The Next Normal: Will coronavirus affect college attendance policies?

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The COVID-19 pandemic will result in many longterm changes, and one of those may be how university professors take attendance. (Ben Daniel)

Editor’s note: This story is a part of a series that explores the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how things have changed on and off campus.

Roll calls and other traditional attendance methods have fallen by the wayside in favor of Google docs and more creative policies during the coronavirus era.

University professors have been forced to alter not only how they take attendance but also how attendance is factored into students’ grades.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that higher education administrators should “monitor and plan for absenteeism,” including reviewing attendance and sick leave policies, making accommodations for classwork for individuals who temporarily can’t attend class due to possible exposure to COVID-19, and reviewing usual absenteeism patterns to check for noticeable changes.

Getting creative with attendance policies

BYU doesn’t have a university-wide attendance policy; instead, departments and, more commonly, individual professors make attendance policies specialized to their own courses and pedagogical philosophies.

Pre-pandemic, BYU history professor Joseph Stuart kept track of attendance by administering in-class quizzes. Now he has students sign their names on a Google Doc he uses for primary source projects in his classes. Both methods count towards students’ participation points for the semester, which he hopes will be an incentive for students to show up to class.

While Stuart said he has had the concern that students may simply log onto Zoom to get the link to the Google Doc, sign their names and then leave the class, he realizes that students are “just trying to survive” during the pandemic.

“In the long run, attendance points just don’t seem particularly important when you’re thinking about the big picture. So I hope that we continue to design classes with the big picture in mind, and much less on whether or not someone gets five or 10 points for attending class.”

Linguistics professor Nancy Turley said her attendance policy hasn’t changed — she didn’t take attendance before the pandemic and she still doesn’t. She said her students are serious about trying to learn and if they’re not there, it’s usually for a good reason.

Learning about Zoom classes during the pandemic has reinforced Turley’s belief in leaving attendance up to the students. She said a training meeting that encouraged teachers to not put so many burdens on the students particularly caught her attention. 

“I’m not so interested in having one more thing to have to count or one more thing for them to have to check off,” she said. “That’s one burden I don’t have to put on them.”

The pandemic has forced her to make some adaptions, though. After multiple experiences of calling on students in a Zoom class who had their cameras off only to be met with silence, she decided to require her students to turn their cameras on.

“That’s just worked out really quite well. I don’t even mind if they’re in their pajamas or eating breakfast or whatever,” Turley said. “We should just try to be engaged…give it your all while you’re attending and you’ll get more out of it.”

Religion professor Benjamin Knowlton has students self-report their attendance and class participation as part of a reading quiz. He adapted this to online learning by providing a little more flexibility. Students receive full points on the quiz if they attended the live lecture “on time, and stayed awake and attentive” or if they watched a recording because of extenuating circumstances. Students are docked a single point if they watch the recording at a later point not due to extenuating circumstances.

Knowlton said out of around 100 students total in both his Summer Term classes, about 50% tune into the live classes. But on the self-reporting quizzes, about 85% to 95% of the students select the option that they either attended the class or had extenuating circumstances that prevented them from doing so.

“I have a hard time second-guessing people’s integrity. I just feel like, you kind of get what you get; your reward is your own,” he said. “If I interact with my students, I want it to be something other than, you know, confrontation regarding their integrity.”

As things return to normal, Knowlton said he will likely nix the extenuating circumstances option and go back to requiring students to be in class to get those points.

Spanish professor Mac Wilson typically has a strict attendance policy for all his classes. Students are allowed to miss a few classes, but any additional absences will result in the student losing a certain percentage off their participation grade, and missing more than 10 classes will significantly endanger the final overall grade.

He dropped the policy, though, when classes went online in March. Instead, he’s adopted different ways to account for student participation, such as more reading quizzes and online discussions on Learning Suite. He said he plans on using these methods with his fall classes, which will all be on-demand remote delivery.

“The attendance policy has not been completely abolished, but it doesn’t work when there’s nowhere to attend, not even a live session on a regular basis,” Wilson said. “So I’ve adapted other assignments to serve some of the same purposes.”

He’s not yet sure how, or even if, the pandemic will affect his attendance policies long term. But he said as things go back to normal, he is inclined to return to his pre-COVID attendance policy.

