Flexibility: What to consider in attendance policies

Two students closely examine a handout.

November 16, 2018. Photo by Justin Mohling, University Communication.

Choosing an attendance policy that will work for your particular course and teaching style can be tricky. There are many different options available, and how well each works will depend on factors such as the discipline, course level, enrollment size, and instructor educational philosophy.

This page is designed to help you think about the different options and how they might fit with your needs. It contains a variety of examples of late work policies, annotated with things for you to consider before adopting that policy type. While this page may seem lengthy, it’s important to remember that good teaching is hard work! To support students equitably, it is critical to think about the implications for your syllabus policies on different student populations.

Before you dig in, know that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list - there are other creative options available for crafting great syllabus policies. It is also possible to mix elements of the different approaches together if none of them feel like quite the right fit. Note that these are focused on how attendance factors into the grade. It does not examine options like providing recorded lectures or Zoom options for students that might miss class, although those are important considerations that may affect which policy instructors decide to implement.

Options for how attendance is calculated into the final grade

Attendance counts as a specific number of points or percentage of the final grade, with the attendance grade dropping for every class missed after a specific number
This is one of the most common types of policies, and it is easy to implement in a variety of situations. Giving all students a specific number of absences without needing an explanation provides some level of flexibility, but students in specific situations (having a disability, encountering an emergency situation, having family and/or work obligations, etc.) may need flexibility beyond what is available.
Attendance is not directly factored into the grade, but the course grade drops for every absence after a specific number
This is another common type of policy, but tends to be more punitive than when attendance is factored in as a percentage of the grade. This type of policy can therefore make grading even more inequitable for students with disabilities or those experiencing other emergency situations.
Attendance is not taken or there is no grade impact for missing class
This provides a lot of flexibility for students that need it, but also removes accountability for students coming to class. This can result in lower grades and high levels of student disengagement since students often overestimate their knowledge of the subject and ability to complete assessments without attending class.
Attendance does not account for a specific portion of the final grade, but absent students miss out on in-class activities that are worth points.
This type of policy ensures that the grade is for student engagement or learning rather than just showing up to class. If paired with an opportunity to complete those learning activities outside of class for students that are absent, this can be a good way of encouraging attendance while providing flexibility. However, it can require more time from the instructor depending on the type of assignments taking place and whether / how make-up opportunities are handled.
After a specific number of absences, students are required to attend a meeting with their instructor and/or advisor. This may or may not be paired with a grade penalty.
This policy signals to students that the instructor (and perhaps others at the university) are available to provide support. The conversation allows students to explain reasons for absence and in response, the instructor and student co-create a pathway forward. This type of policy works best for relatively small courses within a major, but could be adapted to other situations.
Allowing students to help co-create the attendance policy
Allowing students to help co-create key parts of the syllabus like the attendance policy can help give them ownership and buy in for the process. However, it can be difficult to find a process that achieves consensus without some students feeling unheard.

Options for Excused absences

Must provide documentation
It is common for instructors to state in the syllabus that they require documentation for any excused absence. While this works well in some situations, it can put a difficult burden on students and in some cases, is impossible. For example, students may have COVID or another severe illness without visiting a medical provider. To meet this requirement, you are therefore asking students to make a medically unnecessary trip to a health care provider that could be expensive and may be difficult for students that use public transportation. Even if students go to a medical provider, the facilities don’t always provide documentation to students that go to appointments. Requiring documentation can therefore result in students not being excused when they should, or even encourage them to come to class when sick.
Any absence is considered excused as long as they contact the instructor
This type of policy tries to be as flexible as possible with the definition of ‘Excused’ absence. Policies like this avoid the documentation issues described above and also remove the burden of determining whether an excuse is valid or not. However, there are some students that still find contacting the instructor to be burdensome and end up losing points, and there may be some students that end up falling behind because they use too many excused absences.
No excused absences
This type of policy is usually paired with having a specific number of allowed absences before losing course credit. Policies like this are easy to implement and avoid instructors having to determine what ‘counts’ as an excused absence. However, while this gives some level of flexibility, it may not be sufficient for students in some situations, which can lead to students being penalized for having a disability, being sick, or having family or work obligations.

Additional considerations when crafting attendance policies:

Create a policy you can follow. Often, faculty will craft strict policies with harsh penalties that they don’t follow (for example, they will allow excused absences in some situations even though the syllabus says otherwise). This disadvantages any student that takes you at your word and doesn’t ask for flexibility that may be available. 1st generation college students and those of marginalized backgrounds are more likely to believe exactly what you write in your syllabus, which causes inequity if you don’t follow your stated policy.

Avoid just linking to the university’s policy. The university policy is not specific about how many absences are allowed or how absences will impact your grade. It mostly contains language about what instructors are allowed to implement as policies. Just linking to the university policy can therefore leave students confused about what the rules are in your particular course, and they may make the assumption that it’s the same policy they’ve experienced in other courses.

Be clear about why you want students to come to class. One of the easiest ways to encourage students to show up is to explain why you value them being in class. Maybe it’s that students historically perform better if they have higher attendance, or maybe it’s that you value hearing everyone’s voice in your discussions. Whatever your reason, let students know why you value them being physically present.

Balance student wellness (COVID-19, flu) with wanting students in class. We know it’s important for students to be in class, but it’s equally important that they stay home when they’re not feeling well to avoid spreading illness to other students. When writing your policy, use language carefully to make it clear that while you value students being in class when possible, you also value their safety and wellbeing.

Consider using a form to track absences. One of the biggest challenges instructors face regarding attendance is keeping track of excused absences. Sometimes this can be done in the Canvas, but if not, setting up a form that asks students for information like ‘name, date of absence, reason for absence, etc.’ can take those conversations out of your email inbox into a space that’s easier to track.

Avoid using harsh language. Whatever policy you choose to implement, pay close attention to the language that you use. Try to write it in your own voice as an instructor, and be sure to explain the reason you chose that policy. When you use all caps and bold font to say ‘DO NOT’ do something, it can signal to students that they don’t belong and can’t succeed in the course. Even if your policy includes penalties, find a way to phrase it in a way that signals you support student learning.

Was this page helpful?