Taking Attendance When Technology is Present: Using Optical Barcode Scanners

Taking accurate student attendance seems to consume an inordinate amount of class time. In the Spring of 2011, while teaching a section of Managerial Accounting for non-majors, I resolved to expedite the attendance process. I reasoned that reading off my students’ names as quickly as I could was the only solution. On the first day of class I quickly called off the names of 70 students. Despite my best effort, the process consumed nearly four minutes of class time. This time could have, and should have, been dedicated to instructional content. Moreover, the combination of reading and mispronouncing so many names did nothing to help me learn names by facial association.

I did a quick calculation: assuming that attendance taken at a normal pace requires somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes per class, then by extension attendance deprives students of between 2-4 hours of instructional time (7.5 minutes x 24 classes = 180 minutes) over the course of a semester! I believe that we can do better.

Alternatives to Roll Call: Sign-In Sheets

Many faculty “take attendance” by circulating a sign-in-sheet around the room. This takes very little upfront effort but organizing the information at the end of the semester to tally absences is time consuming. Additionally, the process lacks reliability and verifiability since students can sign their friends in. Other problems with this approach are that it does not adequately incentivize students to arrive on time, nor does it help faculty to learn students’ names.


I wanted to devise an attendance system that overcame problems associated with commonly utilized attendance taking methods, and accomplished four objectives: 1) incentivize students to arrive on time, 2) provide a reliable and verifiable system of identifying which students were present, 3) maintain the attendance record in a format that was perpetually updated and would not require rekeying of information, and 4) provide immediate feedback to students by revealing the number of absences recorded to date. In the Spring of 2012 I introduced an innovative method of taking attendance that utilized technology to accomplish the aforementioned objectives.

A functional description of the approach

Students register their attendance by presenting uniquely assigned barcodes under an optical scanner located in the front of the classroom. The scanner is attached to a computer running Microsoft Excel and, as each student presents their barcode to the scanner, the student’s name and the time of day populate into an Excel spreadsheet. Simultaneously, the Excel spreadsheet reveals the number of prior absences recorded to date. By projecting the spreadsheet onto the overhead screen in the front of the room, the student sees his/her name registered, and their attendance record. An added benefit is that other students in the classroom begin to learn the names of their classmates. Meanwhile, the course instructor can see the names appear from anywhere in the classroom, and can therefore easily make associations between names and faces. Additionally, by recording this process on a video camera, the instructor can re-watch the process at a later date to improve name retention. One significant benefit of this system is that it does not infringe on any class instruction time since students can register their attendance without instructor involvement. Finally, because student arrival times are recorded, instructors can identify tardy students and integrate lateness into the course grading scheme with reliable effect.

The Required Materials

  • USB Barcode Scanner
  • Computer running Excel
  • Printer
  • Optional: Overhead projector

Approximate Set-up Time

  • One hour

Approximate Implementation Cost

  • Barcode Scanner $50-$150 (one-time purchase, reusable)
  • Avery labels $25

I assume the user has Excel and a printer.


For additional details kindly contact the author: Ethan.Kinory@Baruch.cuny.edu

6 thoughts on “Taking Attendance When Technology is Present: Using Optical Barcode Scanners

  1. I would love some more details on implementation of this approach to attendance. I sponsor a large club and this is just what I’m looking for!

  2. How did you configure Excel to read the barcode scanner? Can you please send the procedure. Thanks.

  3. Would love to have the instructions for setting up this attendance system in our school library. All students who visit the library are asked to sign in to confirm their location in case of an emergency such as fire, tornado, etc. Would you please send the procedure?

  4. This is PERFECT for our Children’s Dept at my church. Would you be willing to share the instructions for configuring EXCEL to read the barcodes from the scanner?

    Thank You so much!
    Andrea B Sizemore
    Church Administrator
    Lone Star Church

  5. I too would love the instructions for setting up this attendence system in our school library. Currently our students sign in and out the old fashion way with paper & pencil; it’s not only time-consuming, but wasteful.
    Thank you

  6. This is exactly what I have been trying to construct in excel to keep track of my student’s and their diaries! Are you able to share the procedure for setting up on excel please?? Hope it is still working as successfully for you as described.

Comments are closed.