9 a.m. lectures are painful. Every morning in the Creative Learning Building, freshmen drag themselves to lectures just in time for in-class roll calls. 10 minutes into the lecture, half of the students already are walking back to their dorms, and the rest refuse to make any eye-contact with the professor. This phenomenon repeats itself all year round only because the attendance here in KAIST is mandatory and affects the final GPA.
This is nothing new for Korean students. All universities in Korea make attendance mandatory and there is little leniency for unexcused absence. In other countries such as the UK, there is no campus-wide attendance policy and it varies by department and professor. In the US and Australia, things are more reasonable. Although labs and tutoring sessions are mandatory, you can skip lectures without consequence. So arises the big question: is mandatory attendance policy necessary? Proponents of the strict attendance policies mention that being present in class shows appreciation to professors who spent time preparing the lecture. They claim that it is the least students can do to show respect. This belief is commonplace in Asian culture and is one explanation of compulsory roll calls at the start of every lecture in Asian universities. However, contrary to this idea, campuses like National University of Singapore (NUS) and The University of Hong Kong (HKU) have similar policies to British universities; they do not have a campus-wide attendance policy. So “respect” cannot be a valid reason in arguing that KAIST needs a coercive attendance policy. This prolonged debate has been a subject of multiple studies in psychology and pedagogy. Just by searching for certain keywords in Google, we get hundreds of papers on the topic. Some conclude that there is a positive correlation between a mandatory attendance policy and grades. However, others show no correlation between the two or even conclude that such policies actually harm students’ performance overall. The varying results highlight how difficult it is to analyze the relationship between mandatory attendance and grades. Therefore, no conclusions can be made for certain on how this controversial rule affects GPA.
“We can stop using attendance as negative reinforcement but utilize it as a positive reinforcement instead.”
In my opinion, it is not the mandatory attendance policy that positively affects grades. It is, on the other hand, students’ habits in class that affect their performance. There is absolutely no difference between sleeping in class and sleeping in bed: in both cases, you do not get anything good back from the lecture. Frankly, for students who already understand the contents of most freshman courses such as General Physics and General Chemistry, attending classes to learn what they already know is unnecessary. This is the main reason why most freshmen do not pay any attention in class. In fact, you see fewer sophomores dozing off in major courses once they can actually choose what they want to study. They get to learn something new that they have not come across before in high school and understand that not listening to lectures will harm their grades in the end. In a highly competitive university such as KAIST, the consequences of skipping a class would not be negligible. You only have yourself to blame.
Then what are the solutions to this attendance policy dilemma? One of the obvious solutions is to repeal the policy while increasing students’ participation to prevent a drop in performance. We can stop using attendance as negative reinforcement but utilize it as a positive reinforcement instead. In other words, we should stop penalizing for absence but rather award students for their active participation in class. One of the most ingenious ways to do this is to provide attending students with helpful tips regarding the exam during class. That way, students who are keen to learn will come to lectures, not having to worry about penalization when something inevitable comes up. University students are expected to be adults who should be responsible and understand how their actions may affect the future. Mandatory attendance policies that do no good for students and professors should be abolished. Instead, professors should provide incentives for attending classes to promote both students’ performance and responsibility. After all, we are not in high school anymore. We are in KAIST.