Zero compulsory attendance at universities

5 minute read

The university in which I studied offers the freedom of zero attendance (as of now). However, there was (and still is, among some) a major debate on the pros and cons of such a policy on the academic temperament of the students and their knowledge of the respective fields of study. I shall now lay down my personal views in favour of this policy.

Learning is by nature, an involuntary process. It logically follows that individuals learn differently. An educational environment, therefore must offer the utmost flexibility in order to cater to all. Flexibility must exist at all levels of granularity. Allowing the choice of what courses to complete is a good starting point. However, A common classroom lecture must be offered while keeping in mind that some individuals, while being capable and interested might chose to follow a slightly different pedagogy. A benchmark for the course may be a common evaluation scheme known to all.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that actions express priorities.In my opinion, life is a set of priorities and corresponding actions, which together define its milestones. An individual has the freedom to set his/her priorities and act on them. Some students therefore might not prioritize all courses equally. With the assumption of a certain amount of maturity of the student, it is reasonable to allow for this disparity without placing any bounds on it. The evaluation scheme of the courses is the right check for this. Furthermore, balance is far from productive, in terms of quantifiable outcomes. With a constraint on the time available, a focused student must always create some biases toward a set of activities. It is important to give such a student a fair chance to compete in all the courses irrespective of his/her effort, for it is (pragmatically) the effort that shall finally determine the outcome. This understanding eliminates the need for a constant intervention in the form of an attendance policy. The individual priorities could also be beyond the scope of the offered curriculum. Such ambition on the part of the student should not be discouraged. There exist many opportunities for students to move beyond the generic curriculum and develop unique skill sets. They could be in the form of domain specific competitions, collaborations with relevant firms, etc. These enhance the learning outcomes and allow the students to retain and refine their skills in order to better suit a working environment, rather than a classroom environment. Success in such projects comes from long hours of hard work. Hence, will inherently come at the cost of regularity in classroom learning. It would help to learn how to work under such time constraints. This makes it all the more important to give these students an incentive to manage their time, their way. An attendance policy conveys that there is no way such students will be able to compete with those attending classes regularly. This destroys whatever little desire the students might have, to push themselves and study the missed content.

Changing the standpoint here does not give different results. A professor will quite understandably be disappointed/demotivated in taking a course if the attendance is low. However, it is (I sincerely apologise if this is offensive to a professor) important to take this as a constructive feedback. Maybe the method of teaching could be modified. In some cases, it could also be that the course content is simple enough to be completed by the student with some regular reading. It might be a good idea to make the content more challenging while offering help (but not answers) in the lectures which would create a need to attend the lectures. This situation does have similarities with a free market in which there is a direct correlation between the demand and the price/opportunity cost, along with other factors. However, with this said, I am sure that many would agree that the joy of teaching lies in an engaged audience. Therefore, it makes sense to want to teach only those who are truly interested in the given course. An attendance policy contradicts this as well. I am sure more content will be delivered to a receptive and encouraging audience. Furthermore, it follows that a distracted audience with lack of interest and motivation will reduce the quality of content delivered for the entire batch. It is extremely important to note that the professor is not to blame here. Another consideration here could be that the sheer batch size today is a hindrance to the learning process and a healthy interaction with the professor. In making attendance optional, one ensures that the students sitting in the classroom do have the utmost eagerness to learn something new.

To conclude, I would mention that while it is important to have certain benchmarks before a student can be awarded a degree which certifies his ability to contribute to the community and take technical responsibilities that would affect millions of lives, it is all the more desirable to ensure that those benchmarks allow for individuality in the means to clear them. This enables the system to produce responsible risk takers built for a competitive market. A freedom given in the pedagogy is all the more reason to have a stringent and fair evaluation scheme that provides appropriate bottlenecks for performance. Once such a scheme is successfully implemented, the faculty should place their faith in it, and not try to overcompensate by using external means of control such as an attendance policy. In a nutshell, constraints should always define the outcomes and not the methodology in order for them to be deemed constructive. Furthermore, it is important to understand the learning process itself. It is by nature, intuitive. No external stimulus can ensure learning. It can only attempt to align the content with the intuition of a student and hope for the best. Therefore, one must make room for the possibility that this stimulus may work in different ways for different students. It is impossible therefore, to place constraints on the way the stimulus is given (for example, classroom lectures) but it is important to define/test the intuition that should signify the successful completion of the learning process for a specific concept. I shall end by quoting my grandfather (a professor emeritus of mathematics), “No one can teach, but everyone can learn”.