It seems that in higher education, some instructors either do not care at all whether students attend, and others care minimally (often resulting in a 1-5% attendance grade or tie-breaker rule).

However there are also many instructors who seem to feel very, very strongly about attendance, and take it upon themselves to enforce this in various ways.

For instance, I was shocked by a recent question claiming that 15% of the grade would be lost for missing 2 lectures - according to the question author, the class meets so frequently that this would constitute missing less than 3% of the lectures! While this seems like an extreme case, it seems like it's not uncommon to find professors who may deduct 10% or so for missing a small fraction of lectures.

Why are these professors so preoccupied with making students attend? If attendance is so crucial to doing well in the class, wouldn't the students who don't attend do poorly in the exams anyway? Why additionally punish those students who did not attend, but did well regardless?

  • 149
    Students who don't attend but still do well challenge the professor's EGO.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 1:44
  • 95
    @BenVoigt; As in my answer, I think a bigger problem is students who don't attend because they think they can still do well, but turn out to be mistaken. This challenges the institution's retention rate. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 3:32
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    "If attendance is so crucial to doing well in the class, wouldn't the students who don't attend do poorly in the exams anyway? " - Yes. And so an "attendance required" policy is at least mildly effective at reducing absences and increasing pass rates, which is something many instructors consider desirable. (Especially in e.g. the context of a community college, vs an elite institution.)
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 3:47
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    "Professors ego": totally off - I do not mind if students are away from my class, although I work hard to make it informative and interesting. However, I do mind if students complain about difficulty of material, bad marks, etc. and they haven't attended. They have been forgoing some essential component of the course, and it's someone's else fault? Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 8:44
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    @CaptainEmacs -- I don't even care too much about the bad marks and griping. I care more if the habitually absent show up to office hours asking for an explanation for something they would understand if they went to class. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:17

18 Answers 18


One theory is that it serves as additional motivation for students to attend class, which in turn helps increase their success in the course. It gives them a short-term incentive to do something which is hopefully also in their long-term best interest.

If attendance is so crucial to doing well in the class, wouldn't the students who don't attend do poorly in the exams anyway?

In many cases the instructor has found from experience that this is true. But the student (who has less experience) may not be as convinced.

Consider a student who wakes up in the morning and doesn't feel like going to class. In a class with no explicit attendance requirement, the student may rationalize: "I will just study harder tomorrow to learn the material that I missed, and I'll still be able to do well on the exam, so skipping class will have no consequences." But they overestimate their ability to do that, and end up not learning it as well. Or tomorrow they put off the studying until the next day, and so on, and fall behind. As an eventual result, they do not do well on the exam.

In a class with an attendance requirement, the student knows for sure that not attending class will have negative consequences. The biggest consequence (failing the exam) is very likely but not guaranteed, and the student may not be able to impartially evaluate just how likely it is. But loss of attendance points is guaranteed. So the student cannot pretend that skipping class is harmless. Thus the student is more likely to actually attend, which is in their long-term best interest anyway.

Hopefully, the ultimate result is that a higher percentage of students are able to meet the standards of the class. The flip side is that some students who have good attendance but poor performance otherwise may get better grades than they "deserve", but the instructor may feel that this tradeoff is justified.

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    @BenVoigt: If you say "always" then every student will know this is a lie. Obviously there are students who never attend and do fine on exams. If you say "usually" then it is quite possible that an improbable number of students will think they can be the exceptions. See the Dunning-Krueger effect. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 3:58
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    @BenVoigt: In my opinion, giving the option of using the final exam as the final course grade is a HUGE Dunning-Krueger trap. Students can say "I'm smart, why waste my time going to class? I'll just study in the last week and do great on the final, and then none of the other stuff I missed will matter." And more often than not, they'll be wrong. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 3:59
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    @BenVoigt: Your views differ from my experience in a number of respects. But ultimately this comment thread isn't the place for a thorough debate, and I am afraid we may just have to agree to disagree. Feel free to have the last word. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 4:22
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    It's hard for students to know how good your lectures are if they don't show up, though. :-) Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 11:29
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    @Luaan: It's a fair philosophical question: is the purpose of a university to deliver education only to those already strongly motivated to participate in it, or is it appropriate to encourage or gently coerce participation by students who might not do so on their own? I'll just say that in US academia, the rates of retention and timely graduation are generally viewed as an important measure of quality for an institution. Thus if a student doesn't pass a class, it reflects poorly on the student but also on the institution, program, and instructor. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 13:49

Let me start off by saying that it is very unlikely that attendance requirement is purely to protect the professor's ego, as one comment suggested. Any serious educator would understand that the goal of education is not so that the students become increasingly reliant upon the education system. Rather, the goal is to produce students that are increasingly independent, critical, and confident in their own reasoning. If I were a professor, I would be glad that the student can succeed without my help, rather than the other way around. To punish a student for being able to succeed without the help of lectures is simply contradictory to the goal of education.

