Attending to Attendance

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Tobias Smith, Jurisprudence and Social Policy

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

Showing up is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in many places in life, including the classroom. One of the first issues a new GSI faces is managing attendance in section. In order to learn, our students must attend, but also be attentive; be present, but also present their ideas. GSIs such as myself who require attendance in section must find a way to take roll every week. But how can we do so in a way that signals to our students that attendance means more than just bodies in chairs?

In my sections I reimagine attendance as a weekly opportunity for a brief exchange with my students. In the last few minutes of class I give each student a blank index card to fill out and immediately hand back to me. On the front the student writes the date and her or his name. On the back the student reflects briefly on a prompt. Sometimes the prompt engages a topic of discussion from section (for example, following a week on ancient Chinese philosophy: “If you were a Chinese emperor, which school of statecraft would you adopt, and why?”). Other times, the prompt elicits practical input (“Are the small group exercises working for you?”) and sometimes the question is open-ended (“Do you have any concerns you want to share with me about our section?”). At the beginning of the next section I usually take a moment to discuss the previous week’s cards, letting my students know what their peers had to say and what I am doing with that information; I may further clarify a point from the reading or explain a small adjustment I am making to shift a classroom dynamic.

This simple exercise achieves many things. First, the notecards provide my students with a moment to reflect on the class and articulate a short thought about the ideas discussed during section. For students who are hesitant to speak, the card is another means of participating. Second, the cards give me more information about what is working in the class. The cards have shown me that concepts I thought students had grasped required more discussion and that exercises that I figured were unsuccessful were in fact well received. The feedback allows me to make continuous micro-adjustments, rather than waiting until final evaluations to rethink my teaching practices. Third, the cards are one more venue (beyond email and office hours) where I make myself available to students who want to reach out. Fourth, since I do require attendance in my sections, the cards are a quick way to keep tabs on who is showing up. I can use the cards to complete my attendance sheet at home, without wasting precious class minutes calling out dozens of names.

The response cards engage me as a GSI. But do they engage my students? A natural experiment suggests they do. Every so often the minutes get away from me and the Sather Bell is chiming as I hand out the index cards. On those days I let my students know that class is over, so if they are in a rush they are welcome to simply write their name and date and skip the short response that usually accompanies it. Nonetheless, I find that most students choose to linger and write a thoughtful response. When all we ask from our students is their physical presence, that is all many of them are willing to provide. But when we use roll call to ask our students what they are thinking, they are happy to take the time to tell us.