Using Attendance Questions to Build Community, Enhance Teaching

“What is one of your pet peeves?” That question is among those I might ask my students at the start of nearly every class session as a way of taking attendance. Asking about pet peeves always elicits a lively, engaged discussion. Faces light up, and everyone wants to share their own personal irritants. This engagement never happens when taking attendance is nothing more than reading names from the roster with an answer of “Here” or “Present.”

“What is your earliest memory of a house you lived in?” Nearly two decades ago, I was called upon to teach Introduction to Public Speaking for the first time. One of the issues with which I struggled was how my students could be encouraged/compelled to speak at least once in every class session. It didn’t seem right that they might be able to get in and out of a speech class without speaking. The method I stumbled upon to alleviate that possibility was to ask a question that invites a bit of reflection and possible self-disclosure. Generally, I answer the question first to model a potential response.

“What are you afraid of?” Most recently when I taught Intro to Public Speaking, I raised the stakes slightly by asking the students to go to the front of the room to answer the attendance question. Several were clearly nervous (or terrified) at the start of the semester, even though they were guaranteed 100% credit simply for attempting an answer. Every member of the class later agreed, too, that when delivering their assigned speeches, the front of the room was not nearly so frightening; they had been there before many times, and they had spoken to their classmates before.

“Who is one person you will never forget?” Some teachers are very good at learning student names. That’s not one of my gifts, but hearing about who the students are and what is important to them is a tremendous help. Another very helpful side benefit is that the students see their instructor more as a human being, rather than simply the classroom boss. In addition, while I was teaching at a large research university, students reported that, when walking across campus, they saw people they recognized from hearing their answers to these attendance questions; they reported not knowing students from other classes of similar or smaller size. Admittedly, I’ve never used this strategy in classes with much more than thirty students and would not recommend it for large lecture sections.

“If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would you choose?” That question was a student suggestion. The difficulty of answering it points up another aspect of this whole issue: how to choose the questions. I keep a file of questions, moving ones I’ve used this semester into a different section and adding student suggestions on the days when it’s their turn. Also, it’s important to think about how long the answers are likely to take; on days when the class agenda is already quite full, a question that calls for long answers is not the best choice. Sometimes a question to stimulate thinking about the topic for the day is the best option. Other times, a question related to news, culture, or even weather will be better. All in all, sensitivity to what’s going on in the class and the larger world should guide the choice.

“What has been your favorite attendance question (and response) this semester?” As long as I’ve been using this strategy in my classes, it has always been identified as a favorite of the students. This alone is not sufficient reason to adopt any technique, but it clearly enhances student engagement. If nothing else, these attendance questions are a simple method for building community within the classroom. Isn’t that something we all want?

“Who was/is the most effective teacher you’ve had? What made him or her effective?”

Lew Kaye-Skinner, PhD, adjunct faculty and director of the writing center, Bryan College of Health Sciences.