June 25th, 2012

Five Techniques for Improving Student Attendance


The general consensus among most faculty members is that regular class attendance helps students learn and retain the course content more effectively. According to Park & Kerr (1990), research demonstrates that the lack of attendance was statistically significant in explaining why a student received a poor grade.

In this article I focus on some of the practical techniques that faculty can use to increase the attendance in their classrooms. I have used most of these methods during my years of college teaching to keep attendance high in all of my classes.

1. Prepare learning contracts for students to sign at the beginning of the semester. The contracts can be part of the syllabus or independent documents. They should define exactly how grading is done and include an attendance policy. This way, students know right from the start that attendance is part of the calculation.

2. Give unannounced quizzes. The main objective of these quizzes is to encourage students to prepare for each class so they have a basic understanding of the current terms and concepts. Make it clear that the quizzes can’t be made up later by absent students.

3. Provide handouts in class, but do not post them on your course website. Students can come to your office hours to pick up a handout later, but the idea is to discourage them from skipping class knowing that they can grab the material from your website.

4. Collect contact information from students at the beginning of the semester, including their phone numbers and email addresses. Call or e-mail students who are frequently absent and encourage them to attend more often. I started my teaching career at a two-year community college where this was expected of faculty. It worked so well that I have continued doing it, even with my graduate-level students.

5. Think of ways to keep the morale high. Learn students’ names as quickly as possible. Prepare lesson plans that grab student interest. Try to tie in course material with modern real-life examples that students can relate to. Create a classroom that has a sense of community and mutual respect where each member has something to contribute and where disagreement is tolerated. Continually adapt your lesson plans to make the subject interesting and relevant. Encourage student feedback so you can eliminate some of the “busy work” that has minimal learning benefits.

My 14 years of college teaching experience has convinced me that maintaining a high level of student attendance has significant benefits to both the student and the faculty member. Be aware that monitoring class participation through unannounced quizzes, attendance points, or not posting materials to the course website will not be popular with some students. The support from administration and other faculty is essential. Explain to your colleagues and department chair the benefits of your attendance strategy. Many of the students who are initially resistant to this approach will realize its value and respect you for going forward with it.

What are some of the tactics you use to ensure students come to class? Please share in the comment box below.

Park, K. & Kerr, P., Determinants of Academic Performance: A Multinomial Logit Approach, The Journal of Economic Education, Spring, 1990.

Dr. Rick Sheridan is an assistant professor of communication at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

  • Brenda Brown

    Before a Test I give a Test Review on the designated day before the actual test, tis will motivate the studetn to attend the class of the reveiw for the test.

    • Tammy

      I have found that by doing a test review the day before the test only encourages them to come the day before and the day of. This has not worked well for me. I have found "pop" quizzes, worksheets for points, and attendance points worked the best. What is sad is that we have to do this to encourage someone to come and learn.

  • Julie Mullis

    I award bonus points for exceptional attendance–2 points to the final grade average for missing no days and having less than three tardies and one bonus point for only 1 absence. I make this clear on the syllabus during the first week of class.

  • Nicki Nance

    At some point in each class (usually at the end), I have the students do a "minute paper" in which they answer a question about the day's class. I always have higher point value questions the day after a quiz..

  • D Pike

    The policy I have had the most success with in simply stating the number of absences after which the course grade drops. This was suggested to me by students who then see it as under there control when to miss; they also understand the consequences are clear and significant. Note, I also state in my policy that I reserve the right to make exceptions for documented medical and family emergencies. This policy eliminated judging good and bad excuses, shifted my attitude when I get irritated with so many absences to letting it go, and I have had to lower the grade for a student only twice in three semesters of this policy.

  • Barbara Boyan

    The best tactic I have found is to not rely on power point. Students feel that the power point presentation has all the information that they need to do well. I have eliminated PP from my lectures and now teach using the style typically used in law school. The lights in the room are bright. There is no reason to have the computer open unless to take notes. Students don't know if they will be called on so they must pay attention. Dialogue is encouraged, which keeps the students engaged. I write on the board, which forces me to slow down and forces students to engage more parts of their brain. Most importantly, information is shared in class that simply is not available otherwise. This may be an old-fashioned approach to teaching but I do not have a problem with attendance.

