How I track attendance

As with all useful management strategies, I have no idea where I got this idea. If there’s something useful in it, please adapt and share widely.

At the college level, class attendance is very very different from the K-12 schools. Most college instructors don’t take attendance regularly. Of those who do, a large proportion pass around a sign in sheet.

Coming out of a K-12 tradition, I know that taking roll call is an important part of learning my students’ names (this, incidentally, is not universally valued in higher ed). But I don’t have time to take roll every class period.

Furthermore, I know that attendance is better when students know I am keeping track. And it’s even better if attendance is part of their grade. It turns out that it doesn’t seem to matter how much of their grade-just that it’s part.

I used to factor attendance in by counting the number of missed classes, and running that number through a rubric. But as I mentioned I don’t have time to take attendance every class period, and sometimes I forget. And then I am imperfect at reconstructing attendance after class is over (strong personalities tend to get noticed as absent more often than wallflowers do, for example).

You see the problem.

Enter the attendance spinner.

On 22 randomly selected days each semester, I begin class by putting the spinner on the document projector and spinning with great dramatic flourish. Each student present when the spinner is spun receives the number of attendance points that comes up on the spinner. Attendance is taken, attendance points are recorded and we begin class.

In order to get maximum credit for attendance towards your grade, you need to accumulate more than 100 attendance points. The next category is for 90-100 attendance points, etc. There are five categories.

You don’t know in advance on which days I will spin, but I do; they’re determined by a Fathom document at the beginning of the semester and posted where I can refer to it in my office.

If the 22 spins don’t total at least 101 points, we will adjust the cutoffs for the categories proportionately. This has never happened.

If you are absent or come after the spin, you get zero attendance points for the day.

I will not tell you whether we will spin next class, nor whether we spun last class (ask your classmates-odds are you have at least 40 of them).

If I was supposed to spin and I forget, I’ll do it next class. You’ll never know about it, though.

Any questions?


9 responses to “How I track attendance

  1. At my college, we are not allowed to count attendance in the grade. You’ve gotta cheat the rule, and give simple quizzes instead, or something.

  2. That’s a great idea. I like it much better than sign-in sheets! I’m on sabbatical next year, but when I start teaching again I’ll probably try this out.
    Making it a game reduces the feeling of petty bureaucracy.

    I mostly teach grad students, and there is not much problem with non-attendance, but there is often a problem with tardiness, so I’d probably do this within 30 seconds of when the class is supposed to start. I’d probably also use dice rather than a spinner. Perhaps I’d even arrange for the different dice on different days (with a D20 for high-importance classes, and a D4 near the beginning of the quarter, when students haven’t gotten the message yet).

  3. Sue are you kidding me? What is the philosophy behind this? My philosophy is that I want to create one extra incentive for that day when a student is trying to decide whether to get out of bed. I just want to provide that extra little nudge. If I were in your situation, I’d have something be contingent on getting 101 attendance points-like being able to take a short-form final instead of a long-form one.

    gasstation, yes it’s way more fun than sign-in sheets. Your dice idea alludes to all sorts of fun we can have with this system. When we study probability, I offer to spin other spinners that have the same expected values. One of these is evenly split between 1 and 10. Another is evenly split between -1 and 12. We get at some important issues of probability in discussing whether to spin these.

    Tell me why dice appeal to you over a spinner.

    I like spinners for their drama-we watch it go round and round and come to a rest. Think of the Wheel of Fortune and those tumbling ping-pong balls for state lotteries. A die happens much more quickly. But I’m really curious about why you’d do dice.

  4. I happen to be struggling right now over what to do about attendance this year, so this is definitely something to consider.

  5. Spinners are associated with hokey game shows and county fair carnivals, dice are associated with role-playing games. My students are much more likely to be into RPGs. A ball cage like one used in a lottery or bingo would appeal to a different demographic. Actually, I like the idea of using a different randomizer every time: ball cage, different dice, deck of cards, spinner, dreidel, multiple coin toss (read out in binary), …

    The only randomizer I’ve acutally used in class is the multiple coin toss, to decide who gets to choose first in scheduling journal club talks.

    Also, my classrooms are small and lack technology. I would not want to lug in a projector and set it up just to take attendance.

  6. Hmmm…this is interesting. I always take attendance but have never done sign-up sheets. I don’t know about other profs but I hate not knowing my students’ names and I make a real effort to learn them all within 2 weeks. They know I take attendance and if someone comes in late, they’ll often come to me at the end of class to make sure they got on the attendance roll for that day. At the community college where I teach, we’re not allowed to fail a student just for attendance, but we can figure figure in a “Attendance and Participation” grade. I’ve been struggling with how to quantify this grade (quantification of any grades in Freshman Comp is already a struggle!) but this may help. I will probably favor the dice just because they are easier for me to carry and I’m more likely to remember to use them. Thanks for sharing this idea!

    • Attendance can’t make a student fail my courses either. That doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of what we’re going for. In fact-don’t tell my students, please-this elaborate attendance system rarely affects a student’s grade one way or another. I have things set up so that the meaningful assessments of their learning creates a very stable base, which is unlikely to be tipped by the attendance grade. The spinner is intended to be playful and provide a nudge in the right direction, motivationally. It is not intended to be punitive.

      I used to have a Participation grade. Now it’s an Engagement grade, and it’s self-reported. I’ll have to write this system up shortly. Maybe next week.

  7. My TTh class only meets 36 times during the semester – should I still spin 22 times? If not, then what is the spinning number?

    • Seems like too large a proportion of classes. I’ll have T/TH classes in the fall too. I’ll have to refigure my system for these. Fewer spins=>larger numbers on spinner=>greater variability=>more potential for trouble. I’ll report my decision on these things next week and results at end of semester.

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