Class Absences and Grades

running man.jpgWith my move to Seattle University, the opportunity has arisen to re-examine my attendance and preparation policy for class. During the past two years, I required students in all of my courses to show up on time to class and to be prepared to discuss the assigned material. If they were tardy, absent or unprepared, I deemed them absent for that class session. My rule was to withdraw a student from the course who ended up being deemed absent for more than 25% of the scheduled class sessions. Having amassed attendance and grade data for 5 courses (2 first-year courses and 3 upper-class electives) and 223 students, I couldn’t resist the temptation to figure out whether class absences affected my students’ final grades. I’ve been crunching the numbers the past few days with Stata and have been surprised by what I found.

By way of background, approximately 80% of the students enrolled in my courses were deemed absent for three class sessions or less (and this figure includes the 17% who had perfect attendance). The remaining 20% were deemed absent for anywhere from three to seven class sessions. It’s worth noting that I did not begin taking attendance at the first scheduled class session and generally waited for a couple of class sessions before I began doing so, especially for upper-class electives given the shopping period provided to 2Ls and 3Ls. Keeping this in mind, and the fact that tardiness and unpreparedness counted as absences for my courses (although, based on my recollection, the majority of absences were “true” absences), students in my courses were deemed absent, on average, for approximately 9% of the class sessions for which attendance was kept. (Excluding those with perfect attendance, this figure jumps to 11%.) Given that no penalty was triggered until a student was deemed to be absent from 25% of the class sessions for which attendance was kept, I’m generally pleased by these figures.

But what effect, if any, did class absences have on final grades in my courses? With my first cut at the data, I’ve run a linear regression of final grade (which, for all courses, was based solely on an anonymous, in-class exam) on class absences. It seems as if class absence did influence a student’s final grade in my courses (i.e., it had statistical significance). That said, the variable has limited explanatory power: It accounts for only 5% of the variation in grades among students. Reference to the regression coefficient for class absences further suggests that the variable had only a slight influence on final grade: According to the model, a student’s final grade decreased by approximately .08 quality points (on the 4.0 grading scale) with each absence. Put another way, a student’s final grade dropped by nearly a third of a step (e.g., from B+ to B) with every four absences.

So what do I make of the data at this point? By requiring students to have attended at least 75% of class sessions, perhaps I reduced the adverse effect class absences could theoretically have on final grade. It strikes me that students with an excessive number of absences (e.g., 50% and upward of scheduled class sessions) would be most affected in their exam performance. But students who took my exams didn’t fit that profile, and maybe that’s why class absence accounts so little for the variation in grades in my past courses. On the other hand, maybe it’s the case that the material I presented in class didn’t add much to what the students were getting from studying on their own. I really hope that’s not true! Ideally, I’d like all students to have had the same amount of classroom instruction going into the final exam. If my policies encourage students to attend all or the overwhelming majority of my classes, and if, in turn, that minimizes the effect of attendance as a determinant of final grade, then perhaps that’s one good reason to continue my policy.

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16 Responses

  1. PK says:

    Prof. Pardo,

    You assume that absent students miss what is presented in the classes they miss, but that is almost certainly not true because they can get notes from classmates who were there. In addition, now that laptops are ubiquitous in law school classes, there are always a handful of students who take notes so compulsively that they produce a near perfect transcript of the professor’s lecture and class discussion. The type of information is even more easily available if a professor teaches the same classes year after year without much variation. If they do, students will have a transcript of the class even before it begins (and professors wonder why students are on the internet during class!).

    If a teacher properly employed the Socratic method, I could see how class absence would hurt a student. But assuming you, like most other professors, have moved away from that teaching method, what do students actually lose by not attending your class?

  2. Laz says:

    I have to admit I’m surprised to see that there are professors who take attendance for the purpose of imposing penalties for excessive absences. Given that law students should be independently motivated to attend class, it seems like you’re creating a needlessly antagonistic relationship with your students for questionable gain.

    Is there a past teaching experience which led you to adopt this policy?

  3. It could be that the students who attend less receive worse grades because they are the types who generally put less effort into the course on all fronts. In other words, although there’s a correlation, it doesn’t imply causation. Non-attendance may just be a trait that less motivated students have. Therefore, by requiring attendance, it isn’t clear that you’re going to make them better students, unless by making them attend you can motivate them more.

