Modelling how to ‘make students attend’

I’d argue that practically no students have perfect attendance. In the focus groups I wrote about in the last post, the students felt that they had good attendance, but it wasn’t perfect. They didn’t attend for a variety of reasons: because the sessions weren’t perceived as interesting enough, they’d prioritising coursework, were ill etc. These all sound very normal reasons not to attend, but I wanted to carry out the reverse exercise – why do students attend at all?

  • They find the subject/ lecturer/ class intrinsically enjoyable or stimulating (usually our ‘gold standard’)
  • They want to pass the subject AND believe that attending helps
  • They just follow the rules and attendance is required
  • Attending is a a ‘good enough’ use of their time
  • It’s normal – everyone else is attending and so do they
  • They will receive an easily quantifiable reward for attending (usually 10% of a module grades)
  • Attending means that they can complete a task or project or believe that they will receive important cues about a forthcoming assignment
  • They’re attending because something else that they are interested is happening later
  • They are afraid of the consequences of not attending (won’t be able to pass the module)

They attend and hopefully engage because there’s a value to them of doing so. The value may be positive (stimulation) or negative (avoiding trouble), but they’re making an active decision to attend. I think that for disadvantaged students there may be more competing reasons to not attend, or possibly that the value of attending is less clear. I find Gibbs’ argument that some students are ‘cue conscious’ and know which sessions are more important to attend very plausible (Gibbs & Simpson, 2005). There’s also a dynamic aspect to this consideration (Dickson & Stephens, 2016), students who attend more regularly or engage better are in a different position to understand the value of any given session than their peers who don’t. In the most extreme case, a student who only turned up to the last class of the module is far less likely to see the value and meaning of the session than someone who has attended regularly throughout.

Notes from a focus group with students showing ideas that they liked/ didn't like for improving attendance.
Notes from a focus group on attendance

When we think about engendering a culture of attendance, I suspect that we go to the extremes:

  1. Make the session as interesting as possible – sort of love bombing students into submission
  2. Batter students into submission with punitive sanctions if they fail to attend

This is a first draft of thinking about those levers we possess to encourage greater attendance based on a very active brainstorming session with a university senior leader. There’s a model in here somewhere, but I’m going to start with a list:

  1. Make every lesson interesting, stimulating and emotionally rewarding (obviously this is the ‘gold standard’)
  2. Use peers to build the social contract of high expectations of attendance
  3. Rapid follow up to non-attendance, particularly early non-attendance
  4. Repeat selling the relationship between engagement and success – sharing attendance or engagement data with the group and showing the relationship between that and progression/ attainment (nudge)
  5. Social contracting – work with the students to achieve a percentage attendance
  6. Assessments built in to the sessions
  7. Promise to reveal assessment cues at the end of class
  8. 10% of module mark given for having good attendance
  9. Attendance policies with sanctions for non-attendance

The starts with emotionally rewarding intrinsic motivators and ends with more punitive extrinsic motivators.

Clearly, this is just a very idealistic list, each requires time and effort to implement. I haven’t really tackled the issue of lecture capture and have assumed that attending is always the right thing to do. At our institution, attendance peaks in the third week and then steadily declines through the year. I therefore think any plan needs to have a temporal dimension and I also think that any plan needs to have two threads: one for students with okay and better, attendance and a second thread for those with poor attendance.


Gibbs, Graham and Simpson, Claire (2005) Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (1). pp. 3-31.

Kerry Ann Dickson & Bruce Warren Stephens (2016) Standing room only: faculty intervention increases voluntary lecture attendance and performance for disadvantaged year 1 Bioscience students, Higher Education Pedagogies, 1:1, 1-15, DOI:10.1080/23752696.2015.1134196

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