To attend class or not to attend? That is the question.

Does attendance in class lead to better grades?  The findings may surprise you.
Does attendance in class lead to better grades? The findings may surprise you.

Having been an adjunct college professor at a large university I have an implicit notion that there is a positive relationship between class attendance and grades.  However, there are problems with my own implicit reckoning such as the well known confirmatory bias (noticing only what I expect to occur).  For example, I immediately have a very vivid recollection of a student in a class that I was teaching who never attended the course except for the final exam.  She bombed miserably on the test; however, if I am honest I can also think of several students who did not attend the same class on a regular basis and obtained B grades or higher. 

Of course in classes where class attendance is taken and directly contributes to the final grade we would expect to find a strong relationship between grades and class attendance.  As it turns out in these types of classes the absence rates tend to be significantly lower and overall grade fluctuations due to attendance are not all that significant (Levine, 1992).  So believe it or not, when class attendance is part of the grading system of a course attendance does not contribute significantly to the final grade in that class.  But many college courses do not require attendance.  I overheard a couple of students discussing missing classes recently in a coffee shop I frequent, and thought that it might be interesting to investigate the empirical findings on class attendance and grades.   

In one of the early studies concerning the relationship between grades and attendance Schmidt (1983) found that the most valuable learning time was spent on the activities of the class itself such as class lectures, classroom discussions, and studying outside of class to directly prepare for the class itself, whereas time studying for exams was not a statistically significant determinant affecting student performance.  The results suggested that the most important learning in a course occurs in the classroom and students who spend all the available time in class should do better than students who skip classes and just study for exams.  There have been several studies that support the notion that class attendance and grades are positively related.  For instance, Park and Kerr (1990) found a statistically significant relationship between attendance and grades as did Gump (2005). 

However, surprisingly not all research is supportive of this relationship and there is ample evidence to suggest a weaker relationship between class attendance and grades.  For example, Hammen and Kelland (1994) found only a modest relationship between class attendance and grades for students in a college physiology course and Michaels and Edwards (1989) found that both attendance and study habits were significantly related to grades, but neither one was a significant contributor to grades when considered separately. 

A number of other factors contribute to a grade in a course including class size (smaller classes have higher attendance), the level of the course (higher level courses have both higher attendance rates and higher overall grades), the instructor, and student motivation (which may affect both attendance and study habits).  Regular attendance in certain types of courses can work in the favor of the student by making them familiar (or unfamiliar) to the instructor (and vice versa).  In a class that uses subjective testing methods (papers or written test answers as opposed to multiple choice questions) this familiarity could potentially affect a student’s grade.  In addition, classes that are have high mathematical components tend to have higher attendance rates and higher overall grades.  This also appears to be true of many of the courses in the hard sciences, especially in lab sections.  Classes that test primary on material covered in lecture will demonstrate a stronger relationship between attendance and grades, whereas courses like physiology that can also be primarily learned from a text will demonstrate a weaker relationship (see Levine, 1992).

The bottom line is that students that regularly miss classes are at a higher risk of getting poorer grades, a finding that should be of no surprise.  The bulk of research supports this concept and it also seems self-evident; however, class attendance does not guarantee a good grade (although many students think that it should) and the relationship between class attendance and grades is dependent on a number of other variables.  In addition, if the lectures are not offering students something that they cannot get anywhere else, then the lectures serve no real purpose.  Students are able to sense this very early in the course and will then often find other ways to occupy their time as opposed to attending class.  The function of the lectures should be to clarify the material associated with a specific course and to add to material in assigned readings.  Learning is a process in which students engage on multiple levels and class lectures only comprise one level.  Attending lectures does not necessarily guarantee a good grade in a course, but not attending can contribute to poorer grades. 

To attend class or not to attend class?  Opt for attendance.     

References

Gump, S. E.  (2005). The cost of cutting class: Attendance as a predictor of success.  College Teaching, 53, (1), 21-26. 

Hammen C.S. and Kelland J. L.  (1994).  Attendance and grades in a human physiology course.  American Journal of Physiology, 267, (6), 105-108.

Levine, J.  (1992). The effect of different attendance policies on student attendance and achievement, paper presented at Eastern Psychological Association.

Park, K. H. and Kerr, P. M. (1990).  Determinants of academic performance: A multinomial logit approach.  The Journal of Economic Education, 21, (2), 101-111.

Schmidt, R. M. (1983).  Who maximizes what? A study in student time allocation.  American Economic Review, 73, (2), 23-28.

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