipping,” Jones said. “If they don’t attend they’re likely to do worse in the class. So to them, to take more points off for not attending is like hitting them twice.”

Docking a grade is largely not necessary, because the identity of Temple’s student body has changed. The newest class at Temple, the Class of 2017, had an estimated SAT score of 1129 – 20 points higher than the proceeding class – and an estimated 15,000 of Temple’s roughly 30,000 students now live on or near campus.

Additionally, Jacobi’s model will, in plenty of cases, achieve the same goals with less actual harm to grades.

Marcus McCarthy can be reached at or on Twitter                     @marcusmccarthy6.

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