80% of Success is Showing Up

This quote, attributed to Woody Allen, is often used as part of a pep talk, rallying a work team towards excellence and encouraging commitment. But is it true?

The topic of student attendance in college courses is an interesting debate. Among my esteemed colleagues there seems to be two schools of thought.

One philosophy subscribes to the belief that college students are adults, and therefore are entitled to all the rights, responsibilities and decisions that accompany this status.  The decision to attend or not attend class is up to them, and as educators we cannot and should not have more responsibility for student learning than the student.

The other viewpoint believes, with no less conviction, that educators who want students to succeed must institute strong policies that encourage attendance and punish absenteeism. In doing so, the argument continues, we teach students important life lessons. An oft-repeated sentiment sums up the position: “Will employers tolerate continual absence?  Not likely.”

Each perspective seems to be supported by research. In a study reported at the 25th Annual Conference on the Teaching of Psychology (Motivational Correlates of Academic Success in an Educational Psychology Course, William E. Herman, Department of Psychology State University of NY College at Potsdam; March 2011) the relationship between attendance and course grade was found to be positive and statistically significant. Another recent study[1] found that the link between attendance and academic performance is weak. Additionally, the study concluded that a student’s ability to use substitute material (such as online lecture notes) is a more significant factor.

Both studies noted that today’s college student has competing interests that may interfere with attendance such as work (or lack thereof), housing crises and family issues. As a faculty advisor and instructor I’ve worked with many students who desperately wanted to be in every class but they just couldn’t make it work.  We also learn that students resent strict attendance policies. That, too, can interfere with learning.

My interest has always been in encouraging students to attend each class, recognizing that for some there are lessons to learn and for others, life gets in the way. Herman (2011) offers suggestions that I can attest to because I have practiced them. First, Herman proposes, be certain that attendance actually makes a difference in whether or not students succeed in your class. If it does not, what remains the rationale for a strong policy? You might want to take a new look at your position.

Attendance does make a difference in my classes, as the classroom discussion and the activities we engage in facilitate learning. Students who show up clearly do better than students who do not. I inform my new students of this on the very first day.

Herman further says that you should explicitly discuss attendance at the start of the semester. This should include not only a statement about your policy, but a conversation about the rational for it. As a teacher of business and management courses, I tell them that I run my classroom like a microcosm of the business environment.

Would you just “no show, no call” for work?

What happens if you do?

What happens if you are absent or tardy excessively?

This approach seems to resonate with students, as many of them understand they cannot put their jobs at risk. Students who have other life commitments grow to understand their education as an additional obligation and many are able to reexamine the choices they make. I also offer ample help in this regard, and can refer students to numerous community resources to help them manage their priorities better.

In my opinion, another strategy that seems to have an impact on absenteeism is simply a focus on the work. In my classrooms, some of the assignments are completed during class with my help. Students do not have my help in the same way if they miss class and need to make the work up. For many students, these “in-class graded assignments” have a substantial impact on their learning and their course grade. Consequently they come to class to take advantage of this opportunity.

The debate regarding attendance in higher education will certainly continue. With the research unable to offer a definitive answer, each educator’s experience, values and teaching style will ultimately determine the approached he or she uses in the classroom.

What is your policy? Does it work for your students? Does it work for you?


[1] Assessment outcome is weakly correlated with lecture attendance: influence of learning style and use of alternative materials.

Horton DM, Wiederman SD, Saint DA. Adv Physiol Educ. 2012 Jun;36(2):108-15.

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