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I will be teaching an introductory class, in which attendance is important, with approximately 60 students in 3 sections. I'd like to have a system that:

  1. Enables me to quickly mark whether a student is present.
  2. Allows students to see their own attendance record but not other students'.
  3. Lets students provide information about their absences.

For small classes, students email me (or I email them) for information about absences, but it would be overwhelming with this many students.

A single Google spreadsheet would be great for data entry, and students could use comments to annotate their absences, but it wouldn't protect students' privacy.

Any suggestions (besides not tracking attendance)? My school provides Google Apps and Blackboard, although I'm willing to use other solutions.

UPDATE: I know a hack that would work in Blackboard would be to create a fake assignment for each day (attending class) and enter attendance information (0 or 1) there. This is not ideal because (1) entering data into Blackboard is slower than putting it into a spreadsheet, (2) it would bloat the grade listings seen by the students, and (3) I don't think students could add a comment to the "grade" (the excuse).

There is a similar question, but it does not address how to incorporate excuses/explanations, which, to me, is the tricky part.

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    "in which attendance is important" -- why? What do you or your students gain from enforcing that? – Raphael Jul 15 '15 at 5:26
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    @Raphael It could be, for instance, that there are departmental/university wide policies on automatic failures due to absences. There are very real reasons for attendance policies in classes like band/choir/theatre where if half the class skips out, the other half can't adequately have the expected class (trying properly doing a choir rehearsal with only a random third of the choir every day). If you have an attendance policy, but don't take roll... you're opening yourself up to students disputing any reduction you give them for non-attendance – user0721090601 Jul 15 '15 at 13:43
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    @guifa My question was about enforcing attendance, not enforcing an attendance policy. Of course, if you have one you've got to implement it. I think you shouldn't have one, though. – Raphael Jul 15 '15 at 14:23
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    Voting to reopen. This question differs from the "duplicate" one due to the need to handle student excuses for being absent. – Mad Jack Jul 15 '15 at 19:00
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    @MadJack Concur; I also see that this question aims to make the information available back to students, which is much more difficult than just tracking within a group of instructors. – jakebeal Jul 15 '15 at 19:40
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There is a sort of a solution using Google Apps, but it's ugly and it's still very much imperfect (more on that at the bottom).

You could create a master spreadsheet (that for the sake of example has the internal ID of "masterSheet") that looks like this:

      A          B         C         D         E         F
1| Name       | 9/1 | 9/1 Comment | 9/2 | 9/2 Comment | etc.
2| Student A  |     |             |     |             |
3| Student B  |     |             |     |             |
4| Student C  |     |             |     |             |

Then you'll create another spreadsheet for Student A:

    A            B                                C
1| Date | Attendance Grade                 | Comment/Excuse
2| 9/1  | =IMPORTRANGE("masterSheet","B2") |
3| 9/2  | =IMPORTRANGE("masterSheet","D2") |
3| etc. | =IMPORTRANGE("masterSheet","X2") |

You'll then make columns A and B (as well as cell C1) uneditable except by you. You don't necessarily need to type in the IMPORTRANGE() stuff manually, and you do it formulaicly much easier if you have both the master and student spreadsheets go in the same order (although it's possible either way).

Initially, the student will just see

    A            B                                C
1| Date | Attendance Grade                 | Comment/Excuse
2| 9/1  |                                  |
3| 9/2  |                                  |
3| etc. |                                  |

As you put in their attendance grades for each day, it will show up automatically in theirs, but they won't be able to edit it if you properly protect the range. Now, for their comments. You'll do the exact same thing, but in reverse, and you'll get:

      A          B         C                           D         E                           F
1| Name       | 9/1 | 9/1 Comment                   | 9/2 | 9/2 Comment                   | etc.
2| Student A  |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentA","C2") |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentA","C3") |
3| Student B  |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentB","C2") |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentB","C3") |
4| Student C  |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentC","C2") |     | =IMPORTRANGE("studentC","C3") |

If a student enters in a comment in their spreadsheet, it will show up on yours.

Now, a few comments about this:

It's ugly. It's awful. But it basically does what you want. But there's also a security consideration that will greatly reduce its efficacy to be effectively useless. Besides the fact that a student could get access to your original spreadsheet by using IMPORTRANGE() on their comment field, Google Apps requires a user to have viewing or editing privileges to the document referenced by IMPORTRANGE(). There are many ways ways to obfuscate, but it will only ever be obfuscation, and not real security.

What you should do from my experience

Just use Blackboard. It does NOT take that long to take roll with it. It is a spreadsheet. On day one of the semester, I take five minutes and create a column for each day of class, and then don't have to worry about it again (and if you're teaching the same classes, ideally they're on the same schedule and you can either merge the course or clone the course so you only do it once for all three). Then each day I just hit in 5,enter,0,enter,5,enter,5,enter,5,enter,0,enter (5 is fully present in my personal system, 0 is absent).

All the attendance columns get pushed to the bottom of the student's view (the right of the instructor's view) by using Grade Center -> Manage -> Column Organization.