With that being said, here are some more plausible reasons:

  1. The class is discussion based. This is quite straightforward: if you don't attend the class, then you do not learn. The in-class learning experience cannot be compensated by self-study, and exams may not be an ideal measure of such experience.
  2. The class meets very infrequently. There are certain classes that meet only once per week. Missing one class means missing a significant amount of work. A related example is science lab requirement. In my undergrad institute missing one lab (without advanced notice) means that you automatically fail the class.
  3. The lectures contain information not otherwise (easily) available. This is more relevant for higher-level classes, where there are no standard textbook and the way the professor teaches the material may be unique. The professor may want to make sure that students attend lectures to get the information they need.
  4. Culture. In some culture regular attendance is associated with deference to the system and/or the lecturer.

One finally note: contrary to what OP stated in the question, it is my personal experience (in the US) that very few professors would deduct a significant amount of points due to a lack of attendance. Instead the focus, if there is any, is usually on participation of class activity (which, of course, can only be fulfilled if you attend the class). What OP have described seems like rare exceptions rather than the rule.

  • 19
    Also to #1, if you don't come to class, you may be injuring your classmates' learning experience, so a punitive penalty is apt. In the extreme, consider a performance/studio class like theater, choir, or band, but the idea applies for foreign language as well and many courses that use flipped classroom instructional strategies. If only half the band shows up, what's the point of even having class? @Superbest at my undergrad, you could tell the difference. A, B, C, D, or F you attended. An FA (Failure due to absences — 2 weeks missed) you didn't attend. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 2:43
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    Is there a difference between "Stroking Someone's Ego" and "Deference"?
    – Aron
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 6:18
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    @Aron: there is a difference. Stroking someone's ego is purely personal to them, whereas deference acknowledges the standing of the university as a whole, by ostentatiously showing respect to its representatives, the faculty members. Showing deference usually has the effect of stroking the egos of those same people, but it additionally has a purpose to do with the whole institution (and perhaps wider structures/hierarchies: consult your local sociologist for details!). Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 10:28
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    @SteveJessop sounds like you are saying one is stroking your professor and the other is stroking a building. Other than that everything else seems to be window dressing.
    – Aron
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 10:34
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    @guifa: This may well be true in the cases you describe, but in many others the opposite is true: a student who does not want to attend the class, forced to attend it, might impair the learning (and teaching!) experience for everyone else, by being disruptive or otherwise just uninterested in the class.
    – tomasz
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 11:21

So here are some observations from my perspective: I teach at a large, urban, community college. We are open admissions (no starting prerequisites) and the students have many challenges (graduation rate 15-20% in the university at large; ~25% for our own college). I'm very much an outlier in that I'm one of the few faculty who don't want to be tracking attendance closely. I'm constantly trying to understand why other faculty are so adamant about this; and frankly I have yet to receive a super-coherent account of it. But some bits and pieces that I get at times:

