tl;dr

By adding three questions to an online form, we massively improve the accuracy and usefulness of student attendance tracking and transform a system that is currently not fit for purpose into one that is secure, fast, and also provides several pedagogical advantages.

Introduction

Inclusively and disability have been lifelong passions of mine (and using data to map need was once my research area). I can’t know if I’m teaching inclusively if I don’t know who is in the room. For example, my ADHD students might not be turning up because they can’t process a two-hour chalk and talk lecture; my overseas students might be absent because I talk too fast and with too many UK references; and my students with care responsibilities might only be able to work from slides anyway. Without precise and accurate attendance information, I can’t even begin to segment my students and allocate resources appropriately.

The problem

Many years ago as an undergraduate, I would, without any reflection, sign the names of friends on the paper attendance forms that were passed around. Periodically, I might ask them to do the same if I had a drastic emergency such as wanting to play a video game. This tradition has continued to this very day and has survived the transition to digital: the student dashboard for the course I taught in the spring shows there are an average of 181 people attended every Friday afternoon, which is problematic because I have never counted more than 50 (and I’m fairly certain it’s a fire risk to have many more than 90).

Because I cannot trust the attendance data, I cannot know how inclusive my teaching is. I review the reports from the education support services about disability and check in with those students periodically, but without clear, reliable data, I can’t tell if any groups are disengaged from the course. I want to know what the attendance pattern is for:

  • Neurodivergent students
  • Overseas students (I tend to talk rapidly, which I’m trying to control)
  • Students with particular fatigue issues
  • Students who have submitted the assessments

The last one is particularly important because I will have a cohort of students that are engaging with videos, quizzes, and coursework but who aren’t physically present – if I know how big that cohort is, then I can assign resources appropriately.

So, I needed a new attendance tracking system. It needs to be:

  • easy for the students
  • easy for me (very important)
  • secure because if students can sign each other in then the system is useless.

Signing in with Moodle is NOT fit for purpose, paper registers are a lot of work for me and don’t stop people signing friends in, and QR codes are fast and easy, but again, don’t stop the students sharing the link in group chats and so on.

My Solution

It turns out that we can solve almost all the security problems with a QR code by asking three very simple additional questions:

  1. How many people are sitting to your left?
  2. How many people are sitting to your right?
  3. How many rows are in front of you?

An example of the form

These questions are easy and fast (students take an average of 33 seconds), and they give all the information that a small piece of computer code needs in order to produce a complete map of where every student is sitting. This makes it easy to:

  • Identify people who are in the lecture but forgot to sign in (because they appear in the counts of everybody else in the row)
  • Identify people who aren’t in the lecture but have filled out the online form anyway (because a friend has send them the QR code or link)

Let’s look at an example. Assume I get the following data for row 3:

Name 3 Count Up Count Down Sum
Bluey 3 0 10 10
Bingo 3 1 9 10
Mackenzie 3 8 2 10
Bandit 3 2 8 10
Coco 3 10 0 10
Muffin 3 4 6 10
Peppa 3 6 9 15
Lucky 3 6 4 10
Rusty 3 7 3 10
Chilli 3 3 7 10
Chloe 3 9 1 10

Ten students have filled in the form, and if I look up from my notes I would see ten students in the room. However, that’s not the full story.

One thing is obvious - Peppa has put in radically different numbers from the others and it’s worth me glancing up at the lecture room to see if she is there (When such cases appear, the timestamp on the form is also a massive outlier)

Another thing to spot (it isn’t obvious in this format but is obvious when my code draws the map below), is that there is a person in the room that we have NO data for:

Seat 0 Seat 1 Seat 2 Seat 3 Seat 4 Seat 5 Seat 6 Seat 7 Seat 8 Seat 9 Seat 10
Bluey Bingo Bandit Chilli Muffin NOT FOUND Lucky Rusty Mackenzie Chloe Coco

…and indeed Socks forgot to fill out her form.

In practice, when I have deployed this method using a QR code, even though some (science!) students struggle to correctly count people on either side of them, there are almost no attempts to sign other people in (because the students understand the mechanism) and it’s extremely easy to fix the students who forget because you glance at it, think “Who was sitting next to Bluey? Oh, it was Bingo!”

With these three simple questions, we completely fix accuracy problems in attendance tracking and I can now properly track which student groups I’m NOT reaching with my teaching.

The code itself (which sits entirely inside an Excel file) is NOT entirely ready for wide deployment yet but I might do a cleaner version for next time (it’s not exactly rocket science either, it would only take 30 minutes or so to replicate)

Additional Benefits

Occasionally a student will claim they have been at every lecture but forgot to sign in (examples might be during disciplinary action or following a student complaint about quality of teaching, or during coursework feedback). With my system, students that have forgotten to sign in are immediately obvious (you can literally say “Mr. Bing, I don’t think you have signed in” after glancing at the map) and it’s possible to show for most lectures that there was nobody who forgot to sign in because the number of students on a row matches the total of the row.

Beneficial Effects on Student Learning

There are three beneficial effects:

  1. Most concretely, once the students understood the system of attendance, the number of students in the room increased from 45 at the start of the course to consistently 50 or above during February, making this a rare case of a module where the attendance increases during the term.
  2. The key objective of the work was to be able to find out which students were attending lectures so that I could tell (along with other sources of information) which groups of students were disengaging from the lectures. I was able to analyze the information and find several groups that I needed to contact, and I’ve put appropriate measures in place (
  3. It’s nice to contextualise emails from students: a regularly attending student might get a different response from a continually absent one (even if that’s “This is a short version of the answer, come and see me after the lecture if it is unclear”)
  4. The most useful feature is this: you can have a laptop open in the lecture that shows a complete map with the names of the students where they are sitting. Suddenly it’s much easier to say “Okay, I’ll take the question from Stripe, and then the one from Nana” or “Muffin, do you have something you need to share?”
  Closest to left wall 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
5 Bluey Bingo Bandit Chilli Muffin Socks Lucky  
4 Mackenzie Chloe Coco Snickers Honey Jack Indy Jean-Luc
3 Pat Calypso Judo Winton Frisky      
2 Stripe              
1 Rusty              

(note that because the approach counts students rather than seats, the map shows everybody clumped up to one side)

Acknowledgements

This work was made possible by guidance from Professor Peter Komisarczuk, my academic mentor, and Professor Adrian Johnstone, who provided a historical view. Angelina Bianchi provided wonderfully detailed answers to my queries, and the admin staff at EMPS put up with my continuing strange questions.

Future work.

I’d like to get the code to work on a proper sever so that the I could see the map being built up in real time as the students filled in their answers. That would tighten up the feedback loop considerably. I’d also like the interface with Moodle to be much more clean and automatic.

Random Extra things

  • Works best halfway through the lecture - people turning up late is unhelpful for the data.
  • In general the data is much nosier than I have presented here - it would be accurate to describe this as ‘a system where bad actors are very obvious if you want to go and look for them’ rather than ‘a system where bad actors are prevented from adding bad data’