Undergraduates enrolled in Harvard University’s critically acclaimed and popular Introduction to Computer Science course this fall have received new and unusual instructions—that student attendance at lectures is encouraged.

The previous year, lead instructor Professor David J. Malan had told students they need only attend the first and last meetings of the semester in person, and to watch lectures online instead. “Sitting in [Harvard’s] Sanders Theatre, beautiful though it may be, has never been a particularly effective way to learn complex material,” he wrote in 2016. “We’ve been nearing the point for some time whereby it’s a better educational experience to watch lectures online than attend them in person.”

However, Prof. Malan has now reversed the policy—not necessarily because of low student outcomes, but because of low engagement. “Enough former students reported that something was missing, not just the students themselves but the energy of an audience,” he told Inside Higher Ed.

Prof. Malan’s 800-student course is the largest at Harvard and has drawn critical accolades, so it’s worth reflecting on his reversal.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that every professor wants to have an audience. There’s intuitive appeal to the idea that showing up supports learning, which in turn feeds achievement. On the other hand, scholars and students have expressed skepticism about the impact of absenteeism on academic success. According to education specialist Bruce McFarlane, compulsory attendance runs counter to the idea of higher education as a “voluntary activity undertaken by adults,” and does not necessarily stimulate student engagement.

So, just how important a factor is student attendance for success? We can look at the data.

Student attendance and outcomes

Meta-analysis by researchers at SUNY Albany (2010) has found a high correlation between student attendance and grades. Using data that covers almost 100 years and more than 28,000 student outcomes, Crede, Roch and Kieszczynka argued that attendance is the single most important predictor of high grades: better than SAT scores, high school GPAs, study skills or study habits. They concluded that “the use of the online classroom resources and improved textbooks have not decreased the importance of attending class.”

A study by Arulampalam, Naylor and Smith (2007) covering undergraduate Economics students over a period of three years also found a causal effect of absence on student performance. The effect was most pronounced for high-performing students, whose grades were hardest hit by cutting classes.

Both studies allow that multiple factors comprise academic success. But it’s more complicated than bums in seats. Likewise, a 2016 study of Finnish post-graduate students found that although absenteeism predicted poorer grades overall, a cluster of students with poor attendance did relatively well. More fine-grained research about absenteeism is needed in relation to sub-groups.

Mandatory vs. voluntary student attendance

The data suggests that attendance helps students to better achieve course learning outcomes. But whether to require attendance, encourage it, or present no expectations at all, is still up for debate. No doubt Prof. Malan, who described last year’s low CS50 attendance as detrimental to the social aspect of learning, recognizes the issue is complex. This year at least, he seems to think that showing up is a good place to start.

Top Hat’s new attendance feature, rolling out this Fall, combines polling, geolocation, and proximity detection in order to accurately track student attendance. Read our review of the pros and cons of the various methods on the market.


Karen Quevillon

Karen Quevillon

Karen Quevillon earned a PhD in Philosophy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her two children. She is an award-winning and published author and freelance writer who teaches writing and literature courses at Ontario colleges.