  • George

    During the second class meeting, I stand in the middle of thirty students and do an exercise to learn their names and build community. (I wait to the second class meeting to let the drops and adds settle out.) I point to one student and ask his/her name. I point to another student and ask his/her name. I say, "A meet B." I then say "B meet A." I point to a third student and ask for his/her name. I then say "C meet A and B" pointing to the students as I name them. I repeat, "C meet B and A."For the fourth student it is "D meet A; D meet C; D meet B." I vary the order. The repetition helps me remember names. The repetition helps students remember names. When I falter, the students help me. Students appreciate me taking time and risking failure to learn names. They also learn their classmates names. For the third class meeting, I find that Ir etain about 80% of the names. By the fourth class meeting I have them all. (

  • Carol Furchner

    A practice that works well for me is to ask students to turn in answers to two questions: What did you find most interesting, informative, or disturbing in this class? What did you have most difficulty understanding, or if everything was clear, what questions did the class raise that you'd like more information about? Students pick up a slip of paper containing the questions and space to answer on the way into class, and they turn in the answers at the end. Answering is worth a couple of points (a trivial amount) and they're allowed to miss 2-3 depending on number of class meetings. I comment or respond to their questions (briefly) in writing, and hand them out in the next class; if an issue that's troublesome to more than one is raised, I discuss it in the next class meeting. Students seem to like this procedure, and it gives me good feedback on what transpired during each class. (Classes here are limited to 25 students.)

  • Chris

    I treat my students as adult learners. They are self-directed and motivated. If they choose not to attend class, they are personally responsible for their success or failure. Why take the trouble to get them to attend class when they are not willing?

    • Paul

      Precisely. How many employers will bend over backward like some of our faculty colleagues? We are teaching a terribly bad lesson when we DON'T teach students to take personal responsibility.

  • Nicki Nance

    I would love to ignore attendance and leave the student success to the student, but everywhere I teach, retention is such a big factor tracking student attendance is required. Also, one of my schools has all students with learning disabilities. It is an accredited college with the resources to accommodate most learning issues — including that pesky attendance issue.

  • Megan

    I, along with most of my department peers, have a pretty strict attendance policy that seems to keep my students thinking about being both physically and mentally present in class. Depending on the number of classes per week, they get a set amount of absences per semester. For example, if they have a MWF class, they get three free, unexcused absences. No questions asked. Sometimes you need a day to yourself. I get that. However, you have to use those "freebies" with discretion, because once you hit absence number four, you lose a full letter grade off of your final grade. An "A" student who doesn't bother to come to class is now a "B" or "C" student. When I taught at another local college for a year, the policy seemed so crazy that my colleagues picked it up too!

  • Just taking attendance (no points attached) may be enough to increase attendance (and grades).

    Shimoff, E. & Catania, A.C. (2001). Effectts of recording attendance on grades in Introductory Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 192-195.

    Here's a recent overview of the research.

    Golding. J.M. (2011). The role of attendance in lecture classes: You can lead a horse to water… Teaching of Psychology, 38, 40-42.

  • Mary Pat

    Using Active Learning with students divided into groups and each group presenting a potential PSA (Public Service Announcement) for radio, video, or podcast is a challenging task for students to think quickly and work together on projects that can help educate the public. After 30 minutes, the groups present the Public Service Announcement and the entire class votes on the winning project, and this is submitted to different health organizations such as CDC, radio, etc. It is amazing how much talent and innovation these students have. Attendance is mandatory and those students who are absent for these Active Learning Projects lose 10 points from their final grade.

  • Kerry

    How depressing. Yet another article urging professors & teachers to take responsibility for students' motivation, attendance, etc. The more and more and more we do for these children, the less they do for themselves. I agree that course policies should be spelled out clearly at the start, but the less we expect these children to pick up and fulfill these responsibilities, the longer they remain children. Call them up and encourage them to come to class? Really? I sincerely pity the employers who have to deal with our "college" graduates who've spent 4 years expecting their professors to motivate them.

  • Nicki Nance

    It is sad. I taught one term at a college that wanted professors to call missing students. That's why it was only one term. I'm not willing to do the work of an attendance officer.

  • Uzzie

    I divide the class into small group and assigned a special tpic to each group to discuss in class, Also I assign duties to students I suspect to be weak………….I think calling students to come to class is going to their dorms to make sure they have their bath and sleep at 8pm………………they are not kids.

  • Chris C

    I fully agreed with some who expressed sadness and frustration that college teachers and professors now have to perform the roles of "Baby sitters" and K4 (Kiddy) teachers. What more can we do….? May be it is time to rethink our roles in higher education!

  • Sharon Miller

    Think about the student coming to college directly from high school. Attendance is mandatory, a parent and counselor generally select courses, teachers deliver content, testing is largely on a scantron…etc. Factor in that many of our students are first generation into college, and if they are enrolled in a community college, there is no mandated orientation (which typically addresses study and attendance issues). Remember that the messages from the media are "Old School," "Back To School," and even "Animal House." College is a whole new world, and navigating it is not easy. Understanding that students "do not do optional" is foundational to teaching, so setting boundaries like attendance is important. Building community, learning names. Providing inspiring, active, engaging lessons each day with frequent assessments (including some great variations of the One Minute Paper above) is just plain good teaching for learning. Purposeful, personal contacts with students sometimes makes a huge difference in student success, so it is a worthwhile investment of time. The students must do the learning, but my job entails some heavy lifting too.

