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Help me design an attendance process for lectures

  1. Feb 11, 2015 #1
    I am a member of a small group of physics graduate students in charge of a monthly series of public science lectures. The lectures are aimed at local high school students, and we have many high school teachers who encourage their students to attend by offering extra credit. The audience of each talk (typically around 100) is composed almost wholly of students who have come solely because they want a few extra points in chemistry or whatever.

    In the current system, we prepare attendance sheets with school and teacher names on the top, and at the conclusion of the lecture, the students who want credit for attending come to the front of the hall and sign their name to the appropriate sheet to prove they were there. Then we photocopy these sheets for our records and mail the originals back to the teachers.

    There are a number of issues with this system:
    • Students often don't pay attention to the top of the sheets (where the school and teacher are listed) and write their names on the wrong list.
    • Students who arrive to the lecture very late still receive credit for attending.
    • Unless watched very closely, students can sign the names of friends who did not attend in addition to their own name.
      • Even if watched very closely, they can still do this if they are clever enough to do one name at a time and then loop back around to the end of the line.
    • If many students from a single teacher's classes all attend, there is a huge pile-up at the end around a single sheet.
    I am looking to design a new process to eliminate some of these issues. My current idea is to hand out a small slip of paper with blanks for name, teacher, and school to each student as they arrive, which can be turned in at the end. Pros:
    • Eliminates errors in correctly identifying teacher/school.
    • Penalizes both arriving late, since we can stop handing out the slips 5 or 10 minutes after the lecture begins.
    • Penalizes leaving early, since we won't collect the slips until the talk is over.
    • In principle, students can't sneak their absent friends' names in, since they receive only one slip each.
      • But how do we keep the clever ones from leaving the room and coming in again in order to get a second slip?
    • It is very quick just to collect the slips as the students depart.
    • Many students will not have a pen or pencil.
      • Possible solution: A box of 144 golf pencils looks to be very cheap.
    • An obvious exploit is to take a slip home and make copies.
      • Possible solution: Put a different image on the slips each month. But this means the leftover slips from the previous month aren't reusable, so that wastes a lot of paper.
    • It is more inconvenient to copy the attendance records before mailing them back when the names are all on individual slips of paper.
    Please, what is your feedback? I'm open to a different system entirely, or to tweaks to improve my new proposal, or for issues that haven't occurred to me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 12, 2015 #2

    Quantum Defect

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    I think that your system would work, but you might try to do something that takes advantage of the ubiquity of smart phones. Have the students leave their smart phones when they enter the lecture (probably a good idea, anyway!) When they leave, they can snap a selfie of themselves with one of you, and a poster with the seminar title. They can send this picture in to their instructor.

    There probably is an application with a smart-tag that you could do, perhaps in place of the selfie.

    You could also try giving out the hospital wrist-bands, a hand stamp, or some kind of institutional "swag" (your development/outreach office on campus might have something appropriate -- you are helping this office by providing free advertising for your institution to prospective students and their families). Teachers could check for stamps, wrist bands or swag the next day.

    When I did this kind of thing as a student, we were required to turn in the printed program for the event that we attended, along with a brief report of what we learned.

    Of course, another solution is to have the teachers attend, as well! Is there a way that you could make this worth their while, as well?

    I think that you want to put the onus on the student to provide the proof to the teacher. You have enough to do as a graduate student, and it is a bit unfair to ask you to do a lot of work for this.
  4. Feb 12, 2015 #3
    I like the idea in principle, but many of our student attendees come from poor districts and I wouldn't want to make anyone feel embarrassed if they don't have a smart-phone.

    Also a reasonable suggestion. Our lectures are on Saturday mornings, so it has to be something that would last until Monday, meaning hand stamps and bracelets are probably out. It would also need to be something that the students couldn't obtain except by coming to our lectures: the obvious exploit is to somehow acquire a pile of the things and never have to attend again.

    As it happens, this program is specifically run by the students who have been awarded a fellowship from the state, and thus have no teaching assistantship duties. (In fact, the lecture series is community outreach specifically written into the fellowship grant proposal.) As I watch my peers teach lab sessions and grade problem sets each week, you will never hear me complain that organizing a lecture once a month is too much work, even if we do adopt a complicated attendance-tracking system.
  5. Feb 12, 2015 #4

    Quantum Defect

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    Maybe the "swag" mechansim is the best way, then. A giveaway that changes with each lecture that is not readily obtainable via other means. Universities will have these kinds of things for admissions officers to take on their visits to high schools.

