Attendance Policies and Student Engagement

Attendance Policies and Student Engagement

The decision about whether and how to take attendance in class is a complex one, driven by a number of factors—the type and size of course, the goals of the attendance policy, disciplinary or professional expectations, and even the broader educational philosophy of the instructor. We do not intend this resource to lay out one approach that all instructors should implement, but rather we want to provide a few ideas to consider as you decide how to deal with attendance in your classes.


Why do you want an attendance policy?

There are many reasons behind having an attendance policy, and clarifying these reasons for yourself (and your students) is a good place to start. Here are some potential reasons instructors give for requiring attendance:

  • Encouraging student success: Especially in 100-level classes, you may want to encourage students to establish good study behaviors, realizing that students who skip class often do not do as well in the course. If so, do you have any data or former-student testimonials to back this up, or can you point to research on the impact of attendance on learning? Can you tie this policy to other efforts to encourage their success in class, like how to take effective notes in class?
  • Promoting professional behaviors: Are you trying to encourage a sense of accountability that is expected in your professional field? If so, how can you make that case clearer for your students—e.g., statements from those in the field—and how can it be tied to other course elements tied to encouraging professional behaviors?
  • Supporting group work: Do you use a lot of group work in class that is reliant on everyone showing up? If so, is your policy the best way to promote team cohesion, or are there other team accountability mechanisms beyond—or in addition to—a simple attendance policy?
  • Promoting student responsibility: Are you just tired of having students asking for personal assistance in catching up after they skipped your class? That is totally legitimate, but are there other ways they can catch up, like Kaltura lecture recordings, while still meeting the goals you have for class time?
  • Providing required attendance reports: In the second week of each semester, the Registrar contacts each instructor to confirm student attendance, in part in response to federal student financial aid requirements. For more on related policies, see the Registrar's Attendance Verification page.

As you can see from the comments above, a few themes emerge: First, be clear about your reasons for any attendance policies you implement, so students see your positive intentions. Second, try to find additional ways of meeting those same goals, so the attendance policy is partnered with other, more positive ways of meeting those goals. Together, these goals can help make an attendance policy seem more meaningful than paternalistic or arbitrary.


How will you balance policing and instruction?

At some point, working to ensure accurate attendance information can turn into an administrative ordeal, and being concerned about students circumventing your procedures can turn into a continual policing responsibility. While we do not condone students violating the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct by lying about class attendance, we are sensitive to how a focus on the punitive and policing aspects of attendance can put instructors and their students into an adversarial relationship. As you consider your attendance policies and enforcement mechanisms, think about their impact on that relationship and how much of your energy you want to invest in this way, or if there are other ways of meeting your goals for student engagement and success.


Are you considering student health and wellness?

Many instructors seek to implement strict attendance policies with no exceptions, with the goal of fairness to all students. In theory this works, but fairness and equity are tricky concepts, and we can easily derail struggling students in the pursuit of abstract fairness—students who can genuinely succeed if they get some help navigating an illness, a family emergency, or some other personal crisis. Consider these three factors as you develop and implement attendance policies:

  • How can you balance the importance of attendance with healthy behavior? While the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be behind us, we still do not want sick students feeling obligated to come to class, no matter what their illness. How can your policies encourage attendance while not making students feel pressured to come to class when they may feel ill and/or be contagious?
  • What, if any, documentation do you require for an excuse? The IU Health Center no longer provides “verification of visit” (VOV) forms, which many students submitted to instructors for excused absences. And requiring any form of doctor's note may introduce inequity based on the ability to afford medical treatment, as well as impinge on the student's privacy. In most cases, short term absence may not be worth documenting, although longer-term medical problems might be something the student should contact the Dean of Students office about.
  • Do you consider students’ mental health as well as their physical health? Mental health challenges are harder to see than a cold or the flu, but they can severely impact a student’s ability to attend and engage in class. See Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for more information on how to recognize and help students in crisis, and be ready to address mental health in your policies in similar ways as you do physical health.


Are you considering religious accommodations?

How does your attendance policy address students’ religious observances? In order to respect the diverse traditions of our students, it is important to avoid attendance policies that seem punitive to those practicing their religions. See the CITL’s page on supporting religious observances for more details.


How can you encourage attendance—either in place of a mandatory policy, or in support of one?

In addition to clarifying the reasons for any attendance policy you might have, it is important to set a classroom culture that shows real value in coming to class. If students could just get the notes from a friend—or in some cases just watch a video of the lecture without engaging with in-class activities—what is the benefit of being there in person? Here are some suggestions that give extra value to class attendance:

  • Set a good example for students by arriving early to class, starting and ending promptly to respect their time, and staying late to answer any questions they may have.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for engagement in class—time to ask questions, work through sample problems or cases with classmates, and participate in team-based learning.
  • Expand on material they have already read by making lectures more about application of the content than a recap of their reading.
  • Develop approaches to holding students accountable for coming to class prepared, and then build clear connections to the work you'll do in class that day.
  • If you notice a student missing, send them a note to check in; it shows you care about their success and gets word out that you notice when they miss class.

