Written by Becca Ciancanelli, Director of Inclusive Teaching Practices, D-L Stewart, Professor and Chair of the Higher Education Department in the Morgridge College of Education, and Paula Adamo, Teaching Professor, Department of Spanish Language, Literary & Cultural Studies and Associate Dean for Academic Planning and Student Success
Engagement in the classroom is foundational for deep learning. It can be tempting to equate in-person participation and engagement, assuming that students who attend frequently, ask questions and participate verbally in class are mastering the material more effectively than those who aren’t. The pandemic necessitated a new approach to attendance policies, and many faculty embraced the opportunity to learn about recording their classes, posting class notes and offering Zoom office hours to give students access to the content when having missed class. It was common to hear gratitude expressed by students for the flexibility that faculty offered. Disabled students consistently expressed relief that they could manage their well-being and succeed in their studies (Burke, 2021).
However, there has been a recent push to move back to stricter policies regarding class attendance. When applying an equity framework with attendance, one recognizes the inequitable burden of mental health struggles, physical illness and disabilities, visible and invisible, and child and elder care responsibilities that can significantly impact the ability of a student to engage with their peers in the learning process in normative ways. This blog offers inclusive approaches to creating attendance policies that utilize Universal Design for Learning principles, reducing access barriers for students who cannot attend every class.
“[Attendance policies] become a proxy for the amount of difficulty a student is dealing with in their lives. And the students struggling the most will be the ones least likely to feel comfortable asking for exceptions to an attendance policy.” Jesse Stommel, DU Teaching Assistant Professor (Supiano, 2022).
Flexibility and High Expectations
The strongest arguments for required attendance in class, often tied to “participation points,” center on research that has demonstrated a correlation with higher grades (Chenneville & Jordan, 2012). There has been resistance to flexible, yet rigorous, attendance policies, as many faculty feel that it may be easier for some students to earn grades equivalent to mastering key concepts in the course with less perceived engagement. It is worth considering a distinction between intellectual rigor and logistical rigor.
Kevin Gannon, a historian at Queens University of Charlotte has offered the following definitions: “Intellectual rigor challenges students to explore complex ideas and refine their own thinking. Logistical rigor requires adherence to ‘strict policies about when and how work is produced and evaluated’” (Pryal, 2022). By embracing a model of intellectual rigor in order to keep high expectations, we can re-design our classroom approaches to allow multiple means of demonstrating mastery of course content.
This teaching approach is called “Universal Design for Learning”; it works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners by dismantling participation barriers and centering learner viability in curriculum development. If the logistical rigor of college courses is reduced, the burden of proving excused absences will be lifted from both students and faculty. Requiring students to provide doctor’s notes for absences, or expecting potentially expensive diagnoses for evidence of mental health and learning disabilities, puts an extra burden on low income students. It is imperative to consider that inflexible attendance policies impede the ability for students to earn grades that truly reflect their mastery of the material. Instead, faculty can keep high expectations that students meet the learning goals of the course, while allowing for engagement with those goals beyond class time.
Universal Design for Learning principles encourage faculty to design attendance policies that support students with disabilities without requiring legal documentation for flexible attendance. With this philosophy, the faculty member will be reducing learning barriers for students who cannot afford the diagnosis for their disability as well as those who do not want to reveal their disabilities for fear of the associated stigma. Asking disabled students to advocate for themselves, whether they have the legal paperwork or not, is adding an additional burden to their learning process (Bruce & Aylward, 2021). Flexible attendance policies will support these students to more fully engage without losing energy and motivation due to the need for self-advocacy, and will also support those who have the incidental illness, an “off” day, unavoidable childcare conflict and other issues that prevent them from being able to attend class.
“Grading attendance privileges students who are healthy, in all senses, unencumbered by work or family obligations, those who do not commute to campus, and those who remain untouched by accidents, crises, losses, or assaults during the term (Del Rosso, 2021).”
We recommend designing an attendance policy that both encourages students to attend class to participate in communal learning with high expectations for mastery of the learning goals, while also allowing for remote engagement with the material when needed to adequately manage physical and mental well-being. The following classroom practices are suggested to start building an inclusive approach to classroom attendance.
- Offer an accessibility survey to your students before the term starts which encourages students to communicate about expected absences as well as religious and disability accommodations. This Accessibility Survey template offers potential questions including one that asks students to design an assignment that might approximate classroom participation after having missed class.
- Craft a transparent attendance policy in your syllabus, such as the “Attendance In-Person” OTL syllabus statement. Make sure to model a relationship-focused communication practice by suggesting how and when the students can communicate with you about absences. Consider using the DU Interfaith calendar to help avoid scheduling important assessments on religious holidays.
- Consider offering an allotted number of absences that students can use to manage their well-being and provide class content to review on Canvas in a timely manner. This strategy may not work for graduate level courses that meet only weekly. In this case, it would be best to offer a class discussion at the beginning of the term to come up with a communal agreement about how to navigate challenging life moments that would prevent a student from attending class. Students will often design a more rigorous policy to address a learning outcome upon missing class than one would expect.
- Offer discussion boards and/or an “absent assignment” to allow students to engage with the learning outcomes outside of class. This OTL blog on Using Canvas to Navigate Student Absences will help you use Canvas effectively with these practices.
- Develop pairings or small groups at the beginning of the quarter that function to provide peer support in a number of ways, including sharing notes with a partner who may have had to miss a class session.
While developing more inclusive teaching practices, it is important to trust your students’ communications about absences. Students who want to learn, and have a strong sense of agency in the process due to inclusive attendance policies, will likely stay in communication and find ways to meet the learning outcomes. Students who are looking for an out, or to cheat the system, will always succeed in opting out. Putting punitive policies in place to stop this behavior can harm those who are genuinely engaged and have unique struggles with the traditional learning environment. Instead, stay focused on whether the students are meeting the learning goals of the class even if they do not conform to standard expectations for student engagement. Perhaps, they are doing their best learning while managing their wellness. There are multiple rewards for creating flexible, inclusive, and equitable classroom spaces. These include the gratitude expressed by students who truly need, and deeply appreciate, this support. Faculty who embrace the opportunity to design flexible, inclusive, and equitable classroom spaces also have the opportunity to support student success.
Please feel free to book a consultation with Becca Ciancanelli, the Director of Inclusive Teaching Practices, to discuss these ideas or to craft an inclusive attendance policy for your unique classroom.
- Burke, L. (March 5, 2021). ‘Proof of Concept’. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/03/05/will-colleges-maintain-flexibility-disabled-students
- Supiano, B. (January 20, 2022). The Attendance Conundrum. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-attendance-conundrum
- Chenneville, T., & Jordan, C. (2012). The Impact of Attendance Policies on Course Attendance among College Students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(3), 29-35.
- Pryal, K.R.G. (October 6, 2022). When ‘Rigor” Targets Disabled Students.The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/when-rigor-targets-disabled-students
- Bruce, C., & Aylward, M.L. (2021). Disability and Self-Advocacy Experiences in University Learning Contexts. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 23(1), pp.14–26.
- Del Rosso, J. (2021). How Loss Teaches: Beyond Pandemic Pedagogy. Humanity & Society, 45(3), 423–434, https://doi.org/10.1177/0160597620987008