Forcing students to attend classes

A Chinese college has stirred some controversy by putting photographs of seven people on the final exams and asking students to identify the one who is their teacher and write the name underneath. Those who were unable to do so were penalized. The goal was to see who had been attending classes, because apparently skipping classes has become a problem.

Forcing students to attend class by various means such as the above or taking attendance or giving surprise quizzes seems to me to be pointless. Why would you want to force students to attend and have their resentful presence spoiling the atmosphere? I refused to take measures to force attendance even when I was teaching large classes of about 200 students where it would be hard to tell who was skipping classes. I felt that my goal was to ensure that students learned whatever my course objectives were and that my exams should assess whether they had in fact learned them. If they could do so without attending my classes, why should that be a problem? My attitude to teaching was that I should make classes worth attending for their own sake, by providing insights and classroom activities (such as group exercises) that students would benefit from and that they would lose out on by not being there. I never had a problem with absences, in the sense that the lecture halls were almost always full, suggesting that absences were few.

In smaller discussion or seminar classes, where participation was an integral part of the course, students knew they should be there and that their absence was noticeable, so there was no problem with attendance in those classes either.


  1. Ogvorbis wants to know: WTF!?!?!?! says

    I had one class in college (it was a required 101 or -2 English course) and for some reason, I had made it to my senior year without taking it. I talked to my professor and we agreed that if I sat the two exams, and turned in the required paper, I didn’t have to show up. Got an A in the class.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I recall a case at my university some time ago where a physics major (who had minor in English) was discovered to have not taken the required English 101 course. This was discovered in his final year. The dean was kind of hard-nosed about it and so his graduation was delayed until he took the course and passed it.

    We now have a computerized system that keeps track of all the graduation requirements and informs students each semester as to what they still need to do.

  3. A Rash Anion says

    This sounds like a good philosophy and it sounds like you’re a good teacher. I think any student would be glad to have good attendance for a professor who had that kind of attitude towards teaching.

  4. jrkrideau says

    It may be that the college was also interested in trying to see if students were actually in the class and just writing an exam for friend?

  5. jaxkayaker says

    I’ve used classroom response systems (“clickers” in the vernacular) to gauge attendance, but I would prefer not to. I was encouraged to do so, and as a junior instructor in a temporary position, I did. However, I agree with you, Dr. Singham, that students should be allowed to choose to attend or not and to sink or swim on their own merits. One exception is of course laboratory courses, which require the students to be there to complete the activities.

    I think more and more schools are encouraging if not insisting on making attendance mandatory because an increasing fraction of students are coming to college without a sense of responsibility for their own education, and parents and administrators are feeding into that by making the professors and instructors responsible instead.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 file thirteen
    What is it about English 101 that makes it mandatory?

    Science and engineering departments are sadistic?

  7. robert79 says

    There are only to cases where I would say attendance is mandatory:
    1) Group work — where I am supervising a small group of students on a longer term project, and we have a scheduled supervision/brainstorming/feedback/whatever session.

    2) Presentations by their fellow students (often of the above group work)

    In the second case, I tell my students attendance is mandatory, but I have never felt the need to actually check attendance.

  8. fentex says

    When I was a university it was a period of transition from qualification purely by end of year exam to some proportion of internal assessment through out the year. Students began by complaining it was too harsh to put so much pressure on one exam, and ended up bitching constant evaluation spoiled all the fun.

  9. Holms says

    The same sentiment could be expressed regarding knowledge of some basic science -- evolution being true, heliocentrism, age of the earth etc. come to mind -- yet science is not mandatory to art/humanities degrees.

  10. Mano Singham says

    The old idea of mandatory English 101 was to ensure that students mastered basic writing skills. But many schools, including ours, found that this one-semester course did not solve the problem. We abandoned this and instead required students to take four seminar courses on topics that they chose, one each semester for the first two years. These seminar courses involved a lot of classroom discussions and a lot of writing about topics they chose and thus provided more sustained instruction.

  11. anat says

    Holms (#11) -- My son’s school requires 3 science classes, at least 2 of which have labs, of all students. (TMK this is a common requirement among public colleges in the state.) There is a broad range of offerings, so one can still avoid evolution. I suppose if one takes 3 chemistry courses one can avoid most common controversies (but still have to deal with the quantum mechanics understanding of electron states).

  12. Holms says

    My comment had university education in mind, as the conversation had raised the point of science degrees having english requirements.

  13. anat says

    Yes, I was speaking of university education. USians refer to all educational levels, from age 3 to graduate school as ‘school’. Colleges have science requirements around here. You can’t get a bachelors in English or Art without taking 3 science classes in the majority of Washington state’s public universities. (I think The Evergreen State College is the exception, but it doesn’t do typical courses but programs that are interdisciplinary, and many of their non-science programs have some science embedded in them.)

  14. David Marjanović says

    Lots of fascinating differences in local traditions to discover there. I studied in Austria, where presence at lectures is not mandatory. Some people learn best by sitting there and listening or taking notes, some people learn best by getting a syllabus or someone else’s notes and studying that at home in quiet; some professors are good teachers, some professors are good textbook-writers. The mark for a lecture-type course, therefore, comes entirely from the exam; it’s perfectly fine if you show up for the exam after having stayed away from the lecture the whole semester.

    (Naturally this doesn’t extend to lab courses or the like.)

    It may be that the college was also interested in trying to see if students were actually in the class and just writing an exam for friend?

    We simply had to show our student IDs for all anonymous mass exams.

    Anybody is allowed to sit in a lecture; you can just stroll in for fun. Only students are allowed to take the exam about the lecture. The exam is what matters.

  15. robert79 says

    “Anybody is allowed to sit in a lecture; you can just stroll in for fun.”

    I had that happen once… or so I thought… I had someone walk in my lectures once during the first break. After a few minutes he started looking really bored and confused. After the second break he was gone. Since I had never seen this student before, I assumed it was just some random guy who wandered into the wrong classroom. Since he was not disruptive, entered and left during breaks, I made no comment about it.

    Later it turned out it was one of my students, just one who rarely went to lectures, and rarely passed exams.

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