Learning from the emergency switch to online

As the pandemic drags on, professors are starting to get used to their new normal.

Royce Kimmons, a BYU professor of instructional psychology and technology, said it’s important to note the difference between emergency remote teaching and well-designed online learning.

Although many professors scrapped attendance policies during March or simply opted to do pre-recorded lectures, Kimmons said that with more time professors can plan ahead and design their course in such a way that takes into account where students are learning from and what their circumstances are.

Kimmons said whether there is a difference in attendance policies will depend heavily on whether faculty experiment with asynchronous remote learning, which is “harder and it takes more design work and a lot more forethought, but that’s where a lot of the temporal flexibility comes in.”

Perhaps because difficulties of successfully planning an asynchronous class, an April 2020 survey found that a majority of American faculty opted for synchronous learning.

Of the 826 faculty members and administrators across 641 American colleges who were surveyed, 80% said they utilized synchronous video technology during the shift to remote learning, and 65% said they used asynchronous recorded videos of lectures. Nearly all (97%) of the institutions surveyed said faculty members with no previous online teaching experience were called upon to move classes online.

An April 2020 survey by Cengage and Bayview Analytics examined how faculty and institutions adaptions to online learning as COVID-19 spread across the country. (Bay View Analytics)

These findings, in which professors went with what was familiar (simply recording lectures or holding them live) fit with Kimmons’ assessment of the forced shift to online learning. Although the shift can be an opportunity for reflection and subsequent change, that’s not a given.

“Rather than taking the shift to online as an opportunity for rethinking our practices, we can fall into the trap of just trying to replicate our bad practices in online settings,” he said. “Let’s rethink some of our practices and figure out what is ultimately best for our students and use these technologies to help us achieve that.”

Kimmons encouraged professors to ask themselves when and why temporal inflexibility, or being synchronously connected, is important to their classes and students and to then design their courses accordingly. For lectures, that means a YouTube video could work best and the synchronous connection isn’t necessary; however, the opposite may be true for courses that require discussion or interaction.

“Why is it important for the person to come to class? I can either make this authentically important, meaning that what we do in class is essential to the learning experience, or I can make it inauthentically important by assigning an arbitrary grade to it,” he said.

Looking forward and best practices

A 2008 study found that graded attendance policies increase class attendance among the 155 undergraduates from eight college psychology courses in the Southeast who were surveyed.

On average, students enrolled in courses with an attendance policy missed one class per semester compared to students in courses without a stated attendance policy who missed two classes per semester.

Students also reported that while they recognized the relationship between attendance and higher grades, they didn’t believe professors should have grade attendance policies.

“This finding reflects student knowledge of the importance of attendance while simultaneously illustrating their desire for choice and autonomy in educational decision-making,” the study states. “Having a graded attendance policy may serve as a motivator for increasing class attendance. Without an incentive, students may lack the intrinsic motivation to attend class on a regular basis.”

In his experience teaching online classes, Kimmons said there is often a basic misunderstanding between what he and other professors assume “online” means and what students assume it means in terms of attendance. He’s had students, for example, who sign up for his online class thinking they will never have to attend a live class when in reality the class is partially synchronous.

To manage these misunderstandings, Kimmons said professors need to be explicit with students, both in conversation and in documentation like syllabi, what the course will entail.

But moving online means professors may have to be more creative with how they take “attendance.” Greg Siering, the director of Indiana University Bloomington’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, recently wrote about “Rethinking Attendance Policies When Moving Your Course Online” on the center’s blog.

“Typically, fully online courses focus more on engagement than they do attendance, and you may have to shift your thinking in this way during your short-term shift to online teaching,” Siering noted, suggesting short comprehension quizzes or discussions as examples of engagement techniques.

Kimmons encouraged professors to make sure both the attendance policy and why the policy exists are clearly stated in the syllabus. For example, if attendance is required to help students develop the professional habit of showing up, then that needs to be clear rather than being an “unspoken or unstated learning objective.”

“I think, in an equitable classroom, those expectations can also be created in concert with your students — so coming to understand what their needs are at the beginning of the semester and working with them to figure out what is an appropriate expectation for things like attendance,” he added. “Faculty always need to be sensitive to their students’ needs.”

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