  • Students may be so weak that they are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect; they have no idea how in trouble they are, or what it takes to remediate their weaknesses. Perhaps they are not in a position to make a rational choice about their academics, and at this point need some enforced guidance in that regard, esp. in a linked-knowledge STEM discipline. (To me, this is the strongest argument, the one that allows me to at least entertain the thought once in a while.)
  • There may be a legacy/cultural aspect; for example, at our school we are given paper rosters with calendars marked out on them for each class, with the direction to mark it a certain way for attendance every day. I've never seen a contractual/handbook requirement that we do this, but the paperwork says so, and they are required documents to be filed at the end of the semester.
  • There may be institutional reporting metrics at stake. For example, if a student misses 4 classes (course meets twice a week), then the college lets us drop them from the course, and my department quasi-mandates that we do so. I think part of the reason is that the student then counts as an "unannounced withdrawal", which makes our "failure" statistics look better (to very high-pressure stakeholders higher up in the university administration).
  • Some instructors may do this to make the course easier. I've heard at least once that an instructor in another department had, say, a 70% grade component based on attendance. That is: a student is not required to perform any work whatsoever; as long as they are physically present, they can pass the class (and thus relieve some amount of pressure on the instructor, I presume).
  • "Remember, the attendance rosters are legal documents. Years ago there was a student accused of a crime. They were proven innocent because of their being marked in class that day, which counted as an alibi." (I've heard this lore multiple times.)
  • "Attendance is important to reporting for financial aid; we must confirm that students are attending for certain financial aid requirements." (About 75% of our students get federal/state grants?)
  • "Don't you think attendance is important? Don't you want students to succeed?"
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    @TOOGAM: Hmm. When I've heard it, the implication has been at our institution (and also further back then those years?). To me it has the scent of urban myth. At any rate, it seems like a highly suspect/inefficient reason for documenting class attendance every day (i.e., taking time out of class to be parole-officers-in-waiting). Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 6:01
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    Any college granting 70%(!!) grade component based on attendance should instantly lose its accreditation. What was the name of that institution and department please? It's basically farming us the taxpayer and rewarding warm bodies with a pass for showing up. (Would it graduate a chicken which passed the course? if not, on what basis? I would enroll my chicken and appeal, just to prove the point.)
    – smci
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 6:14
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    @smci (I'm guessing your comment is based on the 4th bullet point, not my comment which provides such details.) Before jumping to that conclusion so quickly, I think it prudent to consider: what course is it? I remember taking some classes ("physical education", choir, maybe drama, maybe "college study skills" where key criteria involved things like in-class performance and demonstrations of positive attitude. I wouldn't want to blindly instantly remove accreditation for an entire college without knowing more details.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 6:30
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    @djechlin: I mean academically weak, as in "unskilled" and "incompetent" per the language of Dunning-Kruger's papers: link, link Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 16:14
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    @djechlin That's not some super technical term. If you perform poorly in an area, then you're weak in that area. There's nothing to criticize here.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:01

The following isn't a general answer, but it is one good reason for grading based on attendance in a wide variety of courses. There is extensive evidence that active learning is significantly better than lecturing, at the 95% confidence level, in essentially all STEM fields, as measured by success rate or normalized gain.

If you're doing active learning, you need your students to show up on time and prepared for class. It's not like a lecture. If you're lecturing, and a student slips in 20 minutes late and quietly sits down in the back of the room, that student is only hurting him/herself. If you're doing active learning, then the student is disrupting the whole process, and will likely need to be brought up to speed by their peers on what is going on.

There is a similar issue if you have students who have not been making any effort to keep up with the course. If you're doing active learning techniques, those students are holding back the rest of the class. For example, if you're doing think-pair-share, the student has nothing to contribute, so the "pair" part doesn't work at all.

So if you're doing active learning, you can't just make vague threats to your students that if they flake out, they'll fail the final.

Personally, I don't have an explicit attendance grade, but attendance is required, and the way I enforce that is by giving an easy 5-minute multiple-choice reading quiz at the beginning of every class. This is a technique advocated by Mazur, for use with flipped classroom techniques. It enforces the requirement that students actually do the reading before coming to class, which is a requirement for a flipped classroom to work.

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    I wish I could upvote this multiple times. In most of the classes I teach, students DO WORK IN CLASS, not uncommonly in groups. Sometimes there is no way to substitute individual work or homework (like, how does individually project managing even make sense?). So yeah, if you're not there you're not actually learning what I'm teaching.
    – D.Salo
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 0:14
  • Quibble: The "active learning" findings are not an either/or affair. The Freeman article points this out at the end: "Is more always better? Although the time devoted to active learning was highly variable in the studies analyzed here, ranging from just 10–15% of class time being devoted to clicker questions to lecture-free 'studio' environments, we were not able to evaluate the relationship between the intensity (or type) of active learning and student performance, due to lack of data..." Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 5:06
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    If you don't have an attendance grade, but just have in-class activities, then I don't think you're in the same situation the asker is asking about. You're grading actually doing something, participation, not attendance.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:05
  • I gave a flipped course (<10 students) last term without forced attendance. Without forced anything, really. I tried my best to engage the students in ways they would see help them, and make them come back. Attendance was high (aside from sickness and scheduling issues, I'm not aware of any missed sessions), the number of hand-ins low. The students performed between A+ and B+ so far. What I learned: if you offer something, they come. (In this case, the material was hard and the session the single point where they could get help.)
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:30
  • @Raphael: Interesting. Are you at a school with selective admissions?
    – user1482
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 23:58

Why are these professors so preoccupied with making students attend? If attendance is so crucial to doing well in the class, wouldn't the students who don't attend do poorly in the exams anyway?

