18

I recently came across a post (that I won't disclose because it contains the professor's last name):

Attendance in this course was regularly low, so the professor used a one-question exam to punish students who weren't attending a class. Those who weren't in class would have obviously failed this exam, and those who were in class (presumably) would have all gotten A's. The final remark on the note on the door was "maybe we'll do this again some time".

Let's assume a few factors about the course and this one-question exam, since we don't actually know how they're implemented:

  1. The course has an attendance policy (3 days max missed before your grade starts dropping, for example)

  2. This one-question exam has an impact equivalent to a homework assignment (could drop your overall grade by 1% if you get a 0).

  3. By the language of the original post, this is not something the students would have expected to happen; this means that the policy would not be outlined in the syllabus.

What if the course didn't have an attendance policy and the professor is simply annoyed that students aren't attending the class? What if this one-question exam was only worth a point or two instead of a whole homework grade?

Is it fair (ethical, if you will) to use this kind of tactic to impose additional punishment on students who don't attend lecture?

Clarification: Students who are absent (if intentional, extraneous circumstances aside) deserve to lose the points for the work they missed. However, this tactic is being used to additionally punish students solely for being absent; this is also why I posed different assumptions about attendance policy.

  • 6
    Whether or not it was a one question exam, a one hundred question exam or just an I'm taking attendance today thing doesn't change anything. The end result would be people who didn't attend on that day would not get credit for their work. The concept that the exam is dropping the grade may seem different, but it appears to serve the exact same purpose as taking attendance in a normal fashion, without a test involved. – Compass Nov 8 '14 at 20:58
  • 3
    @Compass I would agree, but minimally. There were numerous lectures in my Chemistry in Society class that I did not attend because 1. I knew the material from AP chemistry in high school and 2. There was no exam/quiz/group work and nothing due that day. In the event that the professor specifically crafted an assignment designed to punish me for not attending a lecture that I did not need to, I would be pretty upset. Though I do agree that if there were work that needed to be done that day, absent students deserve to lose the points. This is about additional punishment. – Chris Cirefice Nov 8 '14 at 21:08
  • 23
    I think it's a matter of opinion. I don't understand any kind of compulsory attendance at college-level courses. – Cape Code Nov 8 '14 at 22:08
  • 9
    Unless it was made clear beforehand that attendance is mandatory and lack of attendance could affect your grade, this seems unethical. – Jim Conant Nov 8 '14 at 22:11
  • 3
    "Is it fair to..." - What do you mean by "fair"? Professors can set whatever rules they like for their own course. Also, -1 and flag because the question appears to be a rant, not a genuine question. – Superbest Nov 9 '14 at 1:25

10 Answers 10

29

I think that this is unprofessional, and is leaving the institution open to all sorts of action (up to and including legal proceedings, if it impacts on a student's progression, for example). For example, what if a student is unavoidably absent?

If it's only "worth a point or two", then I don't think it's worth antagonising people in this way. The sarcastic note left on the door simply underlines how poorly thought-out this whole thing was...

  • 11
    "For example, what if a student is unavoidably absent?"<- Well the standard procedure for exams would apply in this situation. – Nick S Nov 8 '14 at 21:35
  • 4
    There was one module I took at an English uni, where the lecturer was terrible (and barely spoke any English), most of us skipped his lectures and put extra time in at the library instead. If he had pulled a stunt like that, I suspect he would have spent the next year sleeping with one eye open. – Mark K Cowan Nov 9 '14 at 16:56
  • @MarkKCowan Regardless of the lecturer being terrible, I am assuming the lectures were required as part of the curriculum? Generally, absences are dealt with in the student handbook and/or are addressed in the course syllabus if I am not mistaken. Also, in this day and age, sending the professor a quick email about the absence wouldn't hurt. Giving a quiz such as this to someone who is habitual in absence.....or someone who consistently leaves early, would be understandable in my opinion. – NZKshatriya Nov 27 '16 at 7:19
  • 1
    @NZKshatriya: attending lectures wasn't mandatory. We were being graded on our ability to understand physics, not scribbly writing and Russian. Punishing people who don't attend is stupid, some people self-study and some have timetable clashes so can't attend every lecture. – Mark K Cowan Nov 27 '16 at 11:24
  • I went to the first class of a programming course, realize I already knew everything, and showed up only for the midterm and final. I got an A+. Attendance would've been a complete waste of time. – Nelson Dec 12 '17 at 10:32
13

Note that at many Universities the "grade distribution" has to be announced in advance, and changing it later in the term needs often to be approved by chair. This closes the door for this type of idea, and opens the ground for appeals by students.

On another hand, while the exams dates for final exams and midterm exams need to be announced in advance, we are often not forced to do the same for work which is worth a small percentage of the mark. Even if I don't use it, I have the flexibility of having few Quizzes during the term, without the date being announced in advance, as long as they are not worth too much and, most importantly, as long as I announce this at the beginning of the semester.

