Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Attendance Policies in Composition Classes: A Rogerian Essay

I recently assigned my ENG 101 students the task of writing a Rogerian essay. I thought I'd be a sport about it and write my own, just for fun. Enjoy:

It is a sad reality for teachers at all levels that complete student satisfaction is unattainable. This is especially evident in the volatile realm of grading and assessment in higher education, where the stakes for student achievement are high. There is a fundamental tension in the economy of assessment and grading that will always carry the potential for dissatisfaction. It is in the best interests of students to demand a flexible grading system, which will allow them to receive high grades for minimal effort, while it is in the best interests of instructors to supply a rigid system that will grant high grades only for maximal effort. In composition courses, the potential for frustration is often greater, given the subjective nature of assessment.

Despite the reality of inevitable student dissatisfaction, it is possible and desirable for instructors to take some steps to minimize it. They should be willing to listen to student concerns, and make an effort to understand the student’s perspective. As a matter of course, they should also be willing to articulate to students their philosophy of assessment and explain why they put a premium on certain elements. This paper will explore the common practice of assessing first year composition students partially on the basis of class attendance.

In a recent classroom discussion on the matter, many students expressed to me unhappiness with this policy. They’ve articulated to me three primary reasons why. First, they believe that attendance policies should be associated with primary and secondary school, with legal minors who aren’t equipped to decide whether attending school is to their long term benefit. Students argue that once they get to college, they are mature enough to make their own decisions about the relative benefits of attending class, without a draconian authority figure demanding they attend, in effect treating them like the children they no longer are.

Second, students maintain that instructors often don’t understand the real world demands that keep them from attending class. It’s not as if they don’t want to go to class, they say, it’s that they can’t. In ideal situations, going to class will enrich a student’s mind, but in the short term, this is not going to help put food on the table. Other students have family obligations. For example, when a student has a sick child, the health and well being of the child far and away outweighs any benefits that can be gained that would jeopardize the child.

Third, students tell me that since they are paying for the right to attend class, they should be treated as consumers. If a patron buys a movie ticket, then chooses not to attend the movie, there is no added penalty beyond the loss they’ve already suffered. By this reasoning, if a student pays tuition, then fails to attend class, they’ve already been “punished” by not getting their money’s worth, and according to the students’ argument, in our free economy we have the right to squander our money as we see fit.

Finally, though no student brought it to my attention, I think there is one more argument they could make. In composition classes, students write essays. Doesn’t the quality of these essays indicate the achievement level of the student? If students can write “A” quality essays without having to go to class, aren’t they still deserving of an “A”?

Though these arguments are far from specious, and though I have put the best construction I could on them, from my instructor’s perspective, I have a counter-argument to each of them. First, regarding the idea that attendance policies are more applicable to lower levels of education, I think students who make this claim are missing a key distinction between attendance requirements at the two levels. Even if attendance is required in order to attain a certain grade in a college course, it is not legally compulsory that students attend. If a student under 18 is habitually truant from high school, they will find themselves in front of a judge, and they will be given legally binding orders to return to school. If a student over 18 is habitually truant from college, they will suffer no legal ramifications. No truancy offer will be knocking on their door. If they don’t want to go to school, they don’t have to.

In regards to the argument that students have real world demands that prevent them from coming to class, I would assert that though there are valid reasons not to attend class, there aren’t valid reasons to skip class and then still claim a right to the benefits conferred upon those who do attend class. Life is about making tough decisions, and sometimes we are confronted with dilemmas that force us choose to give up something we want in order to keep something else that we want or need. In instances where students determine that they can’t attend class, I bear them no hard feelings, but I also don’t feel obligated to allow them special privileges.

