Over sushi last night, Julie and I had one of those “kids today!” discussions so common among people teaching college students. The locus of our old-fart incomprehension was the reluctance of a significant number of students to actually attend class meetings, even when not attending class meetings has disasterous (and entirely predictable) consequences. (For example, some significant number of Julie’s students are now at the point where it is numerically impossible for them to pass the course, and this is strongly correlated with their absenteeism — not their writing skills.)
We didn’t ditch our classes when we were undergraduates. Wasn’t that where the learning was going to happen? Wasn’t there a reason we weren’t just buying textbooks and trying to teach ourselves? (And what would our professors have thought of us if we had cut more classes than we attended? Who would want to carry around that kind of shame?)
Clearly, our students are making decisions differently than we used to. Just as clearly, they seem to miss — to their detriment — that class meetings are frequently essential to their academic success. What could we possibly do to help them get themselves to class?
You might try requiring attendance, but that’s not permitted at our fine institution.
Why it’s not permitted is an interesting example of how policies seem to end up drifting away from their original rationales. Apparently, in the mists of time, there was a student who protested an F he earned in a course by claiming that he had attended every single class meeting and should be entitled to course credit on that basis. In response to his complaint, the university adopted a policy that you could not “grade on attendance” — which is to say, that you could not award points to someone just for being a butt in a seat. As it’s currently interpreted, however, the no grading on attendance policy means that you cannot make class attendance compulsory. You can, however, grade on participation, have a quiz every day, or otherwise make non-attendance a costly choice in terms of course grades.
A lot of the folks who don’t come to class very often, though, aren’t necessarily good at calculating how many quizzes they can miss without failing, or at keeping track of due dates, or even at deducing that some things for which they are responsible are explained in class rather than in assigned readings. Some approach their own final grades with the same optimism that makes for healthy lottery ticket sales.
“Is it because they don’t feel like they’re losing anything if they have to retake the course?” we asked each other. “Is tuition too low for them to take their classes seriously?”
But of course, each of us knows students who come to every class, who do excellent work, and for whom a tuition increase would be a serious financial hardship. So raising tuition didn’t strike us as the right approach.
“What if classes cost more to skip than to attend?” I ventured.
“Like a monetary penalty for cutting class?” Julie asked. “Maybe that would work …”
Indeed, my better half came up with the model by which to implement the plan: It would be like parking validation. For each class meeting you attend during the term, you collect a validation ticket that would let you recover a chunk of money that you’ve already paid in tuition (say five or ten buck per class meeting). Attending all your classes and collecting all your validation tickets would let you pay the lowest possible amount of tuition for the number of credits you’re taking. Skipping lots of classes … would cost you more. (There would, of course, need to be some process for getting validated for an excused absence, and for determining what sort of absence counts as excused.)
To me, this sounds like a plan that might actually make attending class the default position for students who currently have their default set to ditching. However, it’s possible that the wasabi was clouding my judgment, so you all should tell me what’s wrong with this approach and what would do the job better.
UPDATE: Julie has posted on this as well now.