On Battling Absenteeism

by Matthew Stollak on Friday, March 1, 2013

Like most managers, I engage in a semester-long battle with absenteeism.  I have the enviable position of teaching two sections of business statistics.  Combine that with a time slot of 8:00 A.M. and/or 9:00 A.M., and you can envision the long waiting list of students at registration.

Students are over 18 and they're paying for the class, so why should I care whether or not they attend?

1) After 18 years of teaching, and thousands of data points collected, a clear picture emerges - attendance and doing one's homework matters.   After every exam, I can see a clear correlation between amount of points earned on a chapter problem set and the subsequent exam score.  At the end of the semester, I can see a clear correlation between points earned and a student's final grade.  Similarly, attendance is a predictor of success in the class.  

Over the past several semesters for a class that meets 4 times a week, 50 minutes a day, for 15 weeks:
*The average grade on a 4.0 scale for zero absences: 3.21
*Average grade for 1 absence: 3.23
*Average grade for 2 absences: 3.08
*Average grade for 3 absences: 2.68
*Average grade for 4 absences: 2.30
*Average grade for 5 or more absences: 2.01
*Average grade for 8 or more absences: 1.67
*Average grade for 12 or more absences: 1.25

Shocking, I know.
2) Students often think professors revel in student's poor performance; that we want to force rank students into something resembling a normal curve.  Here's the secret....we really don't.  I'd much rather see success on exams than failure.  As most managers know, giving quality feedback takes time.  It is much, much easier to grade an exam where a student gets an answer correct, than when he or she has made a number of mistakes.  A student's absence, more likely than not, means less success on an exam, and subsequently more work for me.

So, my attendance policy is a continual work in progress:

As attendance is significantly correlated to performance, there is an expectation you will be present for each class.  Unless your final grade is in the A range, the following penalties will be assessed (except under extreme circumstances):
1-4 absences – no penalty
5th absence – 2 points
6th absence – 4 points (for a total of 6 points lost)
7th absence – 8 points (for a total of 14 points lost)
8th absence – 16 points (for a total of 30 points lost)
9th absence – 32 points (for a total of 62 points lost)
10th absence – 64 points (for a total of 126 points lost)
11th absence – 128 points (for a total of 254 points lost)

If you are not present for 80% of the time class meets, it will be considered an absence.  I do not distinguish between “excused” or “unexcused” absences.  In essence, you have 4 absences to do with as you please.  However, if you burn them early, and a situation arises later that might cause you to miss class, do not expect a lot of sympathy from me.

I think that it provides significant flexibility (though students might think differently). Stuff happens during a semester - illness, job interviews, travel, car breaks down, a competing college-related event.  Four absences (essentially a week of classes) should be sufficient to meet most circumstances that a student might face over the course of a semester.  Similarly, the exponential penalties are significant enough to discourage more absences than that.

Yet, there are always new excuses and challenges that cause me to revise it yet again....but you'll have to wait until Monday to read about it.

So, have at it, people.  What flaws do you see?


Not so much a flaw, but perhaps a different approach. Have you ever rewarded attendance vs. penalizing absence? If you make 100% of the classes you get a bonus, donut, signed copy of The 8 Man Rotation, etc.

by Steve Boese on March 1, 2013 at 1:15 PM. #

Thanks Steve for responding.

Rewarding attendance is a poor substitute...students fall ill, have other legitimate commitments that do conflict with class, etc.

I also believe that loss aversion is much more effective, but I would defer to the great Paul Hebert on the matter.

by Matthew Stollak on March 1, 2013 at 1:19 PM. #

As I mentioned in my tweet - loss aversion only works if I value the thing I am potentially loosing. I'm guessing that most students have a "low end" grade they are willing to accept. Therefore they will default to that grade and loss aversion won't really kick in until they start to bump up against that limit. If I only have a 2.5 average overall - an A won't really help that much so I'll probably set my limit close to 2.5 and miss as much as I can to make sure I don't fall below that.

Have you tried a combo plate - a little loss aversion - a little reward?

I'm guessing the reward would have to be fairly high.

by Paul Hebert on March 1, 2013 at 2:36 PM. #

I'd be loathe to set an "acceptable" number of absences (4 in this case) since people tend to see that as their due. A lot of insurance companies cut out session limits on seeing psychologists for this very reason. Give someone a max of 8 sessions and by God they are getting the 8 sessions owed to them. Give them unlimited sessions and they tend only to want 2.

What about just natural consequences? If there is already such a strong relationship between attendance and performance, why not just let nature take its course. Show them the data day one, tell them that they are not going to pass the class without attending and wash your hands of it. Incidentally, it looks as though they may want to skip just one class for maximum positive impact :)

by Daniel Crosby on March 1, 2013 at 2:45 PM. #


Thanks for the comments.

Students, in my experience, are much more loss averse than reward motivated. Even a two point loss for most causes a panic. And, given the exponential nature of the policy, makes each additional loss even more significant.

I do offer extra credit to attend student chapter SHRM meetings, and I get some decent attendance because of it. However, setting rewards for attendance is much more of a hassle as I start having to weigh excuses for missing classes. What's excused vs. what's not excused is a losing proposition.

And, you're right, the reward would definitely have to be high to make it significant enough to change behavior.

by Matthew Stollak on March 1, 2013 at 2:48 PM. #


I don't disagree. Many take up to that amount, and I am actually fine with that over the course of the semester. And, surprisingly many do not, despite the option. Its the whole 80/20 thing rearing its ugly head.

Its those students who miss more classes, do subsequently poorer on exams, thus making MORE work for me in grading. That's what I am trying to circumvent. By making the penalty severe enough that it deters them from missing more than they otherwise would, their exams become easier to grade.

by Matthew Stollak on March 1, 2013 at 2:55 PM. #

Every student in a college class is likely to be over 18 years of age. They are adults. The instructor’s task is to help students learn the material as described in the college course description and in your syllabus. I view the syllabus as the contract between the college, each student, and instructor. The syllabus that each student receives should contain, ideally, first and foremost, all relevant information concerning recommendations and directions that the instructor believes would facilitate learning and mastery of course material and what the instructor will do to be of help in and out of class. Ideally, the major function of all testing of learning (performance evaluation) is to provide feedback by the instructor (teacher/mentor/coach/supervisor) so that the student who is motivated to learn will then consult with him or her for advice and guidance to facilitate learning.
For more than several reasons, many students might be only minimally or moderately interested in learning and mastering course material and there may be little the instructor could do to encourage and enhance a student’s eagerness, curiosity and desire to learn and demonstrate mastery and even experience joy and pride in the process of learning. Many students, for more than several reasons, may be moderately to very concerned, instead, if not solely, about what specifically contributes to performance evaluation that leads to a grade. All relevant information is provided in the syllabus that would be helpful, including how absences, class participation, spelling and grammar in written work, if relevant, and any other related course-related activities in and out of class the instructor believes would affect both learning and its evaluation. If relevant, the syllabus may also include the variety of criteria (the grade being but one of them) the instructor will use to determine any eventual willingness to write a future letter of recommendation.

by Anonymous on March 3, 2013 at 5:18 AM. #

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