Encouraging Attendance while Maintaining Flexibility: Strategies for Student Engagement

The shift to emergency remote teaching in 2020 was a challenging time for students and instructors. Many universities embraced the idea of increased flexibility to enable greater autonomy and allow students to pursue their education while managing other challenges in their life. However, with the transition back to in-person teaching, some of these accommodating shifts must come to terms with changes in the higher education landscape, such as heightened disengagement by students (McMurtrie, 2022). One concern is that more accommodating course policies may disincentivize in-person attendance, which may undermine the development of a rich classroom learning environment (Holstead, 2022; Sloan, et al., 2020); Moores, et al., 2019). To bring students back to the classroom, it can be tempting to scale back some course accommodations, such as not recording lectures or providing material online (D’Agostino, 2022). However, we think that it would be a mistake to abandon the accommodating policies many instructors have adopted. In what follows, we offer strategies on how to balance competing pedagogical concerns to maintain flexibility, while still encouraging student engagement.

One approach for incentivizing in-person attendance is to make the classroom environment interactive with various learning activities for student engagement. Unfortunately, students may not immediately see the value of an interactive learning environment, believing they can rely on material available online. To encourage students to come to class while still respecting legitimate reasons to not be in class, we have adopted in-class participation exercises that count towards the course grade, while still allowing students to make-up missed work in a timely manner. Ideally, the quality of class activities encourages students to attend class, but if not, the effort of making up points can nudge students towards deciding to come. Although we are in different academic fields and teach very different classes, we have both adopted this general strategy to help encourage attendance while preserving flexibility. Below, we will describe our class exercises to help give a variety of ideas instructors may consider implementing into their own classes.

Dr. Fetter is in nutrition and teaches a large (500+) introductory level class to a diverse group of students across many majors.

Although attendance was always optional, prior to the pandemic, most students regularly attended class. Returning to in-person teaching in fall 2021, I felt it was integral to provide greater flexibility. To accomplish this, I used lecture capture services to provide video recordings directly to the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) and all assignments were done through Canvas. I shifted to more written, reflective assignments and turned my proctored exams into open-book, take-home exams.

However, these changes contributed to decreased attendance. To help encourage attendance, starting in winter 2022, I developed in-class activities designed to reinforce lecture concepts, highlight more difficult concepts, and encourage group work and interaction among the students. Throughout the 18 lectures, there were 14 activities each worth five points (11 counted towards the grade; 13.75% of the overall grade). The question format varied (multiple choice, check-all-that-apply, drop-down menu, free response), and some were done alongside the lecture slides. The access code for the activity would be released in class and approximately two to six minutes would be allocated for students to work on the activity, either individually or with peers. In case a student couldn’t attend or didn’t have a device with them, lecture recordings were provided within an hour after class ended on Canvas and the activity would be available till 5 PM (PST).

Anecdotally, I noticed attendance improved. I collected feedback through an anonymous survey at the conclusion of the course to see if the activities motivated students to attend lecture, helped reinforce the concepts, and if students felt the activities were useful for their learning.

  • “The in-class activities were great to reflect on what I understood from the main takeaways of the lecture that day and what concepts or part of the lecture I need to make sure to review. They definitely encouraged me to attend lecture.”

Although students could still receive credit for participating remotely, results showed the activities helped increase attendance and almost all students (>90%) felt these formative assessments motivated them to attend lecture.

  • “The in-class activities did encourage me to attend class, especially since it impacted my grade, as well as gaining more knowledge/recap of the class.”

Students found the in-class activities provided a useful measure of their understanding of the concepts and helped to incentivize interaction with their peers.

  • “The activities did a great job breaking up the lectures and keeping everyone active.”
  • “I found them very interactive, and they did encourage me to go to class. I do think the in-class activities reinforce the concepts from the lecture.”

Dr. Verbitsky is in political science and teaches medium-sized (70-120) upper-division classes, primarily to students majoring in the discipline.

My classes are in public law and political theory. For each course, I dedicate a small portion of the overall grade to participation (10%), expecting all students to get full participation points, while the rest of the grade is divided among more discerning assessments. In class, students usually complete a group exercise where they need to discuss and respond to a few set questions. While students are discussing, I can listen to their responses, engage with groups, and bring out salient points when we return to the larger session. The exercises are relatively short (e.g., about 10 minutes of discussion along with a larger class breakdown), but I also create larger dedicated discussions, such as a debate or a jigsaw activity. In my theory classes, I assign students ahead of time to be discussion leaders, where they write a reading reflection in advance and take the lead in longer group discussions. 

For any participation activity, I have students record their responses on a piece of paper, either by a group recorder or individual students. At the end of class, students turn in their participation sheets and these are graded based on completion. For students who missed the credit, they have one week (barring exigent circumstances) to make up the absence. Students can do this by watching the recorded lecture and uploading a sheet with their notes and responses to the participation questions.

Anecdotally, this attendance policy has been extremely effective. When we returned to in-person classes in fall 2021, class attendance was abysmal, going down to around 30% near the end of the quarter. When I changed attendance policies in spring 2022, attendance remained high (over 85%) throughout the quarter. There are confounding effects here, as students were reacclimating to in-person classes over time. My in-class engagement improved with the additional participation activities. I surveyed students to ask them anonymously to assess the policy, and the majority felt the policy was effective at incentivizing engagement and enhancing the value of class sessions.

  • “Your classes have the highest attendance rate throughout the quarter that I have seen in any of my other classes in college. Attending lectures is the easiest way to get participation, which encourages more students to come to class. I tend to procrastinate on doing work, but I found that to be really difficult in your class.”
  • “It encouraged me to attend class and stay updated on lectures. I also made a really good group of friends in this class, partially because the attendance policy facilitated conversation between students and encouraged us to attend class. I have never taken a class where I felt so supported by my peers.”

We hope that by sharing our experiences with ways to incentivize attendance while maintaining flexibility can help encourage others to implement similar policies. Students’ work and study habits changed during remote teaching and the accommodations during the pandemic have led to students wanting increased access to course content, such as class recordings. However, research supports that engagement in class helps lead to greater academic success. Part of creating engagement is fostering an inclusive, active learning community. Finding zero-cost ways to help incentivize students to attend class can encourage more class participation and help students form connections with each other and the instructional team.

Debbie Fetter, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis. She teaches “Nutrition 10: Discoveries and Concepts in Nutrition” in both a face-to-face format and a fully online version. In addition to teaching, she conducts research on investigating differences between face-to-face and online education.

Mark Verbitsky, PhD, is an assistant professor of teaching in the Political Science department at UC Davis, teaching classes on constitutional law and American political theory. Among his pedagogical interests are teaching students learning skills, including undergraduates as part of the teaching team (learning assistants), and integrating non-knowledge based learning outcomes into his courses.


D’Agostino, S. (2022). Should professors still record lectures? Maybe not. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/09/07/should-professors-still-record-lectures-maybe-maybe-not

Holstead, C.E. (2022). Why students are skipping class so often, and how to bring them back. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-students-are-skipping-class-so-often-and-how-to-bring-them-back

McMurtrie, B. (2022). A ‘stunning’ level of student disconnection. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection

Moores, E., Birdi, G.K., & Higson, H.E. (2019). Determinants of university students’ attendance. Educational Research, 61(4), 371-387.

Sloan, D., Manns, H., Mellow, A., & Jeffries, M. (2019). Factors influencing student non-attendance at formal teaching sessions. Studies in Higher Education, 45(11).