    I used to follow an attendance policy but stopped it. My philosophy toward teaching is a bit more hands off than it used to be. If some students think they can do well on an exam without attending class, that’s their choice. Instead of forcing students to have good habits, my approach is to give them advice (i.e. regularly attend class, be prepared, etc.) but not to try to force them. Students at the law school level are old enough to make their own choices. Part of the educational process is learning how to make choices in life and to accept the consequences of those choices.

    There are some students who have poor class attendance yet do very well on the exam. Missing class is still a loss for them, I believe, because there’s more to class than just learning stuff for the exam. But that’s their choice. For my part, I try to make class interesting and informative; my goal is for class to have “value added” beyond the readings. Ultimately, however, it is up to the students to assess whether there’s any value added. So, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    PK — I don’t understand your comment about Socratic method. I’ve moved increasingly further away from the Socratic method. Often, the method winds up spending tons of time with particular students who are confused or unprepared, and it wastes the time of others in the class. There are some professors who are particularly skilled at the Socratic method, but they are few. For me, I can cover more material more productively without the Socratic method. I still call on students and class is still participatory, but I’ve been integrating more lecture into my classes.

    Brian Leiter has an interesting critique of the Socratic method here:

  4. PK says:

    Prof. Solove,

    Since excellent class notes (if not near transcripts) are available to students who miss class, the only plausible loss to a student who misses class is not learning the skill of answering questions under pressure that comes from a properly conducted Socratic method. However, as you note, using that method has its own downsides that may outweigh its general use. So, if a professor does not engage in the Socratic method for whatever reason, and the student has access to excellent notes, what does she lose by not attended class?

    As an aside, I understand your choice to move away from the Socratic method because I’ve seen alot of time wasted by teachers who try to employ the Socratic method with classes that are woefully underprepared. Nothing is learned and the students loses interest because they realize paying attention is worthless. But is the solution to this problem to move away from the Socratic method? Perhaps, especially if you find the method embarrassing or belittling to students. On the other hand, perhaps the better solution is to force better preparation by reducing the grades of students who are unprepared.

  5. Doug H. says:

    I’ve found that the professors with the strictest attendance policies typically have the least worthwhile lectures. I’m not saying that’s the case with you, but like Laz I wonder why one would have such an antagonistic policy in light of such little gain?

  6. Dylan says:

    PK’s points are good ones. There is also, however, that student who is always in attendance but never hears a word you say. I was one of those the last half of law school. My grades dropped, but I suspect that had much more to do with not outlining or reading anything until two or three days before the test. I can recall two courses where class attendance clearly mattered to any significant degree.

    My (state) school, incidentally, had a policy requiring all professors to drop us if we missed more than a fairly small percentage of days. I don’t recally the percentage, but it usually worked out to about 5 or 6 per semester. I expect this is because Texas bases college funding on student attendance just as it does for K-12.

  7. Bruce Boyden says:

    There’s an ABA rule that 45,000 minutes of credit (out of 58,000 total) must be required of each student “by attendance in regularly scheduled class sessions at the law school.” I suspect that rule is aimed at weeding out correspondence and online schools, but in theory a school that doesn’t penalize absent students could lose accreditation.

  8. Katze says:

    I’ve long felt that an attendance requirement at the law school level is not just ridiculous, it’s an insult to the students. If the class is worthwhile and the lectures are informative, then any law student worth his or her salt will show up for the class without the threat of being punished. If it’s not, then the lack of attendance should be a signal to the professor and/or the administration that there is a problem. And if I can skip many, or most, or even all of the classes and still pass the final exam, then there is a serious problem and it’s not with me.

    I paid a lot of money for the privilege of going to law school and I wanted it to be a worthwhile investment, so I (and most of my classmates) was primed and ready to work hard and get the most out of my education that I possibly could. Yet I took more than one class where I felt cheated by the professor’s (lack of) teaching. On the other hand, I had a handful of classes where the professors were so good, and the lectures so valuable to my understanding of the subject, that I made sure my butt was planted in that chair and ready to go, no matter what. And I certainly wasn’t surfing the internet or playing Free Cell during those classes, either!

    By the time you get to law school, you should be enough of an adult to know what your responsibilities are and follow through on them. If you’re not able or willing to do that, then you don’t deserve to pass and graduate. Professors and administrators shouldn’t be holding the hands of those who would otherwise fail out of sheer laziness via an attendance policy. And leaving that aside, most law students are there because we really and truly want to be there. We want lectures that are intellectually challenging and interesting. We want professors to guide us in obtaining and refining the tools we need to understand the subject matter and use it effectively. And if a professor is doing just that, then students make it a priority to be more than just a warm body in the chair, regardless of whether the professor or administration attaches a penalty for attendance.

