Attendance is voluntary in many college classes, primarily because of the difficulty in taking attendance on a regular basis, but also because of the view that students should have some autonomy in determining the manner in which they engage with academic material. Mandatory attendance policy becomes more of an issue, however, where there is a 'professional' element to a programme. In nursing, for example, there is a high minimum attendance stipulated by the Irish Nursing Board (2005): students must attend 80% of a minimum of 1,533 hours.
There may also be outcomes other than academic achievement which have an important relationship with students’ lecture attendance. A recent report from the institutional research office at UCD has recommended that mandatory attendance policy could be one mechanism to reduce student drop-out (Blaney and Mulkeen, 2009): 'Student Retention in a Modular World - A Study of Retention of UCD Entrants: 1999-2007'. In addition, I recently mentioned on the blog that Irish colleges may soon be offered financial 'incentives' to meet targets in areas such as the retention of students and the rate of course completion. "If they fail to meet these targets, they will face financial penalties." So there are plenty of reasons to care about students' attendance.
There is much debate on what incentives or penalties are appropriate in relation to mandatory attendance policies. This is because penalising students for not showing up can be seen as double jeopardy: they would be punished by lower test scores in addition to a lower attendance score. While some instructors may dislike mandatory attendance policies because they can be a lot of work to enforce, there are recent technological advances such as “dibbers” (used at the Lancaster University geography department) or “clickers” (Hoekstra, 2008) which substantially ease the burden of collecting attendance data. Smart-card technology is available explicitly for the use of measuring student attendance; the TDS Student Attendance Monitoring Solution is currently being used at DCU. There are even new electronic systems which are being used to detect the ID cards students are carrying as they enter classrooms at Arizona University.
A backlash to all of this emerged this year in the Guardian newspaper, with the predictable question being posed: Is this new development necessary documentation or 'Orwellian' surveillance? One comment reads: "Why should the university care whether students attend a lecture or not? By the time a student reaches the university, they should be responsible for their own schedule and actions. Seems to me to be a technological solution to a non-problem." Analogies can be drawn here with the libertarian paternalism debates in public behavioural economics. Liam went through these recently on the blog. Keeping retention and graduation rates high is a major priority for many universities, but are the measures described above too extreme?