Motivating Students

Encouraging students to attend class and meaningfully engage with learning are important components of good teaching. 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. It also provides guidance on developing engaging activities for both in-person and online course modalities.

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Attendance FAQs

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:

  1. How do characteristics of the students relate to their attendance behavior?

  2. How do characteristics of the courses in which students are enrolled relate to their attendance behavior?

  3. What reasons do students give for their day-to-day attendance decisions?

  4. 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.

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.”

University policy defines a University Excused Absence as an absence for which a student cannot be penalized and shall receive an accommodation for completing the missed work. University excused absences apply to all course requirements, including any final examinations, quizzes, in class work, and tests other than final examinations. Review the policy to determine how to handle a university excused absence. 

This document provides more details about expectations and best practices for students and instructors in relation to the excused absence policy. 

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. Relate learning to students’ real lives: Millennial and Gen Z learners 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.

Fostering Student Engagement

There are no magic solutions to engaging or re-engaging students, but helping them understand the value of a class can help. Students often render judgments about that value in the first few class sessions, making it crucial for instructors to set expectations, explain the significance of the course, and build community from Day 1.

Draw on principles for fostering engagement

A good place to start is by considering a few key principles tied to human values and motivations, as outlined in the book, How Learning Works, by Ambrose et al. (2010):

  • Expectations. Set clear expectations for attendance and engagement early and often.   ​
  • Value. Increase the subjective value of learning tasks. Make assignments meaningful.  ​
  • Outcomes. Help students understand that engaging in learning tasks will lead to positive outcomes. ​

Create multiple sources of value in the work students do for your course

  • Create Intrinsic Value by linking material to student interests, incorporating learning choice, or developing authentic or socially relevant assignments
  • Create Instrumental Value by linking the work to a grade/points, and making it apparent how the work prepares students for another course, getting a job, a greater income, etc..
  • Emphasize Attainment Value through progressive tasks, competency-based learning, or identifying clear benchmarks/mastery levels for students to achieve
  • Build social value by showing students that you know and care about their engagement. Use student learning groups so that their peers know and care. 

Foster motivation through clear guidance to students

The following suggestions can help build students' expectancies that their engagement in learning tasks will lead to positive outcomes: 

  • Alignment. Help students understand connections between outcomes, assessments, learning tasks​.
  • Transparency. Create rubrics, set clear expectations, and help students understand the steps they can take to successful performance.​
  • Challenge. Make sure the course and tasks have an appropriate level of challenge.​
  • Early successes. Help students build confidence and enthusiasm through low-stakes assignments.​
  • Feedback. Offer your feedback and give students opportunities to use it.​
  • Reflection. Provide opportunities to reflect on learning.​
  • Flexibility. Build flexibility into your course so that students have a sense of control over their work and their success.​ Give them choices in the focus and form of assignments.

Some Examples of Engaging Class Activities

Case studies

Give students an opportunity to consider and discuss a real or fictional case that incorporates theory or concepts.  Provide guiding or reflection questions to encourage a richer dialog whether students interact synchronously or via a discussion thread.  Provide an opportunity for individual reflection at the end, such as through the Journal tool in Blackboard. After exposing students to example case studies, you might even ask students to write and analyze their own case studies to illustrate key themes in the course.


Provide students with a situation or argument, divide them into two (pro/con) or three (pro/con/third way) groups, provide some time to formulate an argument, and let the exchange begin!  Again, providing an opportunity for structured individual reflection at the end is helpful.  Here is an example of a full assignment with a reflection guide, developed by Amy Leyerzapf for her leadership studies course.

Fishbowl discussions

These are most useful for synchronous class discussions (online or in person). Large class discussions can be intimidating, particularly if enrollment numbers exceed the number of screen tiles that can appear on Zoom at once.  Consider breaking the class into two or more groups and conduct a fishbowl discussion.  A guide to get you started, with several variations, can be found at the Facing History & Ourselve's Resource Library.  

Jeopardy or other “game show” Q&A’s

Courses where students need to master quantities of objective content, trivia-style Q&A’s are a good way to test knowledge.  Instructors of asynchronous courses may want to consider inviting students to a special exam review or office hour via Zoom for a few rounds.  A reliable template in either Powerpoint or Google Slides is available for download

Living history presentations

Students may enjoy researching significant figures related to the course and presenting their findings in character either live during a synchronous class session, or by video or podcast as an asynchronous activity.

News of the day

Assign, or allow students to choose, a course topic or important construct.  The student can present a current event in the news and connect the event to the featured concepts, and share in one of the course interaction tools (e.g., discussion board or student produced blog), or to start off a synchronous class meeting (consider assigning different students to different class periods).

Peer consultations

Pairing students for feedback, particularly on major assignments, can reduce uncertainty, build community, and ultimately make for higher quality assignments and easier grading.  Structure helps here.  Consider pairing students rather than allowing them to choose their partners and conducting multiple rounds of feedback over a longer period of time (the last 20 minutes of class, one meeting a week over three weeks for example).  Provide students with a copy of the grading rubric to guide their critique.  Breakout rooms work well for synchronous courses, while students can collaborate outside of asynchronous courses via Zoom, Teams, or other video conferencing or document-sharing platforms. 

Engaging Online Instructional Activities

Long gone are the days of creating an online learning experience simply by posting a series of recorded lectures, documents, and assignments on Blackboard for students to review then “testing” their compliance via auto graded quizzes and exams. 

