Professors – Design an Effective Course Syllabus – Attendance Policies & Grading

Two key components of your syllabus are your attendance and grading policies.

Attendance Policy:

Since students will likely question this section for clarification, your classroom attendance policy should be developed only after thorough research. You first need to know the college and department policies, if any exist, as well as the common practices of the majority of other faculty members. Because you are likely to have students receiving scholarships and grants, or who are on work-study programs, you also need to be fully aware of the guidelines of your financial aid department, and summarize their key points in your syllabus. You also should consider the lifestyles of your students, which might be quite hectic, as well as your own values. The important thing is to formulate language that is as specific as possible without completely taking away your flexibility. It is difficult to defend a punitive action against excessive absences that is not spelled out succinctly on the course syllabus.

Based on the collective experience and recommendations of faculty from around the country, I recommend that you have attendance policies spelled out as clearly as possible right from the beginning. Consider the answers to these questions:

  • Is attendance required or expected?
  • Do you want excuses or reasons when students are absent?
  • Will those excuses or reasons make any difference to you as far as penalties are concerned?
  • Do you want to be notified when students know ahead of time that they will be absent? If so, how should they notify you?
  • Are students allowed to “make up” for missed time? If so, how?
  • Do a certain number of absences constitute a lowered grade?
  • What is your philosophy about late arrivals?
  • Should students who are late slip in quietly and take a seat in a designated area, or should they go to their regular seat?
  • The clearer you are on the attendance policy, in your own mind and on your syllabus, the more smoothly your class will operate.

Answer as many questions as possible at the beginning of the term, so that you minimize challenges later in the term Make it a point to regularly refer students to carefully-crafted passages in the syllabus, so they can read and clarify key policies.

Grading Policies and Procedures

Another area to be crystal clear on is the grading policies and procedures you will be following. After determining your unit’s policies (if there are any) and talking with colleagues about the grading culture in the department, you can begin to specify your policy. Answer these questions:

  • First, what will the grading scale be?
  • Is there any flexibility?
  • Are you using plus/minus grading or is it a straight letter grade?
  • Is your system based on points? If so, how do students earn those points?
  • Do you accept late work, and if so, is there a penalty?
  • Are there make-up exams?
  • Will you offer extra credit?
  • If students are not content with a particular grade they have earned (not that we have “given them”), what is their recourse?
  • What are the policies for students’ getting an “incomplete” or withdrawing from the class?
  • How do you initiate withdrawing a students from you class, and what are the cultural issues related to doing so?

While it may seem like a lot to investigate and consider, you will be very glad you invested this effort the first time a “sticky” situation arises. Although students may not agree with the rules, there is a certain amount of security that arises from thoroughly understanding them. Grading policies that are either unclear or are inconsistently applied leave you open to extensive grade appeals (a time-consuming, disagreeable process), angry feelings, unpleasant reports by students, and sleepless nights for you, as you try to work through ‘what should I do?’

You can always modify your rules by invoking leniency, but you cannot easily put into place a structure after the term has begun. The syllabus components presented here will comprise the bulk of your syllabus, but there are additional portions that you may want to consider, in order to have the most complete syllabus possible. The idea behind the complete syllabus is providing students with all the information they need to be successful – if they decide to take advantage of what you are offering. A clear syllabus provides them with some confidence and motivation to do just that.