I am an instructor who sometimes makes attendance or participation part of the grade. There are several reasons for this (many of which already appear in other answers). The main ones are:

  • I'm at a large state school where most of my students are under-prepared for the class academically (these are math classes and officially meeting the prereqs is very different from knowing the prereqs), and need all the instructional help they can get.

  • Most of the students are taking the class as a requirement, not because they want to be there. In addition, many of the students are not super responsible, and benefit from psychological incentives to attend class and keep up with the material. (The Dunning-Kruger effect is also a concern here.)

  • The material is cumulative so getting behind makes it harder to catch up, especially for weak students.

  • We face a lot of pressure from the university to ensure most students do not do poorly in their classes. In effect, we are blamed for not keeping our students on track. It's not a matter of, "it's the students' problem, not mine" if they don't pass.

  • The complete content of a 15-week course cannot be assessed in a few hours of exams throughout the semester. I want my students to learn and understand more than what's on the exams.

Why additionally punish those students who did not attend, but did well regardless?

The point is not to punish students who did not attend, but to motivate students to attend to give them opportunities to do well in class. In my experience, very few students who skip most classes do well on the exams. Personally, I don't usually make attendance worth a lot (except in classes where in-class work/discussion is a crucial part of the class) and I make my grading policy flexible, so I can bump people up for doing well on the final exam, say. This way, poor attendance, or doing poorly at the beginning of the course does not ruin the student's final grade.

  • In other words, your job is giving students tools, not tests - it's worth very little if they pass the tests but learn to use no new tools. That said, would you allow a student to be absent if he demonstrated sufficient skill in advance?
    – Luaan
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:01
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    @Luaan Probably---in practice, students don't ask. Anyway, my attendance policies are not so draconian as in the other question. Usually you get 1 attendance point per class, so missing a couple classes is no big deal. (OTOH, if the student knows everything in the class before hand, they are in the wrong class.)
    – Kimball
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:26
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    Great explanation. Dunning Kruger is recurrent theme here, and indeed, nobody would care about good students who can pass with excellent grades without attending. However, most think they can, while the reality is exactly the opposite.
    – xmp125a
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 15:14
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    Just my 2 cents from being a student at a CSU. I don't know what subject/level of classes you teach, but from my experience, the only classes I was ever required to go to for attendance were for GE's. And as a high performing student being forced to attend lecture was very annoying, as I really had no need to be there. Thus I would simply read, play games on my phone/computer, watch videos, or do homework for other classes at the back of the class. You can force me to be there, but don't expect me to like it, and if you try to force me to pay attention, don't expect that to go well.
    – Dragonrage
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 18:07
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    That last point doesn't get enough attention. Too many students -- and a surprising number of commentators on this site -- think passing an exam implies one has mastery of a subject. I really can't fathom how anyone who's experienced higher education can believe that.
    – user4512
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 1:56

Disclosure: I am a lecturer, and I do care about attendance, however I have only limited experience. I don't enforce attendance, because I don't have leverage to do so (at least not in a way that would not upset students to the point which will hurt my chances further career). But I would very like to follow the example of the professor you mention.

There are several reasons, why the lecturers care about the attendance.

1) Dunning-Kruger effect. Often many students, who are enrolled in a class, are totally unaware of difficulty of a course, appear at introductory class (which is usually less difficult) and start skipping others. Then they start getting a clue in the middle of the semester, when they appear at the lectures, and their only experience is that they do not understand anything (so, then they deduce, the lecturer has to be responsible, since they should understand anything and any time). Because of that experience, they then skip the rest of the lectures and get a blow when they are unable to solve a single task in an exam. Finally, more often than not, they still think that it is not their fault, and if the university grades their staff based on students' feedback, it really becomes a problem of a lecturer.

So, forcing them to start attending at the beginning of the semester may avoid this problem.

2) Insufficient support of the university for keeping the standards from sinking to the bottom. Nobody would care about Dunning Kruger, if a lecturer could flunk everyone who does not satisfy the minimum standard at the test. At many universities you probably cannot grade 80% of the class negative, and then expect to retain your position. Sad but true. It is probably worse in for-profit institutions. So if there is some minimum, yet unspoken target of how many students should be graded with positive grades, then a lecturer will try to ensure that at least this many actually attend the lectures and have chance to pass the exam, so the lecturer can fulfill HIS unofficial quota of how many students must pass.

