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Debate: The Attendance Policy Debate
[ Issue 105 Page 7 ] Tuesday, March 15, 2011, 23:14:43 Dong-Kyeong Lee, Geunhong Park dk1558@gmail.com, geunhongpiuspark@kaist.ac.kr

The merits of taking attendance in class came into question late last semester as it was discovered that students faking illness in order to receive doctor’s notes so they could skip class. Is attendance the only way to measure student commitment? Or is there an alternative yet to be considered?

Pro: Attendance: Annoying but Necessary?

By Dong-Kyeong Lee

If you ask any KAIST student what he or she thinks is the most annoying part of lectures, the usual response is “class attendance check.” If so many students are against this procedure, it makes us wonder why this is still being carried out in most of the classes at KAIST. However, even if attendance checks may seem redundant at face value, if we think about their purpose and effect we can come to conclude that they are actually necessary.

The most obvious purpose of attendance checks is to motivate students to attend lectures. Although the intent of these procedures is positive, conflicts arise as they leave little room for students’ free will. As the undergraduate students are now adults who should be able to make decisions for themselves, many ask: “is it necessary to force the students, who are at responsible ages, to attend class? Shouldn’t they be allowed to choose for themselves what they wish to do?” To answer this question, consider what would happen if students started skipping lectures because they consider the lectures of little value or simply due to minor reasons such as not wishing to walk to class on a rainy day.

One outcome that could ensue is failure for the absent students to learn about topics that are not covered adequately in provided course textbooks or supplementary materials. If a certain topic in the syllabus needs further explanation, the professor may mention and elaborate on it during the lecture, even if it is not necessarily related to the lecture material for that day. Therefore every lecture, however meaningless it may seem, could turn out to be of great importance. The students who neglect this fact and miss the lecture due to no particular reason are likely to have no knowledge concerning the additional topics, even after taking the exam. They would most likely complain as a result of their ignorance concerning the extra materials.

Lack of class attendance by students can pose problems for the attending students as well. For classes that require a lot of class participation and group activity, small student numbers pose a difficulty for both the students present and the professor. For example, during an English Literature class, if there are not enough participants it is difficult to bring about and maintain active group discussions and activities. As a result, the atmosphere of the class can become demoralizing, making the lecture uninteresting for the participants and difficult to teach for the professor in charge. Attendances can thus be considered a necessity for a productive course for both the professor and the students.

Another purpose of class attendance is making sure that the students come to class on time and not leave in the middle of the lecture. By taking attendance at both the start and the end of the class, the professor can identify and penalize students who do not stay for the full session of the lecture. This discourages students to be late to class and prevents them from leaving during the lecture. These untimely entrances and exits by students disrupt the lecture and can be interpreted as a form of disrespect to the professor. Therefore attendance checks not only encourage the students to be punctual to class but also prevent disrespectful acts.

If we change the perspective with which we look at attendance checks, we can notice another advantage which is frequently overlooked. For small- and medium-sized classes, attendance checks allow professors and students to learn each other’s names and faces. This helps students in getting to know each other better, which leads to better development of interaction between students as well as professors. With everyone in the class being familiar with one another, the mood of the class can easily be lightened and the lectures can be more entertaining for everyone involved.

At a glance attendance checks are nuisances and hassles that make courses less entertaining for individuals and are restrictions on free will. However, if we look at the purpose of these procedures which are omnipresent in KAIST lectures, attendance checks not only reduce issues for courses throughout the semester but also make classes more fun and productive. Attendance checks are there to help the students; according to Arthur Tugrnan, “Education only helps those in attendance,” so always think of their advantages before their drawbacks next time you feel dissatisfied with the irritating procedure.

Con: Students Are Responsible for THeir Own Choices

By Geunhong Park

Virtually every student at KAIST should be aware of the sheer effort teaching assistants and professors put into monitoring attendance. In every lecture, every day, assistants scour rosters for irregular signatures, classroom seats and photographs of classrooms for unfamiliar faces. Likewise, the panicked question every student asks if he misses the first ten minutes of class is: “Did they take attendance yet?” Naturally, this begs the question: all this effort and suffering – for what? Should KAIST students actually be forced to attend their lectures? What business does the school have with this at all?

The most patronizing aspect of this whole issue is that the university does not seem to trust students with their own judgment. It must be noted, however, that most students here are adults by law. By the very definition of “adult” this should mean that they are able to organize and take care of themselves. The “attendance check” in essence uproots the whole notion of students being accountable for their own academic performances and, by extension, their own lives. It also gives the impression that only the professors and the university (“the adults who know”) have the right to decide how students - who are technically adults as well - should use their time. The notion that students need to be graded according to how many times they turn up to class is thus ridiculous. Shouldn’t responsible members of society decide how to organize their own time and resources? Certainly, the teachers who impose attendance policies don’t seem to think so.

One might argue that attendance grades provide students with a fair chance to earn extra marks by showing their dedication to learning. But the problem here lies with the fact that often enough, student attendance does not equal student dedication. Plenty of students sleep or daydream throughout a lecture; their minds are just not set to learn the provided material. Plenty of others cheat by getting their friends to check attendance for them, submitting false medical forms afterwards or just signing the attendance list and walking out of class. All this is not to fault the students, but rather to demonstrate how attendance grading delivers skewed results. An attendance grading poilcy does not result in more attentive and enthusiastic sutdents. Rather, it takes away the duty of attending a class from the student and imparts it with the professor or the teaching assistants. Freed from such moral considerations, students often may feel no pangs about using illegal means to gain extra free time. The question then would be: if a procedure does not achieve the intended result, then why continue it at all? If the practice only produces more people willing to deceive, has it not failed at the moral level, as well as the practical?
The absurdity of monitoring students’ attendance is further compounded by the fact that attendance frequently can act as a gauge for professors to judge the quality of their own teaching. If a lecture helps students significantly in pursuing their studies, then naturally, they will want to attend; there would be no need at all for exasperating “three strikes and you’re out” policies. The fact that the school turns a blind eye to such policies seems to indicate that professors, no matter how atrocious, do not need to receive feedback on how well they are communicating with their pupils. Professors cannot, and should not force students to attend their lectures if the lectures are of little or no benefit to the listener. On the contrary, problems concerning attendance should be resolved through constructive teaching efforts. This may include more diverse or interesting educational materials, more chances for the students to express their own creativity - such as projects - or more discussion sessions either between professors and students or amongst students themselves.

This is not to state that professors at KAIST pay no attention at all to improving the quality of their lessons. This reporter for one is aware of many educators who consistently strive to interact more with their class, and who try to make their lectures more interesting. Also, the limitations of English being the only language of instruction may prevent professors from teaching to their full potential. However, all of this does not justify the use of attendance grading to force students to attend classes. Although it may be said that the education of its students is one of the university’s most important tasks, it nonetheless should not overshadow another duty: to cultivate responsible, mature adults capable of making contributions to society through their own judgements and own exertions.

Dong-Kyeong Lee, Geunhong Park Archives  
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