Course Attendance and Engagement Policy Interpretation

This guidance document provides interpretation by the Office of the Provost of the university Course Attendance and Engagement policy to assist instructors in crafting course attendance policies that are equitable and flexible enough to meet a broad range of student needs.

Policy Rationale
The policy is intended to provide more transparency and equity in application of course attendance and engagement policies for “common student absences or late work.” Rather than students and instructors negotiating different excuses and entering into a range of differentiated expectations—which can be exhausting for instructors and disadvantage students least likely to ask for exceptions—"reason neutral” acknowledges that challenges inevitably happen. If “reason neutral” is working well, it should take instructors out of the uncomfortable and potentially problematic task of bestowing a kind of legitimacy on students’ reported experiences: "okay, this sounds bad, you’re excused”; “this sounds less credible, I can’t excuse you.”

It also assumes that instructors who require attendance do so because a particular level of attendance is necessary to meet specific learning goals, and that instructors will be as generous as they can be in setting their absence policies while preserving the integrity of student learning. (If watching a video, or completing a discussion prompt, etc. are just as viable a way to learn what you’re teaching in a particular class, an absence policy may not be necessary.)

Policy Implementation
This section is meant to clear up common misconceptions about the policy and provide clear guidance as to what instructors can do, can’t do, should do.

Is attendance necessary to meet course learning objectives?
In crafting a course attendance or engagement policy, instructors should first decide what level of attendance is necessary to meet the course learning objectives. In some cases, this can be left to students to decide and no attendance is required. In other cases, instructors should decide how many classes can be missed, how those misses affect grades, and what, if any, makeups are offered.

As this relates to the new policy, we’d offer that if a certain level of attendance is indeed necessary to meet the course learning objectives, then the reason a student has absences that exceed that level is really irrelevant – no matter the reason, they will be unable to meet or fully meet the objectives.

How is late work handled?
Your Course Attendance and Engagement policy should also be clear about how late-work is handled. It states, “Faculty have discretion to determine which, if any, assignments can be turned in late or made up, and what the consequences are as pedagogically appropriate for the course.” This should also address how missed exams are handled.

Finally, while not explicitly stated in the policy, the intent is that make-up policies are also reason-neutral. The policy states, “Faculty are not required to provide make-up opportunities, but make-up opportunities need to be available to all students equally.”

Which university policies govern course absences?
University policies on religious accommodation and accessible education are exceptions to the reason-neutral aspect of the course attendance policy.

The religious accommodation policy says that the “the university will make reasonable accommodations for students who are unable to attend a class due to a religious observance.” Students are responsible for completing a request for such accommodation by end of second week of term. These absences should not count in a course attendance policy. For instance, if a course policy allows 3 absences before a grade penalty and a student misses 2 due to religious observance, they still have 3 allowable absences. Faculty should not determine on their own that a religious observance request is unreasonable. They should contact the Office of the Provost for guidance if they feel a request is unreasonable.

Instructors are also required by Federal law to allow student absences that are part of accommodations defined by the Accessible Education Center and communicated by AEC in notification letters to instructors. These absences should also not count in a course attendance policy. Instructors should not determine on their own whether to grant these accommodations – AEC has the final decision-making authority on accommodations. If instructors believe an accommodation is unreasonable, they should consult with AEC.

Note that while the university does not currently have a robust policy for students who are engaged in military service, the Office of the Provost supports faculty exempting military service from course attendance policies as long as they treat all students who present a need based on military service the same. In these cases, instructors may consider this reason in their determination. The University Senate is going to work on a policy during AY 2023-24. When that is completed it will be placed into this section.

What about university-sponsored events?
University-sponsored events are another exception to the reason-neutral aspect of the policy. Commonly, instructors experience this with student-athletes who will miss class due to competition-related travel. The Office of the Provost has expanded its understanding of these absences to be inclusive of other students who travel for university-sponsored events (e.g. marching band members, New York trip for advertising students, etc.).

These events have in common a faculty or staff sponsor that can attest to the reason the student might be absent. Students should provide documentation from the sponsor at the beginning of the term that explains the reason for the absence and the dates. The university encourages instructors to make pedagogically sound and justifiable modifications that will enable the student to be successful in the course and participate in the event where possible.

Instructors are allowed to exempt absences due to university-sponsored events from their course attendance policy as long as they generally treat all students who provide documentation from a sponsor the same. For instance, if the instructor has determined that 3 absences in addition to those allowed for everyone is reasonable provided the student complete some additional tasks or work, then the instructor must allow all students missing for university-sponsored events 3 additional absences under those conditions.

What about students who experience extraordinary circumstances?
A common frustration with the policy has to do with students who experienced some kind of crisis or extraordinary event, and instructors unclear how they could help those students under the policy. The Office of the Provost, in consultation with Senate leadership, has interpreted these situations to fall outside ordinary course attendance and engagement policies.

The policy states “Course attendance and engagement policies are meant to address common student absences or late work over the course of a term. Instructors should be aware of how to advise students who experience extraordinary circumstances that cause extensive absences or late work.” We interpret that to mean that instructors can have clauses in their course attendance policies that give them flexibility to help students in these scenarios as long as they do so in generally equitable ways and observe the “reason neutral” principle.  For instance, a syllabus might include the following:

“The course attendance policy is meant to cover ordinary, day-to-day absences. I understand that some students may experience an extraordinary circumstance. In the event of an such a circumstance, I will work with you to consider how we might make adjustments to course requirements where possible. Please let me know as soon as you are able if you experience an extraordinary event.  

There is no need to explain or offer personal information about the nature of your emergency — I will trust you only to activate this policy in an emergency situation.”  

Language like this gives instructors a way to be flexible within the context of their course. We offer that this is not all that different from what instructors might have done prior to the new policy – it requires students to approach faculty and declare that they have experienced an extraordinary event and need flexibility. The stated reason at that point is irrelevant as the veracity of stated reasons is unknowable by the instructor.

Faculty should also be aware of and advise students of other options if sufficient course adjustments cannot be made for extraordinary situations: