Public Displays of Attendance

For the past year or so I have taken attendance in the face-to-face classes I teach by LED-projecting a Google Docs Spreadsheet into which I enter ‘x’ for present and ‘1’ for absent. The absences tabulate (i.e., it is a spreadsheet with wizardly formulas coursing through it: equations, maths of consequence, etc.), and everybody in the room can observe this act of record-keeping. Within the class, it is public: the record of who is present and who is absent is transparently kept, obvious. It’s rather like attendance crowd-sourcing in that the crowd is the source of the record; being in the room creates the account.

When we (me+ENGL328ers) were observed a week or so ago, the question came up again: What if somebody doesn’t want the record put on display? And the only answer I know relates to the option I offer on the first day of class. You can opt out. A student must let me know their wishes, and I will keep their attendance stealthily and in a secret ledger.

Among the positives, this practice helps me learn everyone’s names by the end of the third week of classes. It also reduces the number of conversations that start “but I was present that day”–conversations that leverage a teacher’s likely forgetting and that all the more likely when record keeping is hazy or erratic. With the projection method, students know attendance is logged during the first minute of class, so they show up on time, or, when they are late, they know they must check in with me at the end of the class session to make sure I have an ‘x’ rather than a ‘1’ next to their name.

The observation I took two weeks ago was exceedingly positive, so I don’t want to make this too much of a direct response to the question that arose in its follow-up conversation. It has come up in other moments: To what extent does this practice tread on student privacy? And are absences even private, really? Anyone in the class, after all, could keep track of who is there, who isn’t, and who arrives late, provided they knew names.

I suppose it is clear by my continuation of this practice that I understand attendance to be class-public. I wouldn’t put the record on display outside of the classroom (e.g., posting it as a web site or a public Google Doc), but I find the opt-out option to be a reasonable solution and a passable justification for continuing the practice. Without sounding too much like ProfHacker, I suppose I’m blogging all of this toward the invitation for input: What am I forgetting? Overlooking? And, How do you keep everyone up on a running attendance record?


  1. In legal terms I think the privacy issue is largely misunderstood. Your practice may be unorthodox, but that’s all. I don’t think you need to let students opt-out. I don’t really see how it’s different from calling roll, except that the history is visible. If anything I’d consider not showing the history. You could use a form in Google to do it that way. How do your students react to it? Has it reduced absence?

  2. I give them the opt-out option because there are a few rare cases in which attendance patterns could reflect something the student wants to keep on the down-low, e.g., treatment for serious illness, tending to a sick or dying parent, etc. This does not come up often, but there have been times before I arrived at EMU when I adapted the attendance policy because it was the right thing to do. That said, since I have been at EMU, nobody has opted out.

    I can change the color of specific rows and columns to obscure the record. I block out the cumulative record, and maybe there is something to be said for blocking out the record beyond one week. I do find some value in students being able to see the recent record when they return to class after an absence.

    It’s difficult to say whether this approach has reduced absence. I don’t have enough data as a basis for comparison. But students seem to think it is reasonable, and a few have told me they like it much better than slower roll-calls because it does not take long but is on display long enough for them to remember that I’m paying attention to attendance.

Comments are closed.