February 16th, 2011

Roll Call for Learning: Putting a New Twist on an Old Administrative Chore


A student once lamented that he had attended a class for an entire semester and uttered only one word: “Here.” Although taking attendance is a routine administrative chore, it is not related to teaching and learning, right? Wrong! You can turn roll call into a tool that implants the topic for the ensuing class in students’ minds, sets the tone for the class, and encourages the development of community in your classroom by using a variety of attendance prompts.

In my public speaking class, I use a different attendance prompt every day. On days when readings have been assigned, students are asked to respond to the roll call with a term or concept from the reading assignment instead of “here” or “present.” This puts the topics of the day into their minds and encourages them to do the reading while giving me the opportunity to comment briefly on their responses, perhaps noting topics of importance or asking for examples to check understanding. I also credit their responses during the class’s activities or lecture as the various concepts they have cited arise. One side effect has been a reduction in tardy arrivals, since students know they will be asked to respond to a prompt immediately upon arrival. Asking for terms or concepts from the assigned reading material also sets a professional tone for the class.

On days when students are giving oral presentations or participating in some other form of stressful performance, I ask them to respond to attendance prompts that help them relax. Examples include state a fact about our class; tell us where you were born; name something that makes you grouchy; describe the perfect breakfast; give the class a word of advice; or tell us a favorite pet’s name. Prompts such as these let students share an appropriate amount of self-disclosure, build classroom community, evoke relaxation-inducing laughter, and allow others to learn about them. They also promote a two-way flow of messages between and among instructor and students. For instance, at Halloween my attendance prompt was suggest Halloween costumes for my five-year-old triplet grandsons. The warm student response to this prompt sent a clear message that the lines of communication were open.

Although advance announcement of attendance prompts is not necessary, to be effective they must be used consistently from the first or second day of class so that students learn this is a classroom norm that will be followed. Prompts always need to be accompanied by plenty of patience. At first, some students may ask you to skip them and come back later when they have thought of something or say that they do not have a response. Do not accept this! Doing so allows an individual student to disengage from the class’s activities and permits him or her to send a message of indifference to you, the material, and the other students. Pleasantly and smilingly wait for as long as it takes for the student to respond appropriately.

I have had success with suggesting that a nearby student give the student a response, which further contributes to the cohesion necessary for a supportive classroom community, but I do not allow another student to respond for the student. I also have found I can outwait any student, others will step in to obviate possible embarrassment, and the next time the student will be prepared to respond. Prompts should be easy. Prompts that ask students to reflect on or extend previously covered material may be perceived as intimidating. Finally, foster listening by not allowing students to duplicate others’ responses.

We must use every minute of instructional time allotted to us. Making roll call into a learning activity not only converts a five-minute administrative chore into useful instructional time but also sets the stage for the more in-depth learning to follow. Create a repertoire of attendance prompts and check off each as you use it over the course of the semester, occasionally asking students for their ideas for prompts, as well.

Gretchen Weber is a professor of speech at Horry-Georgetown Technical College.