    I guess what it boils down to is that it seems to me an unreasonable restriction with no real benefit. I don’t mind being told to use a certain font or a particular margin for papers because I can see and understand the rationale for such otherwise arbitrary restrictions. Even if increased attendance results in better grades, that seems more like the sort of thing that should be lumped in with running: it’s beneficial to you if you do it, but no one should force you to do it just because it’s good for you.

  9. Rafael Pardo says:

    PK – I take your point that the adverse impact of class absences may be minimized if students who are absent can readily obtain near-perfect notes from students who attend class. However, I’m not ready to assume that all absent students have equal access to high quality notes. Whether a student has access to such notes depends on whether the student has classmates who are (1) excellent note takers and (2) willing to lend those notes. With respect to the former attribute, my guess would be that only a small percentage of students are excellent note takers. With respect to the latter attribute, my sense is that law students zealously guard their work product, especially if it is good work product, and that they do not willingly give it up to anyone who asks.

    Second, and more importantly, given my approach to teaching, I think there is something to be gained from attending my classes that cannot be captured by class notes. In the past, all of my courses have been statutory courses, and I have used a problem-method approach where students apply the various statutory provisions to fact patterns presented in the casebook. I do very little lecturing and instead ask the students to discuss the problems. In addition, I place the students in adversarial roles and have them argue against one another. As part of this process, I place great emphasis on the different principles of statutory construction that can be marshaled by both sides in support of their arguments. My intuition tells me it would be very difficult for a student to document the methods of argumentation properly if he or she is engaged in the class discussion (whether as a participant or observer) and processing its substantive content. Since I expect students to replicate these methods of argumentation on the final exam, I suspect that students who would miss an excessive number of class sessions (i.e., more than I allow under my policy) would be at a severe disadvantage if they were allowed to sit for the exam and had to rely primarily on another classmate’s notes.

    Finally, as an aside, I think there has been variation in the content of my courses over the past three years. Since I’m relatively new at teaching, I’ve continued to tweak the scope of material that gets covered in class and the depth with which it is covered. Also, two of the courses in my dataset are an introductory bankruptcy course. Passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 resulted in major changes to the Bankruptcy Code such that there was great dissimilarity between those two courses.

    Laz and Doug H. – There are reasons other than those I listed in the original post for which I implement my attendance policy, and I think they’re important ones. First, the ABA mandates that a “law school shall require regular and punctual class attendance” (Standard 304(d)). Second, while in school, students who aspire to be professionals should begin practicing the standards of professionalism that will be expected and demanded of them in the real world by their clients, by judges, and by the practicing bar, among others. It’s just not as simple as flipping on a switch once one leaves law school. Getting students to show up to class on time and prepared is one step toward practicing good habits. I view this as one of my responsibilities in training future professionals. Last, but certainly not least, I don’t think my attendance policy has created an antagonistic relationship with my students on the whole. The anonymous course evaluations for those classes where I have implemented the policy have tended to be favorable, and I have rarely received complaints about the policy. Of course, there may be a self-selecting bias at work with the upper-class electives since students are not required to take such courses. If they choose to do so, maybe that signals that they don’t have any real problem with the policy. And, yes, I realize that there may be some students who want to take a particular course and have no choice but to take it with me, notwithstanding that they dislike my policy. But if this were the case, I would expect to see more complaints in my evaluations.

    Daniel – I think you’re right that the regression coefficient on class absences could be biased and may indeed capture the effect of student motivation. If that were the case, then the explanatory power of class absences may be even less than it already is. That said, I still think that one way to interpret the minimal influence of class absences on grades is that I’ve leveled the playing field somewhat by compelling a certain amount of class attendance. One way to find out would be to find a proxy for student motivation, code it, and then run a multiple regression.

  10. PK says:

    “I’m not ready to assume that all absent students have equal access to high quality notes.”

    You’re correct: not all students have equal access. Those that are friendly and learn to network early will have such access. Those that lack such skills will have a much tougher time. Since networking skills are an extremely important aspect to professional practice, I don’t see how nurturing them is a problem.

    You’re also correct in noting that a student cannot take a transcript of a class and understand it at the same time. Yet, many students do this anyway and end up with hundreds of pages of notes at the end of the semester. For this reason banning laptops (which would prevent this sort of notetaking by transcription) would produce better results than mandatory attendance.