As for the argument that students are consumers, I don’t accept the premise. Taken to its logical conclusion, if this statement were true, we would simply ask the student to send in a check for “X” amount of dollars and award them a diploma. This would certainly cut down on overhead. (In fact, I think there are some on-line schools that operate on this principle). There is a difference between the type of economic exchange in most consumer situations, in which the customer expects a tangible good or service, and in education, in which the “customer” is given something intangible, though also, in my estimation, invaluable. Also, as a side note, it is not completely accurate to say that all students are paying for their education, given that many of them have received scholarships or grants. When these students choose to skip class, they aren’t squandering their own money, but the money that others have invested in them.

Up to this point, all of my arguments have been negative. I’ve discussed why I think the students who are against attendance as a grading component aren’t seeing the big picture. Yet, if I persist in keeping attendance as a part of my assessment, I feel as if I should provide positive arguments, reasons why it should be part of my policy.

My first positive point also happens to address the possible argument that students who can write good essays without coming to class deserve good grades. I think what many students fail to understand (perhaps because we instructors don’t do a good enough job emphasizing it) is that we tend to be process-oriented rather than product-oriented. To many students, the value of a class is measured in outcomes, or the products that are produced. In this way of thinking, a writing class is measured in the essays that are produced.

While this may be true for certain courses (such as a capstone course in graphic design, for example), it is not a philosophy of mine or of any composition instructor I know. Although the finished products are important in this course, the main goal is to give students an overview of rhetoric as a discipline, of the art of argumentation. We want to help students to not only become better writers, but better critical thinkers, able to evaluate the rhetorical choices that others make. Every class, I attempt to come up with approaches that will further this objective. If I didn’t believe this, I truly would be cheating students out of their money’s worth. As such, it is my belief that every class is a valuable part of attaining the full scope of the course, and a student who is not regularly in class simply cannot claim to have learned as much as a student who attends regularly (of course, I am assuming that students who attend are always mentally engaged with the material, which might be a generous assumption). Therefore, it stands to reason that it would be inaccurate to award each of these students the same grade, even if their products, their finished papers, are relatively similar.

There is another reason for holding students accountable for attending class. When a student misses class, they hurt more than their own education. I believe that they are also adversely affecting the educational climate of their classmates. When a student enrolls in a course, they should be able to assume that they are entering a learning environment, where they will benefit not only from their instructor’s expertise, but also from the unique perspectives of their peers. When a student in not in class, that means they are not participating in class discussions, and the dynamics of the class are altered for the worse. Also, if there are many students habitually absent, it causes low morale among the students who make the choice to attend class, perhaps influencing their own decisions about whether to attend. In short, though some would disagree, I think that students have a responsibility not only to themselves, but to their peers.

Still, despite my insistence that attendance is a crucial part of the learning experience and an entirely appropriate component for assessment, I can’t help but hear the cacophony of student voices objecting to the policy, and I am willing to compromise. At an English department meeting prior to the school year, instructors discussed attendance policies. While all were in agreement that negative attendance should adversely affect one’s grade, instructors were split on whether there should be a positive affect to reward students who do show up for class. “In the real world, you don’t get a cookie for showing up for work,” said one instructor, “you get to keep your job.” While this is true in the real world, I’ve already established that I don’t think the comparison between education and commerce is a valid one, and I’m willing to concede that it doesn’t hold true here, either. I’m making the assumption that if students are coming to class, they are learning, and that should reflect on the final grade (though I’ll admit that many of my colleagues would say that it is too much of a stretch to assume that students who come to class are necessarily learning).

Furthermore, I realize that “stuff happens,” and it is unreasonable to expect students to be able to attend every class. That is why I believe it is reasonable to give students three free absences before their grade is affected. Here, I believe real world comparisons are valid. In a fifteen week course that meets three times a week, three absences represents a ratio of one sick day for every fifteen work days. This is an offer that most unions would jump at.

I’m resigned to accept that no matter the policy, some students will be unhappy. However, I hope that by demonstrating a sensitivity to student positions, articulating my reasons, and promoting some compromises, most students will be comfortable and relatively satisfied with having attendance a part of student assessment.


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