Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Is Class Attendance a Problem in Law School?

Accreditation Standard 304(d) states that "[a] law school shall require regular and punctual class attendance."  Interpretation 304-6 states that "[a] law school shall demonstrate that it has adopted and enforces polciies insuring that individual students satisfy the requirements of this Standard, including the implementation of policies related to ... scheduling."  Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on the declining attendance in college classrooms:  Elephant Not in the Room, by Elia Powers:

A 2005 survey of first-year undergraduate students by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that while a majority of college students spend 11 or more hours in class per week, 33% reported skipping class and 63% said they come to class late “occasionally” or “frequently.” A similar survey showed that the proportion of students who report coming late to class has jumped from 48% in 1966 to 61% in 2006 — evidence, one could argue, of a growing indifference to class in general.

There are a lot of interesting comments following the article, including this gem:  "Education is the only commodity for which hardly anyone demands his money’s worth."

Has the class attendance problem spread from undergrad to law school?  For those who have been in law teaching for awhile, has attendance in your classes declined in recent years?

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Of course it is! But, most professors don’t care. By the time 2L rolls around, most students have figured out how to study without attending class. If the grade curve is high, any benefit achieved from not going is minimal.

Indeed, some people have said that those that do attend might be punished by participating.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 2, 2007 5:22:52 AM

Actually, one of the nicest moments I experience each year occurs when I tell law students that "[X] in the next class won't be on the exam, but I really want you to know about it"--and virtually all of them come to hear about [X]. I use the time to talk about something related to the course but not part of the course. In my Professional Responsibility class, for example, I spend that class talking about pressures inside large law firms. In Contracts, I talk about the ethics of drafting and negotiations. It would be so easy for students to skip that day, but they haven't done so (at least, not yet).

Posted by: Nancy Rapoport | May 2, 2007 6:49:38 AM

I'm a second-career lawyer, and in law school I tended to gravitate toward other second-career and older students for study groups, socializing, et cetera. As a group, we tended to have much better attendance than our younger cohorts. We postulated that it was due at least in part to the fact that we were paying for our own educations. Several professors at my law school openly discussed attendance requirements. Four of them were in small seminar-type classes, but one of my tax professors and my ethics professor also talked about the issue. My tax professor told me that she had found serious attendance issues to be correlated with a student's difficulty in a course, and said that by paying attention to attendance and following up with students she had averted a couple of student meltdowns.

Posted by: Meredith | May 2, 2007 7:37:49 AM

I have absolutely no attendance problems in my tax classes. Students learn very quickly that being in class is worthwhile and that this material is difficult to learn on their own.

That said, attendance is quite good in my other courses too. I think nearly all of our students take their legal education very seriously. Most are paying for it themselves, many supporting families at the same time.

I wonder about the survey that finds more students report coming to class late -- perhaps they are not more tardy, but only more honest about it.

Donna M. Byrne
William Mitchell College of Law
St. Paul, MN

Posted by: Donna Byrne | May 2, 2007 8:05:33 AM

I think the issue is also part of a law school's local culture. I teach at Texas Tech and we have very high attendence in classes, mostly because most profs take roll and enforce the ABA standard with attendance policies. For example, I have the students sign-in each class and I chop a student's final grade down half a grade for every absence over 6 (in a four credit course), or 4 (in a three credit course), or 1 (in a once a week seminar). And if a student misses more than a certain number of classes, the student either gets an F or gets to withdraw, depending on the reasons for the absences. Only three times in 6 years of teaching have I had to ding a student for even half a grade and only once have I kicked out a student.

While most studying occurs outside the classroom, I think the prof's role as tour guide is very important for helping students map out the legal landscape. It's far more tailored than the generic tour books they call study aids. I pride myself (not TOO much I hope!) that time in my classroom adds sufficient value to the student's learning to justify requiring their attendence.

Posted by: Bryan Camp | May 2, 2007 8:07:55 AM

Aside from one or two students who "disappear," students in my J.D. courses show up. When they're absent, they usually tell me why. The three principal reasons: job interviews, illness, and death of a family member.

Attendance in my Graduate Tax classes is far from ideal, and it shows (on the exams). The principal reason for absences, from the little bits of anecdotal informaton I gather, is the priority given to client and practice demands.

There has been an increase in tardiness. The two main reasons: (1) the clocks in the building are not synchronized, so students coming from another class are coming from a room where the clock says 11:30 but the clock in my classroom says 11:37. Five minute walk, and they're late. (2) with the construction activity, parking spots are at a premium, even for students who arrive early.

Posted by: Jim Maule | May 2, 2007 9:29:02 AM

Regarding the comment in the post that students don't demand their money's worth from education, it misses the point that most students see the value in their education coming from the opportunities opened up by merely having the degree they are pursuing, not from the information dispensed during the class meetings.

That might not be the case if most professors didn't simply present material in class that can be gleaned from the course materials just as easily.

Posted by: Diego | May 2, 2007 5:38:04 PM

Strange. No professor will own up to having low attendance in their classes, but most people think the problem is widespread.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 3, 2007 7:27:21 AM

I'm a 2L; during my first year of school I missed exactly two classes (one due to weather, the other because I was competing in a Moot Court competition)... I happen to go to a school that strictly enforces its attendance policy, but even if that weren't the case I'd still go to all of my classes. I get far more going to class each week than by simply doing the reading alone, and even though I'm a good student I always feel like there is more to learn.

Those who skip class, in my opinion, are only hurting themselves.

Posted by: Enki | May 4, 2007 5:38:41 AM