One of my favorite running (rather unscientific) experiments is attendance. For years I’ve tracked attendance in my classes, partially as a way to learn names and partially as a way to know who was and wasn’t showing up (so that I could tell them to start coming if they asked about how to do better in the class). And I believed that tracking attendance improved attendance. I even came up with a theory about it: tracking attendance sent the message that it was important to me, so they showed up.

I’m sad to say that this quarter has given me a new theory: students don’t read the syllabus so they don’t know that attendance doesn’t count. The new theory developed as a result of a student who shouldn’t be in any introductory programming course. He’s already taken many more advanced courses, so it’s doubtful that he’ll learn anything. But he had good reasons for needing another four credits, so he’s in my accelerated, intermediate Python class. And on the very first day of class he asked if attendance is required. I admitted that it’s not, although I did say that track it and believe it to be important. He hasn’t shown up since.

The impact of the public announcement has been swift and clear: three weeks into the quarter only 29% of my students still have perfect attendance. For contrast, last quarter in the same class at the same point, 48% of students had perfect attendance. If you don’t like me comparing across quarters, one year ago in the same class at the same point, 64% of students had perfect attendance. This is the worst attendance that I’ve had in any class in any quarter that I can remember since I started tracking attendance. Given that I teach this class every quarter and more or less the same way, the only difference I can find is the public statement on the first day that attendance doesn’t count for part of the grade.

Before you ask: no, I don’t want to make attendance mandatory. I dislike the idea, and I hate the logistics of having to deal with excuses. But I also feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea that I’m tricking them into showing up, which it would appear is what’s been happening. On the other hand, I do think that showing up is good for them. So even though I’ve come to believe that I’m relying on their ignorance to trick them into showing up, I’m likely to continue it. I just can’t decide if that makes me clever, awful, or both.