When to cancel class.

At Dot Physics, Rhett Allain discusses his philosophy about class meetings:

Here is the point I am trying to make - class is for students. Class is not for me. Students pay for classes, so they should get them.

Here is the other point. If a student chooses not to come to class, that is the student's choice. I am ok with that. Maybe it is not a great idea, but these are adults. There can be a problem. What if the class has attendance as a grade? What if the class will give a pop-bonus-quiz if attendance is low (which is essentially the same thing as attendance for a grade)? Well, I don't do these things nor do I encourage them.

Rhett doesn't cancel class because it's his job to deliver a class meeting. If students don't avail themselves of what he's offering (which, as it happens, they've already paid for), that's their choice.

I reckon this approach works pretty well for a lecture-based course. However, it doesn't always work so well for a seminar-style course that is driven by in-class discussion (e.g., of assigned readings), or for a session where students are supposed to be working on their problem solving. In these cases, a successful class meeting requires students to bring something to the table.

A few semesters ago, I taught such a course. There were about twenty students in the course, a number of them philosophy majors and masters students. There was a significant amount of reading for the course (which one might plausibly expect for a course titled "Philosophy and Literature"), but the literary selections were not as much of a slog as the philosophical ones. And, to make the students' lives easier, I even distributed reading questions to guide them as they worked through the assignments. They didn't have to turn in written answers to these questions. Rather, they had them as a heads-up about what we were likely to discuss in class.

One afternoon, all of the students turned up to class. I tried to get our discussion going ... and just one student was stepping up to answer questions and pose questions of her own. All the other students were silent.

After five minutes that felt more like half an hour, I asked, "Did anyone else finish the reading?" Heads shook.

"Did anyone else start the reading?" Heads shook some more.

At that point, what were my options for going forward?

I could have lectured on the material we had planned to discuss, but what would that have accomplished? It would have given the students my view of how the themes in the literary work they had blown off reading connected to the philosophical issues we had been developing. But the point was not to give them my view. The point was to have them do the work to develop their own view, and then to try out that view on their classmates.

As it happens, this was something they could only do by actually doing the reading assignment and actually coming to class and participating in a discussion.

They did come to class, it's true. Apparently, though, it was with the intention (conscious or unconscious) of free-riding on the intellectual labor of their classmates, or their professor. It might even have worked if only a couple of them had blown off the day's reading.

So, because my job in the context of this course was not to pour preformed views into the students' heads, I read them the riot act about doing the reading and being ready to discuss, told them that our next class meeting would encompass that day's assignment plus the next day's assignment, warned them that I would be having them carry the burden of a productive 75 minute discussion the next time, and canceled class.

And I'd do it again, too.

More like this

Some years ago a senior philosophy major approached me about taking my introductory biology course. Before class started, a philosophy colleague told me this student never attended class. OK, I saw the student on campus and told him he could do whatever he wanted about class, but lab is mandatory and if you do not attend, you fail, period. He was shocked, but attended all labs, no lectures, but all lecture tests. He made the high lecture grade, and a high lab grade as well.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

I once had a professor who did something similar. In a class of 30 students about 6 people had read the material (or lied), so he kicked all the other students out of the class and told them there would be a quiz next class. There was no quiz, but he became one of my favorite teachers instantly.

I vividly recall a seminar session (history of methodology) that was abruptly canceled when the prof decided that a number of those present were inadequately prepared to benefit from his instruction. I think in his eyes the ill-prepared students were being terribly disrespectful of him and their better prepared colleagues.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

is there a class participation grade? Did the student who came prepared get an A? If there is no "reward" the students won't bother. I only answer if I like the prof or I want to get the class moving. It has never helped my grade that I am aware of though, unless participation was a specified percentage of the grade.

Yes, for that class (and all my seminar-style classes) there was a participation component to the grade, and the lone student who was prepared on the day of ignominy rocked it.

In my seminar/discussion (advanced UG/Grad) class, I take attendance and keep track when someone asks a question or answers one. I tell students that discussion is 10% of the grade. If they don't want it, they don't have to have it, but that's the class. The important thing is to be up front about grading.

I agree completely with the original post (Rhett Allain) - I'm doing them a service (that they paid for). Part of my class is discussion. If they want the grade, they have to participate. If they don't want to participate, they don't have to, but they don't get a good grade. I don't see the problem.

I recall blocking out a full period years ago in a developmental math class to review material that was going to be on an exam. The students had been struggling and I thought it was important to invest the time to address the things that were confusing them. Their assignment for the review session was to come to class ready to identify the homework exercises and the examples from the textbook (or lecture) that were causing them the most difficulty.

At the review session, no one had a question. No one. They sat there with slightly embarrassed looks on their faces waiting for someone else to ask a question. Everyone had come to class anticipating a free ride on the questions of others. A couple started to rummage at random in the textbook, but I cut them off. We weren't going to play that game. I reminded them that our next class session would be the chapter test, wished them luck, and canceled the class.

They were horrified. They also did a bad job on the exam. Several of the slackers dropped, but most of the others got serious. It was a very challenging group to deal with.