    Your university and state government are doing this (paying you and hosting these events) to reach out to these students, state residents who would benefit from taking advantage of the public higher education that the state provides. I would not worry too much about devising ways to help eliminate the gaming of the system. Keep in mind the big picture of what you all are trying to do -- expose residents of your state to the educational opportunities that their tax dollars pay for and to help your university recruit college students with an interest in science.
  6. Feb 12, 2015 #5
    I agree in principle. But it's embarrassing if our speakers arrive to the lecture hall and find they have no audience, and unfortunately there are typically less than 10 attendees per lecture who'd still have attended if they weren't receiving the bonus points for it. (Even among those students who are interested in the subject matter, many of them would have a hard time convincing their parents to drive them to the university campus on a Saturday morning if it wasn't somehow tied to their grade.) But — and this is the saving grace of the whole thing — having gotten them in the door, the students do seem to sit quietly and appear to listen, for the most part. So I do think it's important to eliminate system exploits, because I worry that if a teacher were to find out that students had been getting their names on the attendance list fraudulently, he or she might reconsider offering the extra credit at all. And that's the only way we have to get them in the door!

    I also have a healthy interest in the field of systems design/process engineering, so I think it's a fun and interesting problem to tackle from that perspective.
  7. Feb 12, 2015 #6

    Quantum Defect

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    I was not saying that you shouldn't continue to do this, and offer credit. You defnitely want to fill the sears, and if a grade is an incentive that gets the student's behinds in the seats, then continue this. You are doing a very good thing!! I just do not think that you should worry too much about making an absolutely cheat-proof system.

    Have you talked to the teachers about abuses by the students of the current system? I suspect that many of the teachers are thrilled that many of their students are visiting your campus. You are worried that cheating for extra credit may be something that the teachers are worried about, and may cause them to pull out, but this might not actually be an issue with them.
  8. Feb 12, 2015 #7


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    Do high school students in your area typically carry school IDs? Ideally with a photo on it and a barcode...
  9. Feb 12, 2015 #8
    I don't know for sure, but I imagine they probably have IDs with photos. Barcodes, though, seem unlikely — there's never been a barcode on any school ID I've ever had in high school or college.

    Whether they have those IDs on them on a Saturday morning is another question entirely.

    What system would you propose if they did?
  10. Feb 12, 2015 #9


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    Good point. They *are* high school students, and it is a Saturday after all. LOL :)

    Well, if they had anything that you could scan at the door when they arrive, that would give you an accurate list of who is there. If they don't have barcodes on their student IDs, perhaps you could find or write a smartphone app that does OCR on the name on the ID. That would also let you check them in at the door (and would allow any picture ID with their name on it to be used. It doesn't sound too unreasonable for you to tell the students to be sure to bring a picture ID with your name on it to the lecture, to ensure that they get the extra credit.
  11. Feb 13, 2015 #10
    The problem here is that the more "foolproof" you make the system, the longer the process will be and more checks you'll have to do. You might have to balance it out somehow.

    What you could do is provide 100+ unique keys (something like a software product key or unique QR code with an RSA key or something) for a lecture and print them a bunch of paper slips that the students take from the lecture. You would have to make sure not to duplicate any keys for any lectures so students wouldn't re-use them. When they take them, you can then register that with their name in some database you've created so they can't share (I guess you could alternatively make the key only work for the 1st person who registers it so there is an incentive not to share the same key). If you're worried about them taking more than 1 key, you can take a picture of each student when they get their key and you can write a simple program (with OpenCV or something) that checks that one against every other picture to see if it closely matches another picture already taken. Verification would be simple as well.

    It's an interesting problem. I'd like to see what other people will suggest.
  12. Feb 13, 2015 #11


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    When they arrive, they fill out a card with their name, school and teacher. They hold up the card while you take their picture with the card. You keep the card. They go into the lecture.

    While the lecture is under-way, the computer prints out all the pictures along with lecture title, date and any additional information available. Then initial the printout by embossing it across the corner of the photo image with a ball pen on a soft surface.

    As they get ready to leave they can point to and collect their own picture certificate from a pin board and you can see they collected the right one as they depart. That is then their certificate of attendance.

    You have the used cards as statistics, along with photographic evidence and a history of faces with names, schools and teachers that will make them think twice about trying to cheat the system.
  13. Feb 13, 2015 #12
    Love @Baluncore 's suggestion. Much less work than my method. You might be able to get a unique stamp or something to mark the picture on the back, something less easy to fake than a ballpoint pen mark.
  14. Feb 15, 2015 #13


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    These are all very interesting suggestions. However, I think it's worth pointing out that if I attended a talk and had to go through a security run down involving what basically amounts to a mugshot...I might not be too likely to return...lol
  15. Feb 15, 2015 #14
    I think you need to chill out and realize you don't have a lot of control over the situation, in the sense that there are diminishing returns for anti-cheat vs effort.
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