Not much to do with ego, but a lot to do with experience. Really no problem for me if people do not attend and do well, but then it means that they did not need to take the class anyway.


One reason for requiring attendance is for international student visa eligibility.

In the United States, students on F-1 or M-1 student visas must maintain full-time student status in order to stay "in status", i.e. keep their visas valid. Note the emphasis below on attending classes, passing classes, and taking a full course of study (i.e. being a full-time student taking a normal semester's worth of credit hours).

While studying in the United States, both F and M students must:

  • Attend and pass all your classes. If school is too difficult, speak with your DSO [designated school official] immediately.
  • If you believe that you will be unable to complete your program by the end date listed on your Form I-20, talk with your DSO about requesting a possible program extension.
  • You must take a full course of study each term; if you cannot study full-time, contact your DSO immediately.
  • Do not drop a class without first speaking with your DSO.
  • 1
    In the UK, if the university takes on some responsibility to ensure they are in attendance, it is easier for them to sponsor students for their visa.
    – gsnedders
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 0:55
  • You can just sign their paper no matter whether they attended. (Which is technically not okay, but a common solution around bureaucratic BS.)
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:31
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    It's not usually wise to play games with la migra / State Department / Homeland Security bureaucracies in the US. They go after people who they think disrespect them.
    – O. Jones
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 11:32

Well, the simple correct answer is probably this: answers vary. There are multiple instructors, and with them there may be multiple reasons.

When I was a college instructor, I was told that the college had made certain promises about what the college would do, which included having students physically on the premises for a certain number of hours. Students who did not show up were hurting the percentages that the college needed to keep high in order to fulfill its obligations.

Edit: adding this paragraph, since I suspect this might not be easily implied by everyone. Checking attendance and following up with non-attenders, even of a single class session, may be an expected requirement of the job. For me, they were. Class sessions were 4+ hours long each, and instructors were even expected to try calling students' cell phones during the first class break, if they didn't attend. Different instructors, like many types of employees, had different levels of how much they may have fulfilled an individual requirement. Still, this simply demonstrates that "pressure from above"/administration may be one reason that may influence some instructors. Attendance was not directly graded (due to some government-related regulation), but there were requirements about how attendance would negatively impact grades under the category of class participation, and attendance could also affect the final grade by impacting additional grade percentages such as in-class quizzes. Some details may have been simply encouraged at some times, while being requirements at other times, and the simple way to be compliant was to just be strict (resulting in this being a significant requirement on students). Even in an institution that doesn't have as strictly enforced policies, there may still be requirements, or suggestions (which might be received as requirements), that might have influence on some instructors. (These influences may come from a certain college president, or department head.) Such influence might impact many years down the road, even after the instructor is no longer under the same supervisor.

Another reason is that students who don't show up are, well, not attending. This means that they are basically one step away from dropping out. (The only step away from being a drop out is not what they do, but how often they are doing it.)

Another reason is that a key purpose of the college education system is to provide the students with the preparation that they will be needing. As I've read this site, I've learned more and more that the precise goals may vary a bit between different institutions, particularly those that describe themselves as "research institutions" vs. those that describe themselves as "career preparation"/"technical colleges". Maybe some have some more philosophical/altruistic goals rather than corporate culture. Regardless, an element that is likely to be quite common is to want people to be successful in the organizations that they join after college. Most organizations do not want people to be failing to meet attendance requirements. If students can be exposed to a certain level of expected discipline, such as an official demand of attendance, that may result in certain character building that may serve them well after graduation.

Some argue that final exams would have their grades harmed by students who aren't learning, and so we can just rely on the final exams as a useful, accurate way of measuring knowledge. The counter-argument is that a student who skips classes may be a good test taker, and may effectively manage to demonstrate knowledge, while not managing to successfully demonstrate the discipline of needing to meet requirements other than just knowledge. Some employers don't treat the diploma only as a demonstration of accumulated knowledge and understanding of related principles. Instead, they treat the diploma as a demonstration of students being able to meet whatever requirements were placed on the student, which may involve some life skills (like scheduling) and not just accumulating certain pieces of "head knowledge". The educational institutions (or individual faculty members within educational institutions) may be choosing to cooperate with such methods.

