By Amy Sharaf
On a frigid Monday morning, teacher Karen Weisberg takes attendance in her split Grade 3 and 4 class at Clinton Junior Public School. Meanwhile, across the city, English prof John Rollins also conducts his own rollcall-this one from a Ryerson lecture room. In the elementary school class, it’s about child safety; in the university setting, it’s about participation grades.
Ryerson faculties have discussed how to grade participation and attendance for years. In the past, departments concluded it’s up to the professor to decide what gradingallotment should go to a student just for showing up.
Still, the attendance question resonates. Some instructors, like history professor Ross Fair, will insist on assigning participation grades worth 10 to 15 per cent. Others, like politics professor Wayne Petrozzi, don’t believe in marking attendance at all. Petrozzi has never done so in more than 30 years lecturing at Ryerson, arguing that whether intentional or not, participation grades have become de facto attendance marks.
“I’m troubled [by] the idea that to get you to come to my class, I have to assign a portion of your grade to just being there,” he says.
Here, Petrozzi makes the distinction between the kids turning up in Ms. Weisberg’s class and the adult men and women who pay tuition to sit in on high academia. It’s an assumption that Ryerson students are mature, independent people who make up their own minds about when they choose to show up.
In professor Fair’s class, though, the attendance chart is a backup tool should a student argue for higher participation marks. By simply showing up, Fair’s students open themselves to free participation grades, he says. “It’s completely your choice not to be there and it’s completely your choice to get zero out of 20,” he says. “We put it there [for people] to participate. If you don’t have a full class, then participation is pretty limited.”
But assigning attendance or participation grades may not be enough to get bums on seats. For second-year RTA student Josh Shanahan, a decision to go to class depends more on a particular professor’s teaching style, not the prospect of obtaining easy grades. “The biggest thing that would lead me to skip the class is me feeling I’m not going to get anything out of it,” says Shananan. “I think [marking attendance] is a little childish.”
Chris McGrath shares the sentiment that student participation and attendance are grade-boosters. An expert on educational issues in post secondary schooling and the director of residence at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, McGrath says the attendance question needs to be thought of in terms of a “learning contract” by two parties–teacher and student. “Both the professor and the students taking the course are entering the contract and it takes both sides [to show up] in order to make that learning happen,” he says.
Colin Mooers, chairs of politics at Ryerson, believes the issue is based on personal preference, but he remains in the camp that sees participation grades taking a minor percentage in the overall evaluation scheme. “There is no cut and dry set of instructions I’m going to impose on the faculty,” he admits.
True enough, Ryerson University doesn’t have a mandatory attendance policy to thrust upon students. Each department and professor decides what “participation” means.
In some courses, attending class and “participating” can count from as low as five per cent to 20 per cent of an overall grade. Of course, the department of French and Spanish is an exception, with a mandatory 20 per cent attendance/participation component to measure progress. That participation policy holds in all 15 classes offered.
At the University of Guelph, participation can’t be based on a student’s attendance, but at Ryerson, faculty members may choose how to structure their own courses. When retired English prof John Cook-now the chair of the English department-used to teach, he based participation marks in his class on attendance. A student either received an A or an F, with fewer students getting the latter grade. Cook says he thought of it as a way to reward students for showing up, also assuming that if students were there, “[they] were fully there” in body and mind. He would rather do away with grades altogether, and muses about an ideal situation in which students write and speak openly on subjects they consider important-not because they’re being graded, but because they want to.
However, Cook concedes there is a certain amount of coercion in any type of marking scheme, as universities have become increasingly focused on grades. “If it’s coercive to use participation grades then it’s coercive to use writing grades,” he offers. But do students need to be pushed to attend classes they’re running into financial debt to pay for?
Politics professor Arthur Ross says he’s not prepared to begin monitoring attendance when students should already know where their responsibilities lie. “Students pay an exorbitant amount of money. I assume I don’t have to tell you to be here,” he says.
Without a scientific way to measure attendance, professor Fair will likely continue doling out his 10 to 15 per cent; Ross won’t even bother. Petrozzi says his politics lectures are usually more effective when his class is full and he encourages students to attend. Still, Petrozzi says he realizes that in university, the choice is ultimately up to the student to get his or her act together.
“The fastest way to learn the virtues of attending lectures is to get a series of Ds in courses you didn’t attend and didn’t understand.”