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Unexcused: Class Attendance Policies at UNH

Why are class attendance policies the way they are? Let’s take a deep dive into the policies here at UNH, and the why behind them.
Thompson Hall (T-Hall) at the center of the University of New Hampshire campus.

With the year finally in full swing and flu (and COVID) season creeping up, attendance policies inside the classroom have become an important subject as people start to get the sniffles. Since the end of COVID regulations, these policies are back to full strength. But how do the students feel about this?

Alexis Efstratiou, a second-year musical theater major at UNH, said that the strictest policy she has encountered is in her dance classes, where students can miss two classes before points are taken off of their grade. However, she finds that the professors in her classes are much more lenient than stories she hears from people in other majors.

“I do often hear complaints about attendance policies from other students, like my STEM major roommate,” said Efstratiou. “They say some professors are just too strict.”

While Efastratiou sympathizes with her classmates who experience more intense class attendance policies, she does understand why some professors have these rules in place.

“I’m sure these policies are in place to crack down on students who skip just because,” she said.

Caitlin Veneto, a senior bioengineering major, said this year she has been lucky enough to have professors with very lenient policies, compared to past years that she has experienced. For her classes this semester, Veneto explained that students must simply email their professors if they’ll be missing.

Compared to this light policy, Veneto said that many of her other classes, during and after COVID, had much stricter ones.

“I was previously in classes where attendance every single day was graded and the teacher was not very understanding if you were absent,” said Veneto.

She extrapolated on her fellow classmates’ reactions, saying that there were a lot who complained about these strict policies amongst themselves, but never to the professors. Many students, Veneto shared, say that professors can be unfair and that students shouldn’t be so heavily penalized for missing classes.

While Veneto admits annoyance with some of the stricter class attendance policies, she did say that she understands why they are in place and views most as fair, as long as professors are understanding of unforeseen circumstances.

Class attendance policies clearly vary throughout courses and majors at UNH, and students have a range of reactions from understanding to irritation with the rules inside of the classroom.

But why exactly are these policies in place? 

According to Michael Blackman, UNH’s Dean of Students, what currently exists as UNH’s broad policies on attendance have been in place for years.

“I keep copies of our student policies dating as far back as 1999. Although the attendance policies have changed over the (prior) years, the policies now were in place in the oldest policies that I have on record,” said Blackman.

As for what exactly these current policies are, the information is readily available under the Academic Policies and Procedures tab on UNH’s catalog website.

This information details a campus wide flexibility that allows professors to choose their own personal attendance policies within reason. Some good reasons for missing class, as stated by UNH, are ill health, participation in official intercollegiate events, personal emergencies, instructional trips, jury duty, required military service and important religious holidays. Officially, UNH does not have in itself a mandatory class attendance policy, and professors are expected to be reasonable when making their own personal classroom rules.

Many studies have been done on this topic, including ones that research the effect of mandatory class attendance. 

Marcus Credé, Sylvia G. Roch and Urszula M. Kieszczynka of the University of New York at Albany analyzed the relationship between attendance and performance, as well as mandatory attendance policies and average grades in a study entitled ‘Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship of Class Attendance With Grades and Student Characteristics”. 

They found that attendance correlated ‘strongly’ with class performances, and that an analysis of other studies showed that there was “ a small increase in average grades associated with a mandatory attendance policy.

Another study from the University of Utah, delved more into the impact of mandatory attendance policies on students and came up with different conclusions.

When the University of Utah’s Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine (SFESOM)  introduced a mandatory class attendance policy in 2010 in order to answer the concerns of their faculty, they expected the results to be net positive. However, they very quickly learned that instituting this policy would not yield the results they expected.

They published a study about this negative effect in the National Library of Medicine, titled ‘Learning from failure: how eliminating required attendance sparked the beginning of a medical school transformation’. In this study they reported that from 2010–2016, student dissatisfaction rose and that “students reported anxiety over the lack of flexibility and resentment for being treated like children.” Students were physically in place but mentally more disengaged than before. Some students would present themselves for roll call then leave (causing significant disruption), or devise ways to get around electronic attendance tracking methods.