For students to contact you, make it clear they must use a standard subject line that can be caught and filtered in your e-mail program into a specific e-mail excuse box. If I accidentally marked them as absent and they weren't, or if they had an excuse, they are instructed to e-mail me using a subject line CC'd to themselves that begins "Attendance:" and that gets filtered into an attendance folder for that semester (you may want them to also add in a section, if you don't have merged courses) where I can then deal with it. At the end of the semester, I have students verify that I properly tended to any necessary changes in attendance grades and then the one or two mistakes (if any) can be fixed then.

I regularly deal with 120 students a semester (4 sections x 30 students) and have had no problems with this set up.

Unless you have an attendance-specific module in Blackboard that provides the functionality you want, you are going to have problems finding anything that is FERPA-compliant or that is not going to be a giant PITA to use.

  • Thank you. Out of curiosity, do they remember to use the special subject line? – Ellen Spertus Jul 15 '15 at 15:45
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    @espertus For the most part, yeah. I tell them anything that doesn't follow it is filtered automatically into the trash (maybe when I'm an older grouchier academic, I'll actually have it do that...). If they don't and it flows into your normal mailbox, it's up to you whether you want to deal with it and manually move it to that mailbox since your syllabus would have told them otherwise or just trash it. – user0721090601 Jul 15 '15 at 18:40
  • I think I'll also ask them to cc their TA, whose responsibility it will be to update the Blackboard record from Disappeared to Acknowledged. – Ellen Spertus Jul 15 '15 at 19:59
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For a multi-section course with this many students, you really should make use of a Learning Management System (Blackboard in your case) for an online gradebook and attendance tracking system that allows students to see their grades and attendance records. My experience is with Canvas and Moodle rather than Blackboard, so I won't attempt to answer this question in detail, but I'm sure that Blackboard should be able to do this.

At another level, you'll need to record who actually shows up each day. You can enter the information by hand, or you might consider using an audience response system ("clicker") and have the students check themselves in. For large lecture courses this works very well.

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    A possible downside to using clickers for attendance: if a student who intends on being absent gives their clicker to a friend in the class and the friend checks them in. I don't know how problematic this is in practice, though. – Mad Jack Jul 14 '15 at 23:35
  • Thank you. We aren't using clickers, although we are using computers they have to sign in to, so I might be able to use those. Blackboard does not provide the desired functionality. – Ellen Spertus Jul 14 '15 at 23:42
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    @MadJack Some of my colleagues have caught students doing that. That's cheating, and with a sufficiently robust punishment (e.g. the threat of an F in the course) it's easy enough to stop. I've never had any problems with it in my classes. – Brian Borchers Jul 15 '15 at 0:10
  • @espertus you can simply make an assignment for each day "attend class" and then either award 0 points or 100 points depending on whether or not the student showed up that day. – Brian Borchers Jul 15 '15 at 0:11
  • I neglected to say that I don't consider entering data into Blackboard to a lightweight task. It's also ugly to create a column in the grades for each day. – Ellen Spertus Jul 15 '15 at 0:18
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Whether using clickers or a mere sign-in sheet, I typically give the class a few minutes (to allow for stragglers), and then at a convenient take-a-breath point, double-check the number of registered clickers/signatures against the number of heads actually present. If they don't match we have A Very Serious Situation that I will bring class to a halt to address (since they do, indeed, invariably believe it's No Big Deal to sign in for others). If necessary, ask those with clickers to hold them above their heads as they answer a trivial question, to confirm that no one is holding up two or more, and then check the record later to see which in-class remote was not triggered for that question. That person is, as Richelieu would say, TOAST.

(Alas, this is obviously impractical for auditorium-sized sections, in which the issue usually needs to be addressed the most often. In those, I augment the clickers with signature sheets every once in a while so that I can scan for identical handwriting on consecutive names. Not perfect, but a start.)

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    And what is stopping a cheater from showing his clicker with his right hand and holding the extra one on his left, under the table? – Davidmh May 12 '16 at 11:12
  • (For that matter. what prevents a cheater from implementing a clicker-spoofer app on their cell phone to simulate ten of their friends?) – JeffE May 12 '16 at 11:41
  • @Davidmh, I would do this only for the smaller classrooms, where I've got clear line of sight (<20 feet) to all students. In an auditorium, there would indeed be no point to trying it. (I'd also be asking them to keep their other hand on the desk, just in case, since oh yes they do indeed love to keep an extra smartphone concealed in the lap.) – thebishopofcalc May 12 '16 at 21:35
  • @JeffE, I am highly interested in the spoofing apps you described; any names to look into? To combat it, I would still rely on the head-count (again, why it'll never work in a large auditorium). Should I get 30 responses in a room of 20, I would immediately bring the class to a halt and pass around a roll sheet. Those not actually present have been revealed to have used a friend to "sign the roll" for them, in a class in which participation is a (tiny) part of the grade. Thus, they have just falsified the academic record of the class in order to achieve a higher grade. ACADEMIC FRAUD. – thebishopofcalc May 12 '16 at 21:44
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    Aha. Found one. – JeffE May 13 '16 at 2:42

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