Course Planning: Attendance and Participation

Instructor Considerations for Attendance and Participation: Guidelines to Support and Increase Student Learning

Prepared by: The Center for Teaching Excellence Senate Committee

The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Senate Committee has developed a resource supporting best practices for instructors related to student attendance and participation. The motivation behind this resource is to support instructors in creating course structures, procedures, and routines that simultaneously stimulate student buy-in, engagement, and deep learning. The committee’s considerations, while not exhaustive, allow instructors to reimagine how instruction, class activities, and learning outcomes can align to maximally promote active student engagement in the learning process. 

Through the committee’s research and scholarly dialogue, two important findings emerged that served as a guide for creating this resource. 

First, and foremost, attendance is highly correlated with student performance (class grades and GPA). Acknowledging this relationship places high importance on instructors to ensure that students come to class and have access to the classroom culture, activities, and discourse. 

Second, the key to active student engagement in class (and thus attendance) is the students’ belief in the potential to reach and demonstrate learning outcomes in the course. In other words, if new learning is happening in class that directly relates to students achieving performance outcomes, then they are more likely to attend. On the other hand, if our instruction is simply restating learning that took place out of class or will not be evaluated, students are less motivated to participate and/or attend. This finding suggests that the key to successful student attendance and engagement lies in the implementation of effective and reflective teaching and clear communication of learning outcomes.  

The considerations and strategies outlined in this resource are grounded in research on best practices in teaching and learning. Rather than motivating institutional or departmental policy or suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to how we communicate participation and attendance guidelines to our students, this resource instead offers recommendations and examples that can support increased engagement, attendance, and, thus, learning across our campus.  

The objective of this resource is twofold. First, we want to summarize the ideas that instructors should consider when thinking about participation and attendance. Second, we want to provide examples of good practices to consider within the context of attendance and participation. Together, these objectives lead to two primary questions this resource aims to address:

  • Q1: What should instructors consider in an effort to increase class attendance and participation rates among university students?
  • Q2: What are the good practices that instructors should consider within the context of attendance and participation that support student learning?

Following are the considerations and strategies that could be used to address the aforementioned questions. 

Considerations for Promoting Class Attendance and Participation

Course Context

The following variables need to be considered when setting and evaluating attendance and participation expectations.

  • Course level (100s to 700s)
  • Course content
  • Course modality (how the course is offered by the instructor, e.g., on-campus instruction)
  • Course prerequisites
  • Class size
  • Class location (field, internship, on-campus, studio, lab, lecture hall)
Questions for Reflection

Questions Related to the Rationale Behind Class Attendance and Participation Policies

  • To what extent are activities in class aligned with assignments and learning outcomes?
  • How do you create a culture of learning versus one predicated on grades and earning points?
  • How does learning happen in your classroom?
  • In what ways do students engage with content in the class? With other learners? With you as the instructor?
  • How is class participation related to learning?
  • How are students’ demonstrations of learning related to assessments?
  • Why should students attend class? How is their attendance related to participation, the course learning goals, and measurements of success? How does not attending class impact students’ learning in the course and/or demonstrating learning outcomes?
  • What are students missing by not attending and participating in a class that they wouldn’t gain from reading the text or other material? For example, perhaps your concern is that they would miss out on the opportunity to engage with you and other students in group discussion. However, are the past participation rates for these activities high enough to indicate that students found these helpful and motivating enough for them to come to class?
  • How do career-related expectations factor into your course? For example, A K-12 teacher gets 3 personal days per year and only 10 sick days. You have to go to work even when you don't feel like it. How does this expectation translate into the 38 class sessions for your class per semester? If you require that a student notify you if they are going to be/are absent, help students understand how this is commensurate with professional behavior expectations.

Questions Related to Setting/Enforcing Class Attendance and Participation Policies

  • What does participation look like in your learning environment(s), e.g, face-to-face vs. remote?
  • How do you evaluate participation?
  • How is student reflection on participation addressed (if it’s appropriate)?
  • How do you differentiate between students simply attending and physically being present in class and actually participating during class?
  • At what point in the course are incomplete and/or withdrawal options for students appropriate? How and when are these options communicated to students?
  • How can students make up learning outcomes from missed classes without it falling on you as extra work? How can students be provided opportunities to continue their learning while being held accountable for the class content?
  • How are resources that work to discourage student absences and support learning communicated to students?
  • For laboratory and studio instruction, how are you factoring in access and space limitations as you plan late and make-up work procedures? How are these procedures and their rationale communicated to students?

Strategies for Promoting Class Attendance and Participation

The following strategies are offered based on the philosophy that class attendance and
participation are positively correlated with learning. Awarding points toward a grade just
for showing up sends the message to students that grades are not a representation of
their competency with the subject matter. If attendance and participation are a part of the
course grade, it should be a small part, but students should be expected to engage with
the content, not receive a grade or points simply for being there.

Best Practices

  • Devise strategies for communicating and interacting with students. Review this
    template adapted from the University of Utah to create a communication and
    interaction plan to support student engagement and learning.
  • Ensure that the course structure is clearly communicated on the first day/during
    the first week, including what a “typical” class period might look like.
  • Help students understand that from Day 1 they are strongly encouraged to raise
    questions when clarification is needed.
  • Make expectations clear. Communicate what you expect of students, and what
    students can expect from you. Create an official or unofficial “contract” to hold
    each other accountable.
  • Remind students of course procedures and the rationale behind them. The
    midpoint of the semester, particularly when presenting midcourse evaluation data
    to students, is a good opportunity to help students connect learning opportunities
    and resources with the course culture, structure, and routines.
  • Ensure that the course syllabus is clear and consistent on dates for dropping with
    a W or Incomplete. Ensure that this information is aligned with the accompanying
    course Canvas site.
  • Integrate weekly student reflections into the course to allow students to
    demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. Remind students of the metrics used
    to evaluate their success and what resources are available to support their
  • Ensure that there are frequent and varied opportunities for students to
    demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes rather than just a few high-stakes
  • Communicate campus-wide resources that support meeting students’ needs and
    their physical, mental, and emotional health:

Possible Strategies to Consider Depending on Course Goals

  • Exit slips/low stakes activities to promote student learning, attendance, and
    engagement. Note: Points assigned need to be weighted enough that these are
    of sufficient “point value” for students to attend. Article 3 talked about the value of points/impact on grade.
  • Dropping the lowest grade on a set of assignments (e.g., lowest lab, lowest quiz)
  • No Questions Asked (NQA) policy: Extend the deadline for up to 3 assignments
    (“I do not need to know why”).