Research demonstrates that a positive online learning experience is related to three factors:

  1. Connectedness with the instructor.
  2. A sense of community with classmates.
  3. Engagement in learning.

These three factors interact - students who feel a sense of connectedness are more likely to engage in the class, improving the learning experience. 

Collaborative learning, peer feedback, learner choice, and sustained discussion that includes personal stories, perspectives, and experiences can all encourage higher order learning while also creating a positive learning community. Below is a list of recommendations for creating positive online learning experiences. Consider using multiple strategies; refer to the section on Universal Design for Learning for more information about how multimodal approaches support learning and engagement. 

When a class has few or no opportunities for in-person interaction, we have to intentionally create spaces for students to interact and collaborate. Think of these as ways of creative virtual sites for interaction:

Discussion threads

One of the most common methods for fostering interaction among students is to use Blackboard’s discussion function. Many instructors ask students to post both an initial response and an expected number of substantive follow up responses.  Less experienced students will benefit from concrete examples of initial and follow up posts (to avoid the “I agree” or “This happened to me too” responses) and a timeline for engaging (initial post no later than Wednesday, three follow up posts by Sunday). Instructors should “pop in” and engaging the students with posts, to spur a lively exchange, provide informal feedback, and create a sense of instructor presence.


Voicethread also allows for group discussions, but can increase engagement and student choice by allowing students to contribute through multiple modalities, including text, voice, and video.

Student created blogs

Another creative way to engage students in discussion is through student blogging assignments. Each student creates a post and peers comment on one anothers’ posts.

Shared virtual workspaces

Wikis or shared docs in Teams allow student groups to work collaboratively at a distance by giving the ability to share and edit content over the Web.

Student-made “podcasts,” videos, or vlogs

Brief, 3-5 minute, media clips allow students to relay information, highlight significant individuals, or coach classmates.  These work equally well with synchronous or asynchronous courses. 

One feature lost in a transition from face-to-face to online instruction is the valuable snippet of time individuals have before the scheduled starting time.  Much can be learned about one’s fellow participants in these moments of casual exchange.  Trust and camaraderie can be established in increments.  Friendships can form.  Intentional ice-breaker and getting to know you exercises can serve as substitutes for these impromptu conversations. Some examples:

“Getting to know you” questions

Consider using the discussion board in an asynchronous class and ask everyone to post a response to your questions (consider asking students to submit questions to you as well).  Good questions will go beyond the type of demographic information common to roll calls (name, home town, major, year in school, campus affiliations, etc.) which can lead students to form impressions based on stereotypes or inherent biases.  The best questions will encourage a deeper dive by adding “and why” to get to the story below.

Student introduction videos

Both the instructor and students can post brief introduction videos, sharing a few things they want their classmates to know about them as well as their hopes for the class experience.

Virtual Nametag Assignment

Students create and post a virtual nametag in which they share some of their characteristics, experiences, and interests  and then look at their classmates’ nametags to identify commonalities and differences. 

Give students a sense of ownership with learning activities by providing some options for learner choice and perhaps even engaging students in the design of some components. In addition to encouraging engagement, engaging students as partners can build a sense of trust, and gives students, including those who may experience significant barriers to learning (online access, socioeconomic issues, learning differences, time constraints, etc.) an opportunity to weigh in with their capacity. For instance:

  • Find out what students want to learn, and use their goals to help shape the class.
  • Develop learning activities/ assignments that allow students to choose topics or the modes of expression.
  • Share your learning objectives for a particular unit or module and ask students what types of learning experiences and assignments they would like to engage with. Less experienced students may require examples of what past classes have done. 

Create a more integrated and engaging experience for students while lightening the design load for any one faculty member or instructor. Examples:

Connect assignments across classes

For example, students in one class could become the audience for those in another class.

Common problems

Address a common problem or “grand challenge” in multiple courses. Students begin to see what different courses or areas of the discipline bring to that problem, and instructors collaborate in some aspects of the course design.

Shared modules

Many core concepts and skills in a discipline are addressed, by design, in multiple courses. Instructors can collaboration on the design of some shared or common modules, and students can benefit from a more scaffolded opportunity to transfer their understanding from one course to another.

Some especially engaging approaches to online teaching learning involve leveraging the unique affordances of an online environment. For example:

Guest Speakers

Bring in guest speakers or distinguished alumni panels (who might not otherwise be available for an in-person visit).

Social Media

Use social media or other high immediacy tools (e.g., Teams chat) to have students connect what they are learning to the world around them and share their learning while it is happening. In this In this example from Derek Bruff’s Leading Lines Podcast, Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut describes how in her large enrollment ornithology class, she asks students to post about birds on Twitter as they see them in daily life. The goal is to support transfer: getting students to apply what they are learning in the class in other contexts. Transfer is a sign of robust learning, but must be intentionally scaffolded through course and assignment design. But ultimately, this is what we all want out of our courses, right?

Discussions of challenging and potentially heated topics can help students develop important skills, in meaningful discourse, evidence-based critical thinking, perspective taking, and listening. See our Supporting Meaningful Conversations page about how instructors create a positive climate for class discourse about difficult or divisive topics, whether in a live interaction OR asynchronous discussion forum (e.g., discussion board, chat channel, email, or VoiceThread).