Do Attendance Policies Influence Student Learning?

Most college teachers don’t need research results to confirm that class attendance is a problem for many students. Some skip occasionally, others regularly; and some we see for the first time on exam days. Most faculty believe that students learn the material much better when they regularly attend class, and hence policies that require attendance are now the norm in many (could we say most?) classrooms.

Jonathan Golding conducted research on the effectiveness of attendance policies at getting students to come to class, their impact on course evaluations, and, most important, their effect on learning, as measured by course grades. A review of the literature allowed him to integrate his findings with those of others and offer some overall assessments and conclusions that serve to update our understanding of this widely used instructional policy.

Golding’s study included data from 5,150 students across an 11-year period. All these students were enrolled in a large psychology course taught by Golding. Each year, students in this course took four 50-question multiple-choice exams. In 2002 Golding introduced an attendance policy administered via “in-class assignments” that could be completed only by students in class. If students did not complete 80 percent of these assignments, they failed the course (between 2002 and 2005) or had their course grade dropped two letter grades (between 2006 and 2008).

This policy effectively increased class attendance. Research across the board confirms that attendance policies, administered in a variety of different ways, do get students coming to class. In Golding’s case, the implementation of this policy did not affect his course evaluations. And a strong correlation existed between attendance and performance on the exams. The more students came to class, the better they performed on the exams.

But there was one finding that most faculty would consider surprising. In those years when there was no attendance policy, the average exam score was higher than in the years there was an attendance policy. Golding notes that those results should be interpreted cautiously, given the large N and relatively small effect size.

Based on his findings and those of others, Golding writes, “Taking into consideration both prior research and the archival data presented in this article, findings on the association between attendance and class performance are equivocal.” (p. 41) He points out one of the problems with this kind of correlational analysis. “These findings highlight the potential pitfalls of trying to implement interventions on the basis of correlational data: Simply because students who get better grades are also more likely to be students who come to class does not mean that making students come to class will result in better grades for them (i.e., correlation does not translate into causality).” (p. 42) Said a bit more bluntly, attendance policies may be effective at getting students into the classroom. They may be much less effective at engaging minds and learning.

As this article makes clear, there is no research mandate for attendance policies, which means that individual faculty should be assessing the impacts of their policies on classroom climate and learning outcomes. The ideal, of course, is classrooms with students present not because some policy requires them to be there, but because they understand that what happens in class is essential to their endeavors to learn course material. The design of classroom experiences that expedite that insight is a challenging task but the outcomes may be better than what attendance polices can achieve.

Reference: Golding, J.M. (2011). The Role of Attendance in Lecture Classes: You Can Lead a Horse to Water. Teaching of Psychology, 38 (1), 40-42.

Reprinted from “Attendance Policies: Research Update” The Teaching Professor, 25.5 (2011): 4,5.