Again, I refer back to my initial paragraph. These are simply some reasons, and one or more of them might be part or all of the reasoning that gets used by some instructors, while other instructors may have their own different reasons. So consider these various arguments as just being a sample, and not as the single clear-cut absolutely-right universal answer that everyone, everywhere, is actually using.


Particularly in the early years of university, students are overwhelmed by the freedom of university compared to high school. They can be late, skip classes, even miss the odd assignment, and nobody will take them aside and scold them for it. On top of that, there are parties somewhere every day, and a wealth of social events.

Many people who were A students in high school get overwhelmed by the change in university, and end up not succeeding.

Some professors want to ease this transition, by taking away an element of choice, or at least reminding students that there's a reason to go to class, even if it's not mandatory.

Sure, there are students who will succeed without going to class, and students who will fail even if they do go to class. But many professors weigh this, and see it as worthwhile to "waste" class on these people, which has really very little harm, if it results in others succeeding where they otherwise would not.

At the end of the day, it is very unlikely that someone will fail because they attended class, but far more likely they will fail because they did not.

  • 1
    "which has really very little harm" -- actively wasting time of your best students, maybe even annoying them to the point of disliking the material is "little harm"? I disagree.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:32
  • @Raphael It's not a waste of their time. Even the best students will still learn in class. Furthermore, in an active learning environment, they will be able to help others learn, which is a win for everyone. The strong student will get stronger by answering questions from others, and finding different ways of explaining the same concept. Plus, sometimes the way material is presented in class is not the same as the book, and the strong student who misses class would have no idea how to fill in that resulting gap in knowledge. Commented Mar 23 at 0:44

I see a lot of answers here about ensuring that students don't fail, that professors are adhering to university strictures, or that professors don't want to be inundated with idiotic questions from students who skipped class and then ask basic questions that were covered. All of those have merit and may be true, but they are not the reason that I assign a high proportion of my course grade to attendance and participation.

I am an assistant professor at an R1 in the USA. I teach political science. Attendance and participation are weighted very heavily in my class because one of the core skills I focus on teaching is critical thinking. I don't give tests or quizzes. Rather, students are graded on their in-class participation (which demonstrates mastery of the assigned readings and the ability to engage the ideas in those readings) and several written assignments designed to prepare students for policy-oriented jobs "in the real world."

Moreover, while I understand that some people view college courses as simply a means to an end, that is neither my philosophy in teaching nor my goal in providing a class. To my view, class meetings are precisely when the real learning and work gets done. I organize my class so that midterm and final written assignments are an application of the knowledge and skills we covered in class. It is the exchange of ideas in real-time between students and professor that I care about the most. A student who wants to simply write some assignments and submit them without coming to my class misunderstands completely the purpose of my class.

When people treat class attendance as a nuisance, they overlook the important epistemological benefits of being in a classroom setting where questions can be asked in real-time and students can challenge one another and the professor. There's a dynamic element that is lost. This may be different in other fields - I wouldn't know.

  • How do you grade in-class participation when university classes often have hundreds of students in them? Do you just mark tutorial/practical participation, since they're smaller classes of 20-30 students?
    – nick012000
    Commented Apr 20, 2021 at 0:10

I'm surprised no-one went for the "pedagogic high ground" answer: that in some cases, the published intended learning outcomes, either at institutional, programme, or module level, include one or more outcomes for which an attendance check is a valid (albeit perhaps incomplete) assessment. For example, there are a bunch of institutions where the institutional learning outcomes include being punctual; and any engineering programme whose programme learning outcomes are based on the UK-SPEC Chartered Engineer Standard will include among them something like "Reinforce team commitment to professional standards" and something like "Create, maintain and enhance productive working relationships".


I used to be an assistant professor, and occasionally would have an attendance requirement. The reasons for having such a requirement are as follow:

  1. Students whose attendance is paid for by the military must attend lectures.
  2. Student athletes must attend lectures to maintain their eligibility, and if applicable scholarships.
  3. In full courses, students who don't attend are dropped so students who can attend may join the course.
  4. The course has a heavy group-work or active component that requires the student to be present. In such a course, a student who chooses not to attend may hurt the educational outcomes of their classmates.
  5. In some cases the student may not be prepared to take the course, for whatever reason, and should drop as soon as possible. If I track their attendance I may have been able to suggest to them that they should drop in time to get at least a partial tuition refund.