And I had colleagues which announced at the beginning of the semester that there will be two surprise quizzes during the term(of course technically they were not surprises anymore), each questions worth 1-2.5% percent. And the students know in advance that by missing a class they might lose on those percentages...

8

In my experience, many professors build a little wiggle room into their syllabi for this reason. For instance, professors may assign 10% of the course grade to "class participation". It is then up to them how they assess this. Some take attendance every day; some take attendance only on a few days; some use this sort of "fake quiz" approach.

I know of one professor who included "Quizzes" as a category of points on the syllabus, and specifically announced that these quizzes would be the kind you describe: unannounced, trivially easy quizzes designed solely to check for attendance. She would have such a quiz on days when she noticed low attendance.

I think the degree to which it is ethical or allowable under policy guidelines depends on hwo transparent the process is and how much the grade penalty is. If, for instance, the syllabus allots 10% of the grade for attendance/participation, I think it's totally legitimate for the professor to assess this via trivial pop quizzes, as long as the penalty for missing them all is no more than 10% of the overall grade. Taking the points out of the "exam" portion of the grade would be less defensible, but in practice I don't think it would cause a major stir unless the penalty was large.

6

Having a daily quiz that counts for meaningful points can be a very effective way of getting students to pay attention to the course and learn the material day by day rather than trying to cram before an exam. This is different from simply requiring attendance, because students have to attend class and have to learn the material to pass the quiz. This provides students with frequent feedback throughout the course. It also fits well with the general principle that grades should be based on demonstrated student learning and not on arbitrary factors.

There are certainly situations where students are unavoidably absent from class. Thus its necessary to have some kind of policy for "excused absences." For example, you might accept excuses provided by medical professionals or the college's Dean of Students. You might also give students a reasonable number of "free passes."

Having such quizzes as part of the course design from the beginning is an entirely reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, introducing these quizzes half way through the course as a way to punish students for not attending class is difficult to justify and will likely be seen as unfair by the students.

  • 1
    "Seen as unfair". When low attendance becomes an apparent problem during the course of the semester it is entirely reasonable to put in place a mechanism that encourages attendance. After the news of the first quiz circulates, people will know they need to show up. If college is to prepare for real life then students need to get off the "no fair" position and on to the "I better shape up" one. Adapt and thrive; whine and perish. The prof can always decide that the first quiz gives a + grade bump only: so people are not punished for not showing up, just not rewarded like ones that did show up. – Floris Nov 9 '14 at 2:28
  • 7
    I've found that "excuses provided by medical professionals" are problematic. At my last institution, the student health center decided to stop issuing excuse notes. They would see a lot of students who had minor illnesses and didn't need medical treatment, but rather than just stay home in bed they would come to the health center to get an excuse note. This wasted the health center staff's time, clogging their waiting room with unnecessary (and possibly contagious) patients. So they decided to stop doing it, and I can't really blame them. – Nate Eldredge Nov 9 '14 at 3:52
  • 6
    Agreed with Nate. If someone has a cold, it's ridiculous to expect them to go to the doctor for absolutely no reason at all other than to get a note. Going to the doctor for such wastes the doctor's time (increasing overall healthcare costs due to extra [wasteful] demand,) wastes the student/employee's money and/or their insurance company's money, potentially spreads the cold to others in the doctor's office, etc. with no benefit at all. On the other hand, it might cause the student to come to class while contagious instead (which is part of why schools are a breeding grounds for diseases.) – reirab Nov 9 '14 at 9:02
  • 1
    No. It is a sure recipe to fill the room with zombies playing videogames or working on homework for other classes. – vonbrand Mar 1 '16 at 16:25
4

Given the third assumption listed in the question (that this policy was not outlined in the syllabus,) then I would say no, it is not ethical. Regardless of how much of the final grade it is worth, assigning grades contrary to the grade distribution in the syllabus just because the professor doesn't like that some people were absent is not ethical (and likely violates school policy.)

On the other hand, instructors are usually allowed to create policies that penalize students for not showing up, such as having a portion of the course grade be due to unannounced quizzes or even having quizzes every class period. However, these policies must be announced ahead of time. While I personally find such policies annoying and not particularly useful in most scenarios, as long as the expectation is given to the students up front that not coming to class might (or will) impact their grade and by how much, then I don't see an ethical problem with it (and it shouldn't violate policy, either.)

The main issue here is that, whatever policy the instructor wants to use, it needs to be decided up front and included in the syllabus, not created on-the-fly in violation of what someone would reasonably expect by reading the syllabus.

4

IMHO it is not fair to impose penalties for non-attendance unless there is a clearly-signposted policy that attendance is required. I don't know how this varies across the world, but in some UK universities lectures are technically optional - the point is to learn the material described in the syllabus, and if a student can achieve that better with private study and textbooks than by attending the lectures, that is up to them. (most students would be foolish to rely exclusively on this approach, but that is their problem, and doing badly in the final exam would be their punishment if it has not worked)

4

To answer the actual question: I don't feel the professor's approach is ethical, because he seems to be caring more about attendance rather than the learning experience his students are getting. I explain more on this below.


