How Do I Provide Flexibility and Ensure Attendance?

How Do I Provide Flexibility and Ensure Attendance?

Empty lecture hall
"Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall semester, 2010" by sidewalk flying is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The existing research on class attendance consistently demonstrates an association between students’ regular class attendance and academic performance (Crede, Roch & Kieszcyznka, 2010; Supiano, 2022).  At the same time our experiences over the last several years tell us compassion and empathy count and that providing students with flexible options to remain engaged in their classes even when they are not able to attend in person allows students to navigate challenges related to their physical health, mental wellbeing, and personal circumstances. How then can instructors establish expectations that encourage class attendance yet also provide flexibility for students? 

Two theoretical concepts from learning sciences can be useful in framing strategies to promote class attendance: First, much of what we learn occurs in a social context in which learners have the opportunity to interact and engage with both more knowledgeable experts (instructors) and with similarly novice learners or peers (Vygotsky, 1962). While these contexts can occur in online and in-person settings, most instructors have designed their courses based on in-person attendance with options intended only for occasional absences. Second, individuals are motivated to engage in learning when they feel a sense of belonging to the community, are given choices, and are supported in mastering the content (Deci & Ryan, 1985).  Students may not fully understand why coming to class matters and why, given their own experiences of remote learning, attendance even should be required (Bungle, 2021).  Instructors can help students make more positive decisions about class attendance by discussing how attendance supports their learning, supplying guidance on how to use supplemental course materials, and promoting incentives rather than penalties. 


Explain why coming to your class matters and how attendance supports students learning. Reflect on what in-class activities your course provides and share with students how these activities will help them learn. Provide an overview of and rationale for what you and the students will be doing during class: for example, ways students will be able to interact with you and their classmates, how in-class activities may include opportunities for questions and discussions that offer immediate feedback and expanded explanations, time to practice learning outcomes before exams or assessments, and shared learning time with peers which can foster deeper learning as well as important relationships that can encourage their attendance and promote success beyond the classroom, particularly for underrepresented minorities (Mishra, 2020).  Do this beyond the first day of class—get in the habit of clarifying the learning purpose behind all classroom activities.  

Engage your students during class from the first day to show that their attendance matters to you. Engage students in creating norms for participation, emphasizing that you want an environment in which all students feel safe to ask questions and make mistakes (i.e., learn!). Ask thoughtful questions and get responses from all students by using polling, small group discussions, or exit tickets (See this Faculty Success story on exit tickets). Rather than reiterate what students read before class, engage students in discussions or problem-solving that requires them to apply what was learned to real-world scenarios. Use a portion of class time like office hours in which students can pose questions on any aspect of the material, perhaps by submitting anonymously online. Students will attend class when they experience a safe environment for learning in which they can check their current understanding, put things in context, and clarify any points of confusion.  

Provide students with guidance on how to use Echo and Zoom class recordings and other supplemental materials. Students tell us that they appreciate it when instructors provide Echo and Zoom recordings of class sessions, pre-recorded videos, lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, study guides and exam review notes. While some students may use recordings of class sessions as review materials or study, others feel that watching an Echo recording is the same as coming to class. Help your students understand that Echo or Zoom recordings are a supplement if they must miss class but that these recordings do not provide full access to the learning that occurs in person. Share what other things they can do to work towards the social learning experiences they missed (e.g., connecting with a classmate to go over classwork or study for the exam). Other students may be bewildered about the range of supplemental resources available and uncertain of how they should use these materials; provide a brief overview of why these materials are included in your class and examples of how students might use them. 

Promote incentives rather than penalties. Penalties and incentives can appear similar on the surface but incentives guide students in making more positive decisions and promote choice while penalties punish after the fact. For example, some instructors establish more stringent attendance policies that emphasize the rules while others adopt more learner center policies that focus on why students should be there:  

  • Stringent policy: Since attendance is so critical to your success in this class, I will only allow two unexcused absences for the semester where you will not have to tell me why you are missing the class without it impacting your course grade. Beyond that I will need appropriate documentation for excused absences. Should you have more than two unexcused absences, your course grade will be lowered by one letter grade after considering the grades you earned on course assignments (so if the cumulative grades you earned for assignments were an “A”, you would receive a “B” course grade if you had more than 2 unexcused absences; if you received a cumulative “B” for assignments, you would receive a “C” course grade; etc.). 
  • Learner-centered policy with penalties: This is a conversation class, which means a major part of the work of the class comes from our discussions. The texts are not the class! Attendance at all sessions is important.  You may miss up to three sessions for any reason with no penalty.  Beyond these three, each absence will lower your grade by three points unless we have come to an agreement in advance (regarding medical concerns, for example).  You'll be responsible for making up missed work and material for any missed class by liaising with your peers.  

  • Learner-centered policy no penalties: Learning should not be done in isolation; it is a social activity. It is my intention that you not only learn from but also from and with each other. This will be an interactive class with many opportunities to engage directly with your peers. For this to work, I expect that everyone attend class, show up on time, and be mindfully present. Being active and engaged in class will provide you with the deepest learning experience. 


Below are additional incentive-based strategies:  

  • Offer students bonus points or extra credit for attendance. Faculty have found success in offering extra credit for answering in-class clicker questions or completing other brief activities, strategies which take attendance and reinforce learning. Some faculty have chosen to offer these extra credit opportunities during selected classes, not announced in advance, while others have offered them in each class but limited the number of points possible to earn. 

  • Use a token or ticket system. Offer all students a certain number of tokens that can be used for a class absence, lateness on an assignment, or a dropped quiz. A token system highlights the importance of class attendance as a learning activity and provides students with flexible choices. 

  • Take attendance. The act of taking attendance says that attendance matters. Instructors may choose to grade participation in different ways but taking attendance does signal that the instructor values attendance and knows who is there and who is not. Consider asking students to notify the instructor if they will be absent and following up individually with students who are not maintaining regular attendance. 

  • Prepare learning contracts for students to sign at the beginning of the semester. Some instructors use the first class meeting to negotiate class expectations and norms with their students while others establish the expectations prior to the start of classes. In either context asking students to sign a contract communicates the importance of the course expectations.  

Share your attendance policies on the course syllabus and clearly state the course expectations. Whatever strategies you adopt in your class, it is important that your attendance policies are clearly stated in the syllabus. Academic Regulations provide detailed information on the University attendance policies.  



Bungle, S. (August 25, 2021). Opinion: Mandatory attendance policies are irrational and ableist. Washington Square News. 

Crede, M., Roch, Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class Attendance in College: A meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 272-295.  

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.  

Mishra, S. (2020). Social networks, social capital, social support and academic success in higher education: A systematic review with a special focus on ‘underrepresented’ students. Educational Research Review, 29, 1-24. 

Supiano, B. (January 20, 2022). The attendance conundrum: Students find policies inconsistent and confusing, they have a point. Chronicle of Higher Education 

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 


Students sitting around a table.

Students engage and participate when there is a class climate in which they feel safe, supported, and encouraged to express their thoughts, values, experiences, and perspectives.

Black male student reaching for a paper while sitting at a desk.

A good start to your class can help build community, establish the depth and character of your learning environment, provide hands-on engagement, give students an opportunity to connect their experience to course topics, and set an inclusive foundation for learning. 

Hyeyoung Park headshot

Hyeyoung Park, Assistant Professor in the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing, uses exit tickets as an informal Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT), which provides her with important feedback from her students.

Students seated in an auditorium style lecture hall.

Frequent check-ins, building in interactions, and bringing in real-world examples can help keep your students engaged in large classes.