This semester I require reading summaries of each reading by midnight before class (uploaded to my course management software). I also start off the class with group work where each group has twenty minutes to go over a reading so that they can "teach" it to the class. Between the summaries and group work at the start, I now have students who not only do the reading, but are learning to interpret it and create good discussion questions (I have been troubled in the past by how students don't know how to form interesting discussion questions as part of an assignment, just technical questions, yes/no questions, or random tangents or personal anecdotes).

Interesting topic. My teaching experience is limited, but I've seen good results from having a very small bonus for attendance (1% of the final grade). This year I TAed for a professor who had noticed a significant correlation between good attendance and class performance, and always tried to impress this upon the students. Attending the lecture was much better than reading the textbook alone, in terms of preparing for exams. But most students didn't seem to care, and attendance in past years was fairly low. Then the professor implemented the bonus for good attendance, and average grades increased by much more than 1% -- the tiny incentive got students to come to class, where they then proceeded to actually learn the material.

Of course, the policy became a bit of a headache for TAs -- we made a seating chart, kept track of attendance, and handled excused absences. I fielded many emails from students who had to miss class for some reason. All of them were concerned about getting the absence excused, so as not to jeopardize their 1% bonus. None of them ever asked me about making up the missed lecture content (during office hours, for example), though. I also had to deal with students who felt that they should get extra credit for good attendance after showing up 30 minutes late. Still, it seemed to be a pretty effective policy, and I think the professor will continue to run the course that way in future.

I cringe whenever I see people refer to students as consumers in these discussion. What difference does it make whether students "pay" tuition or have a full scholarship? For that matter, would any of you think differently about class attendance if tuition were free for all students?

I don't think so but I'd be happy to hear from anyone who thinks that the cost of tuition changes how they deal with class attendance.

I also think there's a disconnect between saying that students need to be treated like responsible adults and then awarding marks for simply coming to a class. I never give out marks for attendance because I think that's rather childish.

We should be trying to teach students that learning is a two-way street. They need to participate actively in the learning process in order to get the maximum benefit. If the students can get a decent grade in a course without ever coming to class then the instructor is not doing a good job. The instructor has become irrelevant to the education process.

I'm a GTA at Portland State University (Portland, OR, not ME), and I have a little quibble: "Students pay for classes, so they should get them."

Are students paying for 'classes', or are students paying for an 'education'? It sometimes feels like students are paying for a diploma (I get a lot of, "but I worked hard and showed up to every class, how could I not pass?" at the end of each quarter...), however they may feel about it though - I am going to at least attempt to educate them. That mean (since I teach mathematics), I need to force them to attend, force them to do the homework, and make sure that they have learned something by the end of the course.

While it may be possible for an exceptional student to ace every exam (see comment 1), that is the exception rather than the rule - and I will make those exceptions when I see them happen, but generally, I can guess a student's exam grades based upon their attendance. I think this may be more true for course in mathematics and the sciences where the classroom demonstrations of how to approach the problems are an important factor in what the student needs to know by the end of the class, than in a course where reading and scholarly research (i.e. spending a lot of time at the library, reading) may be more important, and one's thoughts and analysis of those readings might be assessed with an essay test, paper, or (where attendance would need to be mandatory) classroom discussion.

At some point, we as instructors, should hold ourselves responsible for our students' learning, and if that means making attendance a part of their grade to motivate them to show up and learn, then so be it.


I was recently visiting prof for a lab class, where it was needed that the 10 students come prepared for the lab work. A few days before each session I posted on the course blog a lab preparation package. It had a dozen or so questions regarding readings, calculations, and web research. Then at the beginning of class, I held a "stand-up meeting" like we have at work in our labs. Going through the prep package, each student had 30 seconds to demonstrate that they were prepared by describing their work on one of the questions. Then the rest of the class would declare "prepared" or "not prepared". Since I chose the students in random order, they all had to prepare answers to all of the questions. Only once was a student declared not prepared. They liked this novel format and it seemed to help in forming some team skills needed in lab work, particularly establishing and maintaining a reputation for reliability and competence.

Years ago, we taught a general education biology class in a 186 seat lecture room. Attendance averaged maybe 50%, and grades were poor. I made a deal with the chair to teach two sections and have a TA. We were doing multiple guess exams in that course. I set it up so that there was a 5 question mini exam, three questions from the last lecture, and two from the day's reading assignment, at the start of each class period. I told the class I would drop their three lowest grades, i.e. they could miss three lectures with no penalty. The students kept the exam sheets and turned in a 1/4 page size answer sheet. During class my TA graded and alphabetized the answer sheets. After class we recorded grades. I reviewed the test as soon as the answer sheets were handed in. The final was the 50 most missed questions. As I recall, we had 89% attendance and 94% happy with the course. Grades were better, of course.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

We've done two things in graduate and undergraduate seminars here that help.

1) This was already mentioned but having students write questions about the reading prior to class really helps. We have them put them on blackboard prior to the class meeting so everyone can see them.

2) One of my professors in graduate school used what he called the Magic Hat. The Magic Hat chose the discussion leader for that day (the person who was responsible for making the discussion happen). You get one pass and after that when you get called on you have to go. When I use this I pick people at random and re-weight their probability of being chosen after they lead a discussion so that they are less likely to be chosen (note not so much so that they won't be chosen). This irks some people but it really does help generate a lot more participation.

By Sean Walker (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink