Associate Provost Ben Withers reflects on links between class attendance and retention

This just in from Dr. Ben Withers’ UGE Weekly Update‘s Reading for the Week:

Dr. Ken Troske, Professor and Associate Dean in the Gatton College of Business, shared “Cracking Down on Skipping Class” that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. As the article relates, faced with increased pressure to improve retention and graduation rates some universities have put in place, or are testing, ways to monitor student classroom attendance. Some are using student ID cards (active card swipes or embedded chips) or electronic devices to track students. This in turn collects data that campus can use to develop “retention alert systems” that monitor and warn students (and their parents) about certain behaviors that threaten the return on the tuition they’ve invested in their college education.

The article cites Marcus Crede, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who is identified as a researcher in this area, “attendance is the best known predictor of college grades, even more so than scores on standardized admissions tests.” Here at UK we don’t widely track student attendance (because there is no mandatory policy that requires instructors to take attendance). Nonetheless, we know that student absences/habitual tardiness accounts for approximately one-third of academic early alerts submitted over the last few semesters (click here for Fall 2013 numbers; Fall 2014 statistics have been shared with the Campus Retention Advisory Committee and with Associate Deans).

As the article notes, “while mandatory attendance has long been a staple in high schools… At most four-year colleges, attendance policy has been left to the professors’ discretion.” Although apparently there was some discussion in 2009 about a “mandatory attendance taking policy”, our current campus policy in the Senate Rules (SR 5.4.2.1) gives broad leeway for each instructor to determine what is an excused absence and consequences, such as a reduction in grading. Fortunately, David Royse provides an excellent analysis of what makes for a good classroom absence policy in his presentation to new instructors for the UK Graduate School TA Orientation (download his slides in a .pdf file here). Departments may have their own policies that faculty are to follow (the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies — WRD — has one of the few I can find in a search of the UK website).

If attendance is a driver in student success, it would seem that policy and practice at universities may need to change. Because attendance policies are written into the Senate Rules (and hence into the Student Code) it will take an act of the University Senate to change what we do.

Policy aside, as the Wall Street Journal notes, there are several other issues we would want to address. These include logistics and date mining, student privacy, and our different expectations of students. How we act will depend, in part, on how we react to the observation found in the last paragraph of the WSJ journal article: “University of Arkansas began experimenting with mandatory attendance as a way to boost its 62% six-year graduation rate, said Provost Sharon Gaber. ‘We talk about helicopter parents,’ she said. ‘Well, some of these kids haven’t learned how to get out of bed on their own yet.’” Perhaps programmable wake-up calls (as suggested by SVP Vince Kellen, see p. 30 of this report) might be an approach to improving retention.

Benjamin C. Withers, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History
Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education
University of Kentucky

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About UK Student and Academic Life

Undergraduate Education is now recreated within the Division of Student and Academic Life in the Provost's Office at the University of Kentucky.
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