When semester’s end looms it is not uncommon to see a larger number of empty seats in class. It is somewhat peeving for instructors to gaze out at such drops in attendance. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When teaching, there are a divers635805173401551124-1244368609_Empty-classroome array of factors that an instructor has to be aware of. On a class to class basis you have to be sure that you have the right amount of content, that you provide opportunities for active learning and that you build in factors to increase engagement. When it comes to more of the minutia of class management, an instructor also has to make a lot of decisions in advance about what the norms for appropriate classroom behavior will be. These can range from behaviors more directly related to learning and attention such as the use of laptops, texting, and attendance, to factors such as eating and talking to neighbors, which may not be as directly tied to attention.

Whether to require attendance or not has been long debated and studied and for the most part, evidence suggests that requiring attendance is a good thing (makes students less likely to skip and consequently more likely to learn more). A good practice is rewarding good attendance versus penalizing absence. There are some studies that suggest that the attendance requirement is not a significant factor in learning (Golding, 2011). Whether or not to require attendance provides a good example of where one needs to draw the line between student responsibility and accountability, and faculty responsibility.  Essentially, one can argue that given the student is paying tuition, they have the right to decide whether or not they want to come to class. Not only is it commonsense that missing class results in missing information and hence could result in lower grades, this association is also well supported empirically. Given the evidence an instructor would be remiss to not stress attendance.  Should attendance be required is a judgment call but it is exactly the type of call that resides on the edge of a large grey area.

What should students be entitled to do by virtue of paying tuition? What are they entitled to?  Are public school students entitled to less ‘behavioral say’ as they are paying a much smaller fraction of ‘actual tuition and college costs’ versus private school students? If there is evidence that a certain behavior (e.g., attending class) is tied to exam scores and learning does this suspend the student choice to attend when they feel like it?

Whereas the discussion of attendance may seem more straightforward, what about some other classroom behaviors? Students leaving class early, coming late, or exiting class midway to visit the bathroom or take a phone call can be disrupting to the classroom environment. But again, like attendance one could rightly argue they are all within the students’ range of free choice both as adults and as tuition payers.  Is there evidence that a classroom with more of this set of disruptions is more distracting and hurts learning? To what length should an instructor go to minimize such disruptions beyond general reminders to students to be courteous?

In many ways, this second set of behaviors seems to not be as consequential. In many ways, and similar to what a student skipping class could be taken to imply, behaviors such as leaving early can simply be seen to result from a student not giving education enough importance, not respecting the classroom environment, instructor effort, or their classmates, or just not being aware of the implications and potential consequences of their behaviors. Classroom incivilities can be a problem (see Frey Knepp, 2012). In the ‘real world’ there are situational protocols and courtesies and sometimes students may not be aware of those protocols and courtesies for the classroom.  Protocol violation in an office or work setting results in censure and one could argue that college is a good training ground for good behavior beyond the classroom.  Then of course there is the reality of multiple demands. Sometimes people DO have to leave early and DO have to visit the facilities.  If in every setting 1% of the sample have a pressing (no pun intended) need to leave, when you have 250 people, this means that in every class 2-3 people will have to go.

This could just be the small stuff, and although it is good to consider these minor disturbances and weigh options and possibilities, there are enough other things to worry about and focus on. Don’t sweat the small stuff.


Golding, J.M. (2011). The Role of Attendance in Lecture Classes: You Can Lead a Horse to Water. Teaching of Psychology, 38 (1), 40-42.



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