In other words, what in your classes makes them worth attending?


How can you take attendance?

There are many ways to take attendance, depending upon the type and size of the course, as well as goals connected to other course activities. The best ways of taking attendance also hold students accountable for coming to class prepared. Here are a few common examples:

  • Sign-in sheets: One of the most basic ways to find out who is in class, sign-in sheets can have logistical problems in large classes (did they get to everyone? who will enter data into Canvas or your tracking spreadsheet?), they can be disruptive to students’ engagement, and they are easily subverted by students signing in for an absent friend.
  • Use CATs: Use a Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) to have students submit a quick assignment at the end of class—a concept they are still fuzzy about, or what most intrigued them. This is a nice dual-purpose approach, and while you still need someone to enter attendance data, you (or your TAs) can quickly skim responses for emerging themes worth addressing. More on CATs.
  • Quizzes: Give quick quizzes at some random time in class that meets the needs of the day’s lesson—as a pre-class reading check or a post-lecture comprehension check. Grading can take time, and using Canvas during class can be problematic for students without a laptop or mobile device.
  • Spot-check: Instead of recording regular attendance, have students fill out index cards in the first week, and randomly pull names from the deck for questions, noting those who aren’t there to answer. This method can seem punitive, unless you give bonuses for being there to answer, instead of taking points away when they aren’t.
  • Seating charts: Large classes can assign seating and have TAs note empty seats. It’s a pretty tedious task that lacks connection to other instructional efforts, though.
  • Top Hat: This student response system (aka “clickers”) can include a designated attendance question, or students can just get credit for answering questions you ask during your lecture. Even though students no longer have to purchase a license to use Top Hat, we typically discourage instructors from using it only for attendance, since it has other instructional benefits as well. Be sure to read our page about ensuring accurate attendance and participation with Top Hat.
  • Use attendance questions: Combine taking attendance with encouraging student engagement by asking questions rather than just checking off names.

More ideas are available from our colleagues at Penn State University.

Note: IU has been experimenting with other automated systems for taking attendance. So far, card swipes at classroom entrances seems to create bottlenecks, and card-based systems can easily be compromised by students carrying a friend’s ID.


How can you improve student attendance?

There are various ways you can encourage student attendance, many of which can be used either with or without mandatory attendance policies:

  • Set clear expectations: Be clear about policies in your syllabus, and take time during the first class meeting to address both your expectations and the reasons behind them. Move it beyond a rule by speaking to your goals for them regarding student success and/or professional behaviors.
  • Clarify the benefits of attendance: Make the reasons for attendance in your class very clear—Why is your class worth attending every day? Will you be testing on things covered only in lecture? Will there be significant team-based learning that lets them apply and practice concepts? Is there time set aside for Q&A or review? Consider gathering testimonials from previous students about the benefits of attending class, either in writing or in video-based “tips” for future students.
  • Make class time valuable: Get past lecturing on the same content they read, perhaps working problems or leading a case discussion to expand on their reading. Give time in class to practice application of new knowledge and skills, or engage in group work for this practice. Using a Classroom Assessment Technique activity as an “exit ticket” is a great way to let students reflect on what they learned while giving you a tool for encouraging attendance and keeping track of who is there.
  • Use in-class work for grades: Short quizzes or activities can provide points that only students in class can earn. But make sure these activities have clear benefits for student learning, not just point-generating attendance enforcers.
  • Don’t let students be anonymous: Acknowledge students in the room (particularly those in the back) with a greeting, a check-in during group work, or anything to make them recognize you know they are there and valued. Check in with students who miss class with a quick email to say, “Missed you in class today. Hope everything is okay. Looking forward to seeing you Thursday,” especially if it is connected to anything you have to let students get caught up.
  • Report attendance gaps via SER: Use the Student Engagement Roster to let students know when attendance is becoming a problem. Not only does this prod students a bit, but it also brings attendance issues to the attention of the students’ advisors, who might intervene if they see a pattern across classes.

Thanks to the Center for Teaching and Learning at IU Indianapolis, from whom this section was adopted.


Related Research

Chenneville, T., & Jordan, C. (2012). The Impact of Attendance Polices on Course Attendance among College Students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(3), 29-35. Retrieved from

Credé, M., Roch, S., & 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).

St. Clair, K.L. (1999). A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education. Innovative Higher Education 23(3): 171-180.


Additional Readings

LaFrance, Michelle, and Steven J. Corbett. “A 21st-Century Attendance Policy” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 14, 2014.

Marshall, Kelli. “Why I Don’t Take Attendance” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 12, 2017.


Want more assistance?

If you want more assistance implementing an attendance policy, or finding additional ways of encouraging student attendance and engagement, contact the CITL at