While many academic changes have affected this year’s incoming class, perhaps the most visible—and controversial—is the new attendance policy for fixed core classes.
What is it?
The new system, run by the MBAPO, monitors attendance for fixed core classes using either a TA or a monitor who enters at the beginning of class and records absences. Initially, absences were recorded by taking an iPad picture of the class and matching it to the assigned seating chart. Absences are then reported back to the Program Office and an automatic email is generated to make the student aware of his unexcused absence. Students are able to challenge unexcused absences by speaking to their academic advisor. What each professor chooses to do with this information is at his or her own discretion. Some departments have decided to allow one unexcused absence while others instituted an automatic failure of the course for more than three unexcused absences.
Why was it instituted?
The attendance policy was put into place to foster academic engagement and make students more accountable for their studies. Based on his conversations with current students last year, Dean Howie Kaufold heard concerns about the caliber of Wharton academics. Students felt that they hadn’t taken enough responsibility for their education and wished that the administration had encouraged them to be more active participants. Professors had also noticed a marked drop-off in attendance rates during heavy recruiting periods. As Dean Kaufold describes it, “I’m the brand cop. We want alumni to feel good about their Wharton experience five years from now.” MBA program Director of Strategy & Internal Communications, Kathryn Bezella, adds that the MBA experience is short and “knowledge transfer is limited.” By mandating that everyone be in the classroom together, the attendance policy increases the opportunities for students to learn from their peers. Bezella also hopes that increased academic engagement will help to remove the stigma attached to focusing on academics in business school.
How do students feel?
The new policy has been met with a mix of responses both positive and negative. Breanna Hockenbury (WG ’14) shared, “Generally speaking, students appreciate being in a classroom that is full of their peers and the shared classroom experiences have helped build community within our cohorts and clusters.” Felicia Snyder (WG ’14) agrees that classroom learning is important, but argues that this policy does not address the root causes of absenteeism. She suggests alternative solutions. For example, if low participation rates are caused by ineffective teaching, “Measure absenteeism by professor. Compare results with WAGAT surveys. See if any meaningful conclusions can be drawn. Develop action plans to improve professor’s classroom presence and lecture plan.”
Siddharth Shankar (WG ’14) also opposes the current system, “While I understand the idea behind compulsory attendance – to preserve the quality of the Wharton brand – I am not sure if this is the best approach to solving this problem. Compulsory attendance is not a solution, but rather seems to imply a condescending view towards us…”
How is it working?
Dean Kaufold has seen evidence of improvement already, mentioning that the mean on a recent accounting midterm was ten points higher than the prior year’s. He acknowledged that while this phenomenon cannot be directly tied to attendance, it does imply that something has fundamentally changed. A 2nd year Marketing TA commented, “Sitting in the same class two years running, it has been amazing to see the difference in how well students are prepared. Not only do WG’14 [students] read all the cases, but they run the numbers and prepare their thoughts in advance. Impressive.” Given these early successes, the administration is intent on maintaining some type of attendance tracking, but it has already made an effort to be responsive to student suggestions regarding implementation.
On October 19th, Dean Kaufold held a meeting with all 1st Year cluster presidents, academic, social life and ethics representatives to discuss the use of the iPad photo, which seemed to be causing the most discomfort. Given the feedback, the administration has decided to stop using iPad photos to track attendance for Q2 because it caused too much disruption during class time. Additional topics that emerged from the meeting included how to define “excused” versus “unexcused” absences and how to influence the community to make academic engagement the norm. The MBAPO has listed specific excused absence guidelines on their website, https://spike.wharton.upenn.edu/mbaprogram/academics/absences.cfm that require “appropriate documentation.” In the case of illness, many representatives do not think it is reasonable to go to student health for short-term sickness. One cluster representative suggested that the administration allocate a set amount of “sick days” each student is entitled to; similar to many job policies. In regards to the Wharton culture, other representatives suggested working with the Leadership Fellows to encourage academic engagement during preterm. The MBAPO has taken these thoughts into consideration, but no further changes have been made as of yet.