Whether or not you make attendance mandatory in your course, encouraging students to attend class is an important component of good teaching. It’s unlikely that students will feel motivated to consistently maintain solid attendance if class time is devoted to repeating and summarizing material from the textbook or PowerPoint slides. However, if that material is challenged, enhanced, or represented in an engaging manner, then students will likely feel as though attending class is a worthwhile endeavor. This page presents research on why students do and do not attend classes, an overview of the debate on whether or not students should be penalized for missing class, and some strategies to motivate students to attend class throughout the semester.
Why Students Do and Do Not Attend Classes
A study conducted by CTE, titled “Why Students Do and Do Not Attend Classes,” examined the relationship between course characteristics, student characteristics, and the rationale of students for either attending class or not attending class on a daily basis. The study sought to answer the following four questions:
- How do characteristics of the students relate to their attendance behavior?
- How do characteristics of the courses in which students are enrolled relate to their attendance behavior?
- What reasons do students give for their day-to-day attendance decisions?
- How do these reasons relate to the number of their absences?
Variables assessed included gender, class standing, age, grade point average, employment, residence (either on campus or off), cost of tuition and who was paying it, and the number of credit hours the student was enrolled in. A total of 333 students participated in this study, and they had an average of 3.17 absences per class, with a range from 0 to 12.25 absences.
Some of the reasons provided by students for why they attended classes included personal values, obtaining course content, fulfilling grade requirements, factors related to the teacher, and peer influence. Reasons not to attend class included being sick, participating in other school or non-school-related activities, participating in leisure activities, avoiding teacher- or class-related experiences, and having no incentive to attend.
Results indicate that students who had higher GPAs had fewer absences than those students who had lower grades. Other student characteristics, such as gender, age, class, residence, method of funding education, or number of credits enrolled in, did not correlate with number of absences.
Students were more likely to attend classes that were taught by a GTA as opposed to those taught by a professor. The main reason cited for attending GTA-taught classes was that “absences above the minimum affect my grade,” and one of the main reasons cited for not attending professor-taught classes was that “attendance is not taken or does not affect my grade.”
Therefore, it appears that whether or not attendance is required significantly predicts whether students attend class or not. Students also said that they were more likely to attend class if the class size was small due to the teacher noticing if they were present, if their presence affected their course grade, and if they had the opportunity to participate in class discussion.
Overall, a combination of teacher and student influences affect class attendance, with a large factor being whether or not a penalty exists for missing class. The study concludes, “If students believe they should attend class, are not sick, not tired from having fun the night before, and like the subject matter, and if teachers notice when students are there, take their attendance into account for the course grade, and provide information students must be in class to get, attendance will be optimal.”
Resources: Friedman, P., McComb, J. & Rodriquez, F. (1999). “Why Students Do and Do Not Attend Class.” The Scholarship of Teaching: Classroom Research at KU. Published by the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Should Attendance be Mandatory?
In 2012, Dr. Michael Bugeja published an article in Inside Higher Ed titled “Attendance Not Required.” In this article, Bugeja includes his unique attendance policy for his Media Ethics course at Iowa State University:
You can miss as many lectures as you like, as long as an exam or project is not due that day. Simply write a brief e-mail to me explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment – don’t explain symptoms). Send the e-mail to me before you miss the scheduled lecture or deliver it within 24 hours. Note: Title your absence email "462 Absence."
Bugeja’s approach to attendance raises the larger question of whether or not students’ grades should be negatively impacted because of their attendance. Many would argue that students who skip five or more classes in a semester don’t deserve the same grade as a student with perfect attendance. On the other hand, some would argue that presence has nothing to do with performance. Following this line of argument, if a student can master the material without attending class, then their grade should not be automatically reduced because of their attendance. As instructors, how are we to know what sort of attendance policy works best for our classes, and for our students?
In her article for “The Innovate Instructor Blog,” published through John Hopkins University, Macie Hall reminds us that “an attendance policy will not guarantee attendance.” What it does guarantee, however, is that students who do not attend class consistently will receive worse grades than students who show up. If you believe that attendance is a prerequisite for success in your course, keep in mind that you cannot guarantee attendance, let alone participation. While attendance polices aim to enforce attendance, you must remain motivated to encouraging student learning in order to make attending class important for your students. Requiring attendance cannot fix the problem of low student participation and motivation. As Michael B. Lindsay explains in his article “Attending to Attendance,” we must remember that “college classrooms work when they take advantage of what they do, which is to put people together, in time and in space. They are meeting places, social places – places that have the potential to offer something you can’t get everywhere: an intersubjective learning experience.”
In their 2007 article for The Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Motivating Today’s College Students,” Crone and McKay contend that college students of the millennial generation “have been raised on interactive technology and entertainment-style communication. We have been told by our students that straight lectures or PowerPoint presentations rarely hold their attention. Experiences that involve students and require them to interact as a part of their own learning are more likely to maintain their interest.”
Crone and McKay also recognize the issue of relevance and meaning: “by helping students see—perhaps for the first time in their lives—that the work in which they are engaged is meaningful work that is important for them to accomplish, we can help students take the initiative, avoid failure, and learn.” Once students recognize the value of their work in a class, they will feel less inclined to skip that class.
In a blog post for Faculty Focus, Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti offers the following five tips for keeping students engaged in a course:
- Make explanations clear, and don’t talk too fast: Students report that one of the top reasons they attend class and one of the top instructor behaviors to hold their attention is the pacing of the instructor’s explanations. Speak clearly and slowly enough that students can process your comments and take notes.
- Employ backward design to make course work relevant: Start by figuring out the learning outcomes you want students to achieve, and then let those goals help you decide on your teaching methods and assessment practices. Avoid mismatches in design, such as choosing increased critical-thinking abilities as a learning outcome but choosing to teach by lecture only and giving only multiple-choice tests.
- Use humor to your advantage: When students were asked about instructor behaviors that increase their attention in class, they named the use of humor and the avoidance of a monotone presentation style as two of the top behaviors. Try to make your classes lively and entertaining, and use good presentation practices to avoid a monotone delivery.
- Use multiple teaching methods in most classes when possible: Lecture has its place in a class, but students respond best when you mix it up a bit, using discussion, group work, hands-on activities, case studies, and multimedia elements. The bonus: students enrolled in a class that is not primarily lecture tend to text less!
- Relate learning to students’ real lives: Millennial learners, in particular, report a need to understand how learning will link to their real lives. Spending time creating assignments that are clearly linked to current or future life activities will pay off in greater student attention and motivation.