This, the University of Utah’s SFESOM said, “generated student concerns over deteriorating professional behavior and dishonesty among their cohort” and destroyed trust between students and faculty.

The available records about UNH’s attendance policy dates back to only 1999, and also only tells university-wide rules, not individual professors. However, the alumni who experienced these policies can provide another perspective.

Kris Stepenuk, a graduate of UNH’s class of 1995, believes that it’s fair for attendance to vary from class to class.

“I think for labs we needed to be there since we got graded on class work,” said Stepenuk. “In lecture classes I don’t recall attendance ever being taken.”

On the flipside, Jenn Salmon of UNH’s class of 1996, echoed some similar policies to what some students experience now. 

“I think the most we could miss was two or three (classes) per semester,” said Salmon, “I’m not sure they would penalize you, but you would have to make up work.”

Modern glimpses into how teachers run their classroom are easily accessible online, through places like UNH’s Scholars Repository, under the syllabus section and on parts of UNH’s site that offer example syllabi.

A Social Work 851 from spring of 2022 dictates that “more than two unexcused absences from a class or part of a class may result in the lowering of the grade.”

Alternatively though, an Economics 402 syllabus made for the fall 2020 semester explicitly stated that no attendance would ever be taken. Students would not be penalized for not showing up, though this might have been a reflection of the worldwide pandemic that was ongoing at the time.

Another source of information for the modern day policies in the classroom are the professors themselves.

Dr. Leslie Curren, a lecturer for animal behavior, conservation behavior, behavioral ecology and introductory biology, has been working at UNH since 2012 and says her class attendance policies differ wildly from each other and reflect the requirements for each class.

Some classes, Dr. Curren said, are lecture based and don’t exactly need constant attendance (although she greatly encourages it) while others are smaller and discussion based, which means students absolutely need to be there to learn.

One class’s policies that she delved into was her animal behavior class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where she does not take a formal attendance but instead has in-class work Tuesday that is only possible to complete if in attendance. Thursday, attendance is not taken, and class work is not given to students.

In order to give some flexibility to students who may be unlucky and have to miss a Tuesday class, Dr. Curren allows for one sick day, where the work an absent student does not complete is graded to their average grade across the other assignments, as well as a drop, where the lowest graded work is taken out of the final grade.

“I do that so if you get sick you are neither punished nor rewarded,” said Dr. Curren. “Instructors think a lot about their policies and how to deploy them in a way that’s fair – not just to sick people, but to everyone. We try to find that balance between being accommodating, but not so accommodating that there are basically no rules.”

Dr. Curren also stated that even though Thursdays are a no attendance or work day for her animal behavior classes, about 75-80% of her students show up and are very engaged.

Lucy Gilson, the dean of Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, said that in general Paul does not have mandatory attendance policies. She believes they are not needed because students are eager to be in the classroom, especially after the global pandemic that kept everyone at home.

“What we are finding is that student attendance is very high. Walking around our building our classes are filled,” she said, with a smile. “We have some classes where they stream everything online, yet they still have 100% in person attendance rates.”

Gilson believes that since the pandemic, students have realized that learning happens best inside the classroom.

However, both Gilson and Dr. Curren do believe student attendance is very necessary to proper learning and achieving a high GPA, and Dr. Curren stated that attendance rate “absolutely” has an impact on GPA. 

All of this information begs the question, what exactly do mandatory class attendance policies do in the long run? Multiple studies show that high attendance has a positive effect on GPA and performance, but others say that having attendance be required creates a lack of trust between teachers and students, as shown at SFESOM.

Are they even necessary with classes of students regularly showing up even when not required to, as said by Dean Gilson and Dr. Curren? 

The only conclusions that can be drawn are that class attendance policies are complicated, every professor has different rules for different reasons and every student has varying degrees of reactions to said rules. While these policies can have both negative and positive impacts, ultimately it is up to the professor to make these decisions on policies themselves, just as it is up to students to either follow the policies or face the consequences.

Still, it’s something to think about. 

For more information about UNH’s policies, you can visit Dean Michael Blackman’s website here or research further into UNH’s student handbook.

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Stefanie Kistler, Staff Writer

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