Clear articulation of an attendance policy, as well as its potential impacts on student grades, should be part of any course syllabus. This document offers points for consideration, as well as suggestions, for developing your own attendance policy. 

Keep in mind that the campus’s required syllabus statements, including accommodations for disabilities and religious holidays, can have an impact on student attendance. Additionally, the pandemic has made us keenly aware of the importance of health and safety, that no-one should attend an in-person class if they have any symptoms of an illness. Instructors can reduce student requests by forgiving a certain number of absences automatically for all students without needing any excuse. As a reminder, Wardenburg Health Center, Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), Student Support and Case Management (SSCM) no longer provide appointment verification or “doctor’s notes.”  

Pros and Cons of Attendance Policies

Divergent views exist among faculty regarding the merits of attendance policies for their courses. Common arguments in favor of attendance policies include:

  • Attendance helps students learn the course material.
  • Absent students cannot contribute their unique perspectives to class discussion or other group work, negatively affecting other students’ learning opportunities.
  • Attendance policies promote professionalism. 
  • Instructors should help all students learn, not just those students responsible enough to come to class without some form of accountability.

Common arguments against requiring attendance include:

  • As adults, students should learn to be responsible for their own education and for managing their time. Attendance policies impede this learning process.
  • Students who miss classes will likely perform poorly on other assessments (e.g., exams, papers, etc.). Attendance policies further penalize these students. 
  • Requiring unmotivated students to attend class results in poorer quality discussions and group activities. Better to let these students skip class.
  • The goal is student learning. If students can learn the material well enough (or, perhaps, even better) without coming to class, they should be allowed to do so.

In weighing these pros and cons, you might consider how your attendance policy advances and supports the learning objectives that you have identified for your course. CU’s College of Arts & Sciences, for one, recommends that engagement should be a priority, not simply attendance for its own sake. 

Attendance and Participation

You might consider offering multiple options for participation so that those who are self-isolating for any reason have ways to earn credit without asking for accommodations. In this way, participation can be mandatory for all, with the clear expectation that no one should attend in person if they have any symptoms of illness. Students might receive equal credit, say, for participation in a class discussion, attending office hours, submission of written work, or (video) posting on a discussion board in Canvas. Focusing on student engagement with the class material further affords opportunities to assess learning

Technology can offer many ways for students to actively engage with course material, even if they are not always able to physically attend a class. For reasons of accessibility and security, it is highly recommended that you use applications that have been vetted by OIT

Improving Student Attendance

There are various ways you can encourage student attendance, with or without mandatory attendance policies. 

  • Set clear expectations: Be clear about policies, including attendance, in your syllabus and take time during the first class meeting to address both your expectations and the reasons for them. Speak to how your policies support your goals for student success and/or professional behaviors. 
  • Clarify to students the benefits of attendance: Why is your class worth attending every day? Will you test on things covered only in lecture? Will there be significant team-based learning that allow students to apply and practice concepts? Is there time set aside for Q&A or review for exams or other assignments? Consider gathering testimonials from previous students about the benefits of attending class, either in writing or in video format.
  • At the beginning of a course, work with your students collaboratively to set course expectations. This can increase a sense of buy-in from students, as well as increase accountability and trust. 
  • Create a supportive course climate. Make it clear to all students that they are welcome and that you are committed to their success. Make an effort to learn your students’ names. Be proactive in checking in quickly with students if they miss class  
  • Introduce variety into class time: In addition to lecturing, offer time to students to work on problems or lead a 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 low-stakes Classroom Assessment Techniques, such as a Fishbowl, Clickers, and One-Sentence Summaries, can improve engagement and learning with minimal effort on the part of the faculty member. 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.
  • Use in-class (group) work in factoring final grades: Make sure these activities have clear benefits for student learning, not just point-generating attendance enforcers.
  • 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. 

Structure and Flexibility

The pandemic has raised awareness of myriad challenges that our students face, such as illness, financial and housing stresses, and challenges with mental health. These and other stressors can have an impact on student attendance. Throughout the pandemic, students have expressed gratitude for small acts of compassion and flexibility that faculty have demonstrated. 

Finding the balance between flexibility and structure can be challenging. Some ideas to build flexibility into your syllabus include:

  • Allow students to choose among a certain number assignments over the course of a semester. You might, say, ask students to turn in 8 of a series of 10 written assignments to receive full credit. This affords students a degree of flexibility in their time management.
  • Allow students to turn in one or more assignments late without penalty or explanation.
  • Consider the use of contract grading or “un-grading”. This approach has built-in flexibility, for it allows students to individually select the effort they will put into a class--including attendance, number of assignments completed, etc.--with a corresponding grade. Mid-semester check-ins can be used to hold a conversation with students as to whether they are meeting, or even exceeding, those expectations. In the latter case, students can be encouraged to pursue a higher grade.
  • Consider mastery-based course design for flexibility.

Some Samples of Syllabus Language

The following are examples of language faculty have used in syllabus attendance policies:

  • The knowledge and skills you will gain in this course highly depend on your participation in class learning activities. Because of that, I expect you to attend all class sessions unless you are ill or have a valid reason for missing.  I plan to track class attendance to help me understand how and when students are engaging in the course. If you are ill or have another valid reason for missing, please contact me by email in advance of the absence. 
  • 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've 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.
  • If you are having any difficulties meeting the requirements for the course and are thinking about dropping, please reach out to me. I would like to have the chance to hear about what you are struggling with to see if there is a way to help you meet the outcomes of the course.

Research on the effectiveness of college attendance policies includes:

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

 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.