Whenever I sit down to develop a course syllabus, I am faced again with the question of how to handle student attendance in the course grading schema and what kinds of attendance policies to adopt. Philosophy courses, in particular, are often discussion dependent classes, and therefore student attendance and participation is vital. But should attendance be an explicit component of the grading schema for the course? I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, student attendance is important and it is attractive to incentivize student attendance by factoring it into course grading. At the same time, though, taking attendance during each class period is tedious and wastes class time. Additionally, taking attendance for the purposes of assigning students a grade risks increasing the ambiguity around students motives for being present in class. Are the students present because of the attendance grade or are they present because they want to learn the particular course subject matter and contribute to class discussions?
Although students may not have this natural desire to learn the specific material and contribute to class sessions at the start of the course, my goal as a teacher is to present material and discussions in a capable and compelling manner so as to increase students’ desire by the end of the course to actually be present in class, to learn, and to contribute to class discussions. While a mandated attendance policy might achieve this goal to some extent, I am inclined to think that more profound gains will be achieved in a context of free decision making for students. Therefore, my solution to this issue is a bit of a middle of the road approach. I don’t take class attendance during each class period. Instead, I assign some graded assignments that will only be graded if the student is present in class the day the assignment is due, and on those days I do take class attendance. Also, I have begun to utilize weekly quizzes that relate to material from the readings and class discussions from the week before, and which further serve to encourage student attendance and participation. Of course this approach still heavily incentivizes student attendance by relating it to some grades, but hopefully it provides students with a margin of freedom to make decisions about whether they will regularly attend class and to consider why they are attending class.