  • Rosaline

    Sorry, Sharon, but your entry seems like more of same–poor, poor inexperienced students needing nanny college professors to show them how to do everything including show up for class sober and prepared. Yes, classes should be interesting when possible, but most of these "adults" can legally sign contracts and vote for President of the United States. They should be able to figure out what is needed for their classes pretty quickly, especially since most professors spell it all out in excruciatingly long, carefully written syllabi. And if the students can't or won't read the syllabi handed to them the first day of class, then they are unprepared for or unable to do college work and shouldn't be there.

    Most colleges do have orientation programs–some quite extensive–that explain and encourage good study habits. At my college, the "orientation" goes on all first year, with advisors repeatedly urging students to go to class, read the text assigned, etc. Even with this support and very carefully written syllabus (with repeated reminders along the way about attendance policy, no cell-phone in class policy, it's-a-50-minute-class-don't-walk-out-and-return-policy), I have students SHOCKED at midterm or end of term to discover they're failing because they just didn't show up for class, submit homework, etc. I simply do not buy the constant reminders of the need to "engage" these students. I went to a traditional lecture-only college, and I did well because I assumed the responsibility to be engaged–I read the materials, prepared for class, listened and took notes, asked questions, participated in discussions. No one told me to do this. It's pretty easy to figure out. By the end of an hour's class I was exhausted, having paid such intense attention. Many students in my class don't have note paper, writing implements, and even if I say "THIS WILL BE ON YOUR EXAM, WRITE THIS DOWN AND STUDY IT" they sit there, impassive, unwilling to pick up a pen. Our job may entail some heavy lifting, but that heavy lifting shouldn't include lifting the students from 3 year-old to adult. They need to arrive as responsible adults and behave as responsible adults.

  • professorh

    I don't know, Rosaline, I think Sharon makes some valid points. As a professor at a large, urban community college, I have a lot of first-generation students who are clueless about higher ed. And, honestly, their high school experience was not one that has improved their chance for success now. I think we need to do everything we can, that first year especially, to connect with our students and help them understand that just showing up is not enough (it was enough when they went to high school, so they don't understand why it is not enough now). Schools like ours with over 30,000 students, all commuters, mostly working, many with kids and responsibilities, don't have the college knowledge that I (and probably you) had. Doing what we can to help them help themselves is just part of the job. But, again, it's helping them learn to do it – not doing it for them. That's what got them into this mess in the first place.

    • DocMomma

      I was a first generation student from a poor single mother home. Save the stereotypes. My single mother raised me to be a good student, responsible, and to respect authority. It is called being a mature adult, rather than making excuses. This attitude simply reflects the basic problem in American culture today: feelings of entitlement combined with no feeling of personal responsibility.

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  • Moe

    First generation students have the disadvantage of no parental support. Their parents are not familiar with college and most probably work, some, full-time. They do need a little extra guidance. Also, today's students are used to computers, technology, multitasking and being stimulated in class. Active learning strategies and group work, along with brief lecture and power point, enhance their learning. In fact, most don't realize how much they are learning from being actively engaged. We must adjust with the times. Straight lecture and testing is a thing of the past. The world is changing entirely as is the way people learn.

  • Stan

    AS Adjuncts we are in between the proverbial rock-and-hard-place. Our school encourages us to focus on retention and actually call students when they start missing class; unfortunately if we don't go along with the program we may not be teaching for very long; unfortunately I also need the money. This is a University too; go figure! What a shame that education has evolved to this level and we wonder why we are behind other countries in the world. I am ashamed and feel that I am really cheating the students that want to be there. I do find that using attendance as part of the grade seems to help somewhat.

  • Skylar Joyner

    I am very confused. The community college that I teach at stresses and abides by the entire philosophy that "Grades (or points) can not be received by attendance". In other words, I can not give points or grade by attendance. Please help my confusion!

    Thank you in advance!

  • Nicki Nance

    Not confusing to me — I stipulate in my syllabi that attendance does not assure a participation grade, and that students must be "awake, alert, and engaged" to receive participation credit.

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  • Office of aministration

    I set score for my ELT students granting the attendance score for their monthly exam and if one student gets zero from his/her attendance score the scholarship policy will be cancelled.

  • Radhakrishna Sharma

    I have a system called leave trading system which makes the students regular to the classes. With this attendance to each class is guaranteed!

  • Anup kr. Biswas

    If u as teacher rapport build with students & classes are more effectively done by u than students will come in the school, and grow attendance of the students.

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