  11. An anecdote to take for what it’s worth:

    As an undergrad engineering student, I took a class (“CAOS”: Computer Architecture and Operating Systems) with 2-3 friends. Other than the very first lecture and the tests, I never attended a single session. Yet I received a B while my friends (who attended regularly) received Cs.

    On one specific test, as I recall, dealing with microcode, I got an A easily, while almost the entire class failed, so egregiously that the professor elected not to count grades on that test. I was unhappy as that grade might have brought my score up to an A.

    Anyway, I mention this not to say that I’m an excellent student (those who knew me can agree that I’m not!) but simply that there were probably other factors involved that outweighed class attendance: possibly a really lousy professor; or perhaps subject matter demanding a framework of thinking that I was already accustomed to, being in a different major than my friends.

  12. Laz says:

    Prof. Pardo,

    Your first two reasons are good ones, but they seem equally applicable to an attendance policy that relies on self-motivation to achieve professional standards of conduct.

    Connecting this with a previous part of your post, though, I’ve enjoyed problem-based statutory courses in the past (my tax course in particular), but I have to say that I would have been considerably more intimidated in an environment where a poor answer resulted in a mark of “absent” and a tally toward the dreaded “W.” In fact, the best classes I’ve been a part of have been those taught by professors who actively involved the students but did so without negatively judging those student responses.

    (I should note that this is all in the abstract; the fact that you’re receiving positive feedback likely renders this moot.)

  13. Frank says:

    Had everyone attended nearly all the classes, would you (ber permitted to) raise the curve? I.e., give more A’s and B’s, and less B-‘s and C’s?

  14. Rafael Pardo says:

    Frank – Upward departures from the curve were not allowed at Tulane, so I would not have been able to give more more As and Bs.

  15. Panmondiale says:

    Prof. Pardo,

    In my opinion, there are a couple of fatal flaws in your logic and methodology. First: If final grades are based on anonymous exams, how can you correlate an individual’s attendance to his grade? I am a law student, not a math wiz, but this seems to be an irremediable flaw in your reasoning.

    Second: On what scientific evidence, research, or hypothetical model do you base your premise that attendance equals performance? I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but after three semesters of near-perfect attendance at law school, I can tell you from my experience that attendance and performance are, at best, passing acquaintances, not intimate friends.

    Third: You assume that heavy-handed policies, based on a model of punishment without reward, have some innate motivational characteristic. Again, on what basis have you formulated this opinion? In my considerable experience in sales, training, and management, the best motivation that you can provide a student to attend your class is not the stick, but the carrot. Offer interesting and challenging lectures that require thinking past the examples in the casebook, and you won’t have any trouble filling seats in your classrooms. Wouldn’t it feel better, as an instructor, knowing that your students are there because they want to be, not because they have to be? Wouldn’t you get more gratification from your job if you knew that students attended because they knew they were going to get something from your lecture that copied notes and hornbooks can’t offer?

    Personally, I find Prof. Solove’s approach more respectful of his students intentions and abilities, more likely to motivate attendance, and more realistic in terms of his expectations – both of himself and his students. Give your students some credit, and the benefit of the doubt; you might be surprised how self-motivated they are, how diligently they apply themselves in all of their classes regardless of their professors’ attendance policies, and how hard they’re willing to work to show their abilities.

  16. Kaimi says:


    You start off,

    “In my opinion, there are a couple of fatal flaws in your logic and methodology. First: If final grades are based on anonymous exams, how can you correlate an individual’s attendance to his grade? I am a law student, not a math wiz, but this seems to be an irremediable flaw in your reasoning.”

    Um, this one’s easy, actually: You find out from the Dean after the grades are given.

    At TJ, we also grade anonymously. I hand in to the Assistant Dean a list: Exam #1021 gets an A, #806 gets an A-minus, etc. Completely anonymous.

    A few days later, I get a list back, if I’m interested, saying, “you just gave Brian an A, Rafael a B, etc.”

    It’s not hard, really.

    [In addition, if a student has excess absences (there’s a school policy on absences), I tell the Assistant Dean. “Rafael has too many absences – dock his grade by .3” or whatever. And she’ll do that calculation once I hand in the (anonymous) grades.]

    “Second: On what scientific evidence, research, or hypothetical model do you base your premise that attendance equals performance?”

    As for Raf’s model – well, he explained that one in his post. He took grade data for over 200 students in five courses; he checked for statistical correlation between grade and attendance; and he ended up finding a correlation, but not a particularly large one. All of this he explains in his post.