I think @NeilKirk asks a very good question in the comments of the question.

"Why is attendance so low in the first place?"

In general, with the exception of the occasional sickness or special circumstance, the answer is that in the students' opinion, it is not worth their time to attend. This could be for a number of reasons:

  • The class is covering information they really don't care about. (one reason some teachers try asking their students what they want to get out of a class). If this is an elective class, they should probably be taking something else instead. If this is the situation though, it's probably a required class. So, why is it a required class? Why should they care? Telling them how this class is valuable will solve some of this issue. I'm assuming the value from taking this class isn't only the earned credits and grade.

    • Shortcuts are available
      I had this as its own section, but it falls into the category that the students don't really want to learn. If there are ways to get a good grade without going to class and without learning anything, some students will take it.
  • Going to class doesn't get them anything more than they could do on their own Maybe they see the value of the information, but they just don't get anything out of being in class. Why go, if you learn just as much as if you stayed home and read a chapter of the book? Some people naturally learn better by themselves, and there's not much that can be done about that, but if this is a problem for most, or more than a few, of the students then the professor should really be considering changing the way they teach their material - the students just aren't learning anything more from the professor than they could from just having the resources the professor provides.

    • Incorrect personal judgements
      While the judgements being made are typically by the students, many of these could also be caused by the professor and all attempts to help the students avoid them should be made. The students may have judged the class content or difficulty incorrectly, making them think they that they will easily be able to make up what they miss in class. They may have judged their own abilities or knowledge incorrectly. They may have thought getting some sleep was more important than class that day. etc..

The last bullet is what the professor in question seems to think is happening. He is trying to punish those who make "incorrect" decisions by affecting the student's grades. It is one way to get what he wants (attendance up), but I personally doubt the problem is mostly caused by this. If it is, then I think there are better ways to solve the problem. That said, I could consider this an ethical solution, if the students were warned in some way and if the real problem was then attempted to be corrected.

3

Fair? Absolutely not.

If you inform students beforehand that class attendance will count for a certain percentage of the grade, then yes this is absolutely fair. But you asked "What if the course didn't have an attendance policy"

Well, in that case: How exactly are the students supposed to know that failure to attend will affect their grades negatively? It is both ethically and probably legally wrong to deduct marks from grades based on arbitrary reasons (a professor not liking attendance levels).

Most higher level education classes specify the criterion for getting grades. This is to enable the students to work systematically towards getting a certain grade.

1

At my institution we have a strict "no-absence" policy. If you can't attend a lecture for whatever reason, you must apply for a leave to the dean. Failing to do so may result in failing the respective module and since many are only offered every other year this may result in a decisive prolonguation of your studies. I personally know cases where people quit due to such issues.

Anyway, neither the dean nor the secretary can really have an eye on every single student all the time. So there is need for methods as you describe to compulse students to attend lectures and at the same time punish those who didn't. Since I find the quiz you describe, aiming only at those who were absent, highly questionable, to say the least, I quickly give you an overview of how we handle it at my institution.

There are several approaches at our institution:

Some lecturers simply don't care. It's your task to pass the exam, not theirs. If you miss many lectures, you lack a lot of material which will surely be in the exam. If you had good reasons for your absence (illness or the like), the others will easily share their material with you (besides that in such cases you told the secretary and he then informed the professor, so they knew in advance). If you, however, were absent with no reasons (laziness, sleeping late, whatever...), others might refuse to help you out.

Others let students do a quick oral resumee of the last lecture. First to compulse students who were absent for good (or not-so-good) reasons to catch up the material as the professor will continue where he ended the last time. Secondly it quickly shows if the students understood the material and if not, the lecturer can give additional help.

My own method is a quick three-questions-quiz at the beginning of each lecture. If you don't answer at all, you fail, three failed quizzes lower your grade by one point (we have a system of 1 = worst to 6 = best grade, so one point is already quite a high loss). However, if you didn't understand a topic and therefore can't answer my question, you can write down what you didn't understand and then still pass it. Like this I always have an overview what the students understand best and what not. By the number of people not being able to answer a question I can also determine the quality of my lecture. If a certain number (I say: more than 2) hasn't understood a certain topic, then it's most probably my fault and not theirs.

These methods have the big advantage of being fair to everybody. It's not a punishment, but a motivation to attend every lecture and to catch up material you missed.

Beside that the grading of a module is transparent and clear to everybody from the very beginning. We, the lecturers, have any freedom we want in how we handle it, but we have to announce it at the beginning and cannot change anymore later.

-3

What is it that we want to achieve/check by having an exam? In my world it is what the student is capable of doing/what the student know.

How the student has achieved the information is (in my world) irrelevant.

So the only fair exam is the one that tests the skills/knowledge the students have to the subject. That cannot be tested by asking just one (silly/irrelevant) question.

So to answer the question: No it is not fair to ask a question like that! The professor will have to ask the questions about the subject. If the students that have not attended his class knows the answers they should pass. If they dont know the answers - they should fail. And that goes for the students who has attended the class as well!

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