Students who do not come to class, for whatever reason, have poorer educational outcomes on average than students who do come to class. Frankly, it's in the interest of a student to come to the class they've paid for.

On a strictly personal note, I don't care to be a convenient excuse. Students who habitually skip class tend to blame their instructors for poor grades, even though their grades are poorer in large part because they pissed away the opportunity that they, or someone else, paid for.

  • 1
    Regarding 1 (and 2 which is very similar): Doesn't the military have a better way of tracking that, other than hoping a professor will decide to take attendance? Or do you mean that it is specifically the military that compels you (through university management) to have the attendance policy? In that case, do they ask you to track attendance only for the military students, or did the university reach "everyone has to attend" as a compromise to avoid special treatment for them?
    – Superbest
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 2:50
  • 1
    @Superbest When I was teaching I was routinely queried about military and athletic students. However, in the interest of fair handed treatment I treated all my students the same where reasonable. Depending on the school, and in some cases, the state attendance tracking may be mandatory. There are also issues for public institutions wanting to be sure that the resources they expend on higher education are well spent. In answer to your question, the military demands that the university track attendance through some sort of process that demands the instructor take attendance. Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 3:00
  • That's interesting know, I didn't think they were strict about that. Thanks for the explanation!
    – Superbest
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 3:23
  • 1
    You give valid reasons for tracking attendance and reacting with reporting resp. reorganizations to absent students. However, I fail to see how they support making attendance mandatory for passing.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:36
  • At the end of the day if students do poorly, it comes back on the instructor. The fact of the matter is that the average student who shows derives greater benefit from the course. Since the instructor's job is to help the students learn, getting the students to class is part of it. Making it beneficial in a grade sense to attend may motivate people to get to class. Finally, some states require attendance to be part of the grading scheme since the state expects the people benefitting from tax dollars to actually go to class. Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 15:07

In Poland, almost 90% professors I've met required attendance on their class (only 2 lectures can be missed and only with good excuse).

I think the main reason behind this behavior was that they often presented expanded material (that wasn't included on the slides or docs) which was required on exams. Some of the professors doesn't provide any materials at all, so without own notes (or copies from others) You just don't have any sources of knowledge to learn from.

Very often lecture topics was really difficult and there was even no sources to learn from in the Internet.

  • 2
    You give a good reason why forced attendance is unnecessary as long as you make the facts clear from the start.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:32

Some instructors do actually care very much about attendance. Others may seem to, but I don't know that they have a personal belief in the importance of attendance as much as they intend to follow the rules set by various college administrators.

While the following too-long story is very much anecdotal, I would like to suggest with the moral to this story that while many instructors are "preoccupied with making students attend," they do not themselves "feel very, very strongly about attendance" despite presenting a front that suggests that they do feel this way. With so many good answers already I'd normally just pass this question by, and this approach is somewhat strange I admit (downvote bait?), but this issue has some personal importance to me.

When I began co-teaching as a graduate student, our English department had a rule that missing more than three classes would result in automatic failure in that class. The English department was the only department with this rule in place from what I understand.

I had studied English as an undergraduate student at the same university, and the rule had been explained to me in every English course I had, at least on the syllabus and often vociferously by the instructor. I missed more than three classes a few times, and would receive warnings, and wouldn't miss any more, but also wouldn't get kicked.

One of the two professors that I "co-taught" under, who showed me the ropes in the beginning, was new to the university and the policy, and I always thought that he was somewhat iron-fisted due to the fact that he failed several students for missing a 4th day. It bothered me, but I didn't say anything at the time because I had a rather cowardly mortal terror of any direct superior at that point in my life and had been warned by professors as an undergrad that one is very much supposed to enforce the three-absences-or-less attendance rule.

The next semester, as I began teaching on my own, we ran into each other and he said:

Why didn't you tell me that nobody actually enforces the attendance rule?!

When he was enforcing the rule in the presence of the violators he seemed adamant, even angry, and he seemed to think he was justified in enforcing it; he acted the part of the stereotypical lawful-good paladin, not sadistic but self-righteous. I thought that he actually felt "very, very strongly about attendance" as you put it.

He didn't; he was just enforcing policies put in place by administrators who didn't care about the life-wrecking consequences of policies they themselves wouldn't have to explain face-to-face, who hadn't even made exceptions for classes that met three times a week vs. two. And he did so with an expression on his face that brooked no argument, but apparently not because he was actually angry; it was a stony, defensive expression, expecting hostility and confrontation.

