Taking attendance

Most college professors do not take attendance as they believe that students are adults and responsible for their learning. If they skip class, not learning, or fail, that is their problem. One professor told me: “My job is to teach, not to count the number of student in the class. College is not a kindergarten.” Many college professors also believe that taking attendance is not related to teaching but only an administrative duty.

I do not agree with that view as I take attendance in all the classes that I teach to make sure students are there to learn. I set a strict rule: “Missing more than 4 classes means their grade will be reduced by one, and missing more than six classes, students will be dismissed. When I was in high school, the teacher would call the students by name and they must answer: “I am here” or “Present” but I do not like that approach because it does not set the tone for the class to learn.

In my classes, I require students to read the materials BEFORE coming to class. Instead of taking traditional attendance, I call each student‘s name with a short question related to a term or concept from the reading assignment. For example, “Bob, what is the definition of “Artificial Intelligence?” or “Jane, explain the difference between Machine Learning and Deep Learning?” This puts the materials that I will teach on that day into the students’ minds and check if they do the reading BEFORE coming to class. By listening to their answers, I can comment on their responses and understand how well they are learning then adjust my lecture accordingly. Since the students know that I will call all names with a question, most would read carefully and prepare to discuss in my class.

By associate question from reading materials with attendance, it also creates a learning environment where students could comment on the others’ answer which leads to further class discussion. For example: “Bob is giving his answer, Steve, what do you think? Or “Is anybody have a different answer than Bob?” by encouraging students to engage in the discussion early, you can measure the level of students’ learning accurately than having them to work on a quiz or a short test. If students are actively participating in listening and comment on their friends’ response to the question, we can create an active learning environment where students are the active learners and the professor is a guide who support them to learn.

However, to use this technique, you must start early from the first few days of class so that students learn this is a classroom approach that they must follow. When students are not ready, they would ask for a time to think and request that you to call their name later when they have something to say. This is a “delay tactic” as they hope that you will forget to call them again when they do not have a response. Do not make this mistake. if you allow that, they can disengage from the class’s activities and set a precedent for others to follow. I often say: “It is OK to think a little longer, but you must answer as others are waiting for their turn when I call their names.” That will force them to give the answer. If it is not correct, they will be embarrassed and will not make that same mistake again. When it happens, I often say: “Peter, you need to read carefully. The answer to that question is in page number four of the reading materials. Maybe you are distracted by your girl friend’s text message? That would make the students laugh but sometimes adding humor will help avoid certain embarrassment. In every class, there are a few students who want to give an answer even you do not ask them to. I do not allow a student to respond for another, as it is a disruption. I would say: “Jenifer, you already gave the answer, this is Peter’s question and he must answer it.”

Time in class is short and precious and we need to use every opportunity for the students to learn. By integrating attendance into a learning activity, we can set the tone for learning, and help students to engage in a deeper level of learning as they must actively listening to their friends’ respond, make comment and learning together.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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