Students, faculty voice concerns, ideas, praises

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

The Students’ Association (SA) and Academic Senate are in the process of creating a committee to discuss the possibility of creating a universal absence policy, but does SDSU need one?

Some students think so.

Dustin Hadrick, a sophomore physical education major from Flandreau, said he would support an absence policy that would prohibit instructors from lowering students’ grades because of absences.

“It isn’t really fair to the student to lose a grade,” he said.

Patty Siversten, a freshman ag business major from Ree Heights, said that an absence policy may be beneficial for students when they miss class for legitimate reasons.

“I would like (a policy) because if I had a death in my family, I would be excused to go and not (have) my grade affected,” she said.

In fact, it was students outside of the SA that wanted something done about absences. SA President Amanda Mattingly said students who had problems with instructors and how they dealt with absences approached members of SA.

Those students gave SA a reason to take action.

“We’ve not heard a lot of the (students’) concerns and for them to make the jaunt across campus to a building they are unfamiliar with means these are very important issues and they are worth discussion by the senate,” said Kristin Olsen, a senator from the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “It may not be feasible to set up a policy but if students are coming to the Students’ Association with problems, they should at least be discussed, if not taken action on.”

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Not all students feel there is a problem with absences. At-large senator Ray Schmidt said that it should be left up to the instructor to deal with absences. He said absence problems could easily be solved with more student-instructor communication when a student misses class.

“Students have to have more communication with (their) teachers ahead of class,” he said.

Lisa Goeden, a third year microbiology major from Sioux Falls, transferred to SDSU this year from College of St. Benedicts in St. Joseph, Minn., where there is a universal absence policy. Goeden said that after a studemt misses three classes, his or her grade is dropped. However, only some instructors stuck to the policy.

“It wasn’t a really big difference,” she said. “I have more classes (at SDSU) that take attendance than classes (at St. Benedicts).”

She doesn’t think a universal absence policy would be beneficial. She said some smaller classes need required attendance, while other larger classes don’t.

“If there are 100 people in a class, there is no reason they should take attendance,” Goeden said.

This is the first time Provost Carol Peterson has heard discussion of absence policies.

“I have not seen this as a serious problem,” she said. “It seems to be managed well at the college and department level that it hasn’t become an university issue.”

Some students do fail because they have missed too many classes, but not many.

“I have yet to fail a student and I’ve been here 30 years,” said Professor Geoffrey Grant of the Sociology Department. “The vast majority of students care.”

Grant will automatically fail a person if they miss more than 12 times.

Michael Keller, coordinator of the English Department’s composition program, said that for every class after four that students miss in the composition classes, their grade is dropped 1/3 of a letter grade. He said the reason most students fail because of absence is that they didn’t bother to make up their work.

“We don’t flunk 100 students, but on average, one student per semester, maybe two,” said Michael Keller, head of the English Department’s composition program.

Keller said composition classes have an absence policy because participation is an important part of the curriculum and students can’t participate if they don’t come to class.

“What is meant to imply is that the students learn,” he said. “It’s meant to pose a little discipline. I don’t think the policy is unfair.”

Grant said that a universal policy wouldn’t be feasible. He said absence policies are designed for specific courses.

“I wouldn’t take my policies and apply them to any other class,” he said.

Keller said when students miss class it affects other students because there is so much group work in the composition courses.

Peterson said the university leaves absence policies up to individual instructors because of the variety of courses taught at SDSU. She said it would be impossible to find a policy to fit every course’s needs. The instructors know their fields and it would be wrong for someone else to implement a policy not knowing what exactly is required of students, she said.

However, the SA believes that a policy could address the absence problems that students and instructors have. There isn’t one specific problem with absences. Many have differing opinions about what the main problem is.

Peterson believes that the problem is that instructors are not being fair to those students who miss class for university-related absences.

“Where we seem to be having problems is the grading process when absences are excused,” she said.

Mattingly said the problem is that many instructors are dropping students’ grades for missing class. She said that there are just some reasons why students can’t be in class and their grades shouldn’t have to suffer.

“I think it’s retroactive instead of proactive,” she said.

Another problem Mattingly sees is that some instructors are requesting documentation, such as notes from doctors, medical bills or obituaries to explain their absences. She said some things are private and students shouldn’t have to share those things with instructors.

Olsen said SA is trying to help those students who are being unfairly punished for too many absences, not those students who just want to skip class.

“We’re not so much supporting the students who want to skip class,” she said. “We just want something done. We are trying our best to not come across as the whiny brats in the back of the class who want to skip class.”

Olsen and Mattingly both agree that it would be better to have in-class assignments and quizzes instead of grading on attendance.

However, Academic Senate chairman Joel Hefling believes the problem is what is stated on instructors’ syllabi.

“The problem is that many faculty don’t have a specific policy or it is not clearly explained,” he said.

The Board of Regents requires instructors to have some type of policy stated in their syllabi. Hefling is part of a committee that examines the syllabi of SDSU instructors before it goes to the Board of Regents and he said many instructors didn’t have anything about absences on their syllabi. Others had unclear statements about absences.

Another problem is that students are very involved, Hefling said. He said students these days have to deal with work, more medical problems, children, etc. The committee will have to examine “the situation and consideration of the real-world situations,” he said.

The problem may also be in how instructors are grading students, Hefling said.

“It really gets down to the matter if we as faculty members are grading students for simply showing up,” he said.

Some students are bored with their class so they don’t come to class, Hefling said. Instructors grade on absence to get them to come.

“It’s going to upset a lot of people because that is something a lot of people don’t want to face – the fact that our classes are boring,” he said. “It will force many of us to look at what we are doing in class.”

He said some type of policy could be helpful for instructors.

“This might improve the quality of education,” said Hefling. “A long-term benefit may be the classes will get better.”