I taught my final two semesters on my own, and I didn't bother anyone about attendance, ever, and aside from a few students who failed themselves out of college through other means everyone kept showing up, even without the threat of the giant stick of doom.

  • A. Some profs are evaluated by their management by student performance. Non-attendance is not good for performance.
  • B.1. Most all profs are rightly annoyed by students who ask questions about topics covered in the missed class. This wastes the prof's as well as the other students' time.
  • B.2. as in B.1, but during the prof's office hours. It wastes the prof's time as well as other students waiting outside the prof's office. 15% seems a bit severe, but whatever it takes to get recalcitrant students to put on some clothes to get to class...

At least here in Switzerland there's one more reason (nobody mentioned yet...). The attendance is part of the credits you get for the course. Each point equals roughly 30 hours of work. Some courses have only small exams, then the actual attendance is an important part of these 30 hours. If you don't show up, you didn't do the work expected for that certain number of credit points.

However, I don't care that much as a TA here. Only people regularly being absent are reported. Generally I think they're old enough to know, how to pass their exams.

  • This either begs the question or has been covered a lot already, depending on how you look at it.
    – user18072
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:11
  • Being there is not per se work (on that course), so this thinking is clearly broken. (Their fault, of course, not yours.)
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:34
  • @Raphael : I would rather contradict here: You are supposed to be working along like asking questions, discussing, taking notes, etc. Some courses are even evaluated based on your notes (by e.g. writing a journal about what you learnt there). Attending a class is work in my eyes. Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 10:44
  • You're supposed to, yes. In any case, workload by credit represents all kinds of work, some of them attendance and some of them not. Checking some parts and not others is weird. In the end, the credits say, "this student passed that course which we think takes the average student so many hours to pass with an average grade" (at least that's the EU definition) but not "this student spend this many hours on that topic".
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 10:48
  • @Raphael : That's absolutely correct. I was always a student who had a very easy time learning my material. So in average I probably worked less than 15 hours for 1 credit (sometimes far less than that) while others had a really hard time making it at all. But the theoretical background is: The attendance is part of the workload for the credits, so you simply have to be there to get those credits. Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 10:51

Honestly, it's just about making our lives easier. If you never come to class, we expect you'll eventually have a panicking moment where you realize you're far behind, and you need personal help from us to get back on track. Everyone can avoid this unfortunate situation if we just make attendance mandatory. On the other hand, actually keeping track of attendance is a huge hassle, so some of us would prefer not to manage all that. I personally don't take attendance, but I do feel sad when students don't attend. I just don't feel it's my place to police and penalize adult behavior.


My experience is mostly in mathematics, where there often aren't (even at the undergrad level) regular problem sets or exams. Professors want some indication that a student has covered and understood the material, and classroom attendance is a decent proxy for it. I've never run into a math or science class (as opposed to humanities ones as an undergrad) that formally had an attendance component, but it's not like students could skip literally every lecture and still expect an A. I've seen professors try other method of grading with varying degrees of success: having students rotate in writing up and distributing notes to the class, having students do a bit of research and give a brief presentation at the end of the class on a related topic, etc. After a point, though, students are assumed to be there because they want to be there, and they're responsible for handling their own education.

That having been said, as a student, I never found classroom lectures particularly helpful. (I'm distinguishing ordinary lecture-based classes room things like colloquia or random topics classes, which don't have textbooks and are designed to be more participatory). I learned better from textbooks or papers, rarely had questions to ask the professor during the classes themselves (whether because I had more involved questions to ask over email or because I could work out the answer myself), and didn't enjoy the classes (as opposed to the material in them).

  • 5
    My experience is mostly in mathematics, where there often aren't (even at the undergrad level) regular problem sets or exams. Really? That's very different from my experience in the US. What country are you in?
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 15:24
  • @BenCrowell: Also in the US. Your profile lists your area of expertise as nuclear physics. I'm not a physicist myself, but the physics I has studied (mostly high-energy particle physics) did have regular problem sets at every level, for whatever that's worth.
    – anomaly
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 15:34
  • 6
    Your experience is definitely... anomalous. I've never heard of that situation (no regular problem sets or exams) in any U.S. undergraduate math program. Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 16:18
  • " indication that a student has covered and understood the material, and classroom attendance is a decent proxy for it" -- not at all! Being there and doing something completely unrelated to the course is incredibly common. If you want to test coverage and understanding, you have to explicitly test for that.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 5:37

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