Strategies for Encouraging and Increasing Class Attendance

Last week, members of Educational Technology here on campus attended the Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference at UMSL, sponsored by their Center for Teaching and Learning.

One of the sessions I attended was on Strategies for Encouraging and Increasing Class Attendance. I thought this would be a good session to attend for someone who is still very new to instruction. I’ve been directly involved with technology training (e.g. Documentum Web Publisher, Voice-over IP), but I’ve never really had to deal with college students who often don’t show up for class (I am as guilty of that as anyone).

The stated objectives of the presentation were as follows:

  1. Review why attendance is important
  2. Present overview of instructional methods
  3. Discuss strategies for deep learning
  4. Share ideas with a partner

For the first part of the discussion, we actually engaged in one of the learning strategies discussed by one of the plenary speakers, Dr. Allison Morrison-Shetlar. The presenters asked us to come up with two or three reasons why we think attendance is important, write them down on a 5 x 7 note card and then share those reasons with someone else in our vicinity. This is exactly identical to the “one minute paper” Dr. Morrison-Shetlar talked about in her presentation. Once we did that, we were then asked to share our different reasons with the larger group.


Here is a brief list of reasons why attendance is important (in no particular order).

  • Force
    students to engage each other face-to-face instead of through a more
    impartial and anonymous interface like email or a discussion board.
  • Discussion happens in class that expands on the material.
  • Keep students on track with what is going on in the course.
  • Important for interacting with class members.
  • Able to add tactile learning exercises in class.
  • Maintain continuity of learning — students who miss class miss the opportunity to help connect the dots throughout the course.

The overall consensus in the room was that attendance
is important for class. I’ve never taken a course that has said that
attendance was “optional”. Most courses I’ve taken have included the
option for the instructor to drop a student from a class based on lack
of attendance.

The instructional models we reviewed in this session break down into
two basic categories: Instructor-centered and student-centered.
Instructor-centered models include direct instruction, presentation,
and “concept teaching”. Direct instruction is perhaps the most
traditional model in that it involves the instructor standing up at the
chalkboard (or whiteboard, if we want to modernize it a bit) and
delivering the content directly to the students. Presentation
instructional model usually involves technology such as PowerPoint to
deliver the content. However, instructors can also use web browsers and
other software to deliver content. One of the nice things about the
presentation model is that the instructor does not have to spend time
in class writing the content out on the board. The “concept teaching”
model focuses on what will help the students understand the concept.
This can involve some sort of visual aid or another analog that will
make the concept more meaningful to the students.

For the most part, the instructor-centered models of instruction are
designed to require student attendance. Students who fail to attend
class will not receive any of the benefits of the instructor-centered
models of instruction. Thanks to modern technology, however, there are
now tools available to provide the same models of instructor-centered
teaching to distance students and asynchronous students. Tools such as
Wimba and Webex enable instructors to deliver direct instruction
through the web. Furthermore, they can capture and archive their
lectures for later access by students. The presentation model also
works well in this environment.

Learner-centered models of instruction focus on classroom discussion, cooperative learning, and problem-based instruction. All of these activities seem to require mandatory physical attendance at first glance. Thanks again to modern technology it is possible to deliver this model of instruction through the Internet. What is key for these types of activities is to be able to monitor student participation in the activity.

The presenters for this session have come up with a number of different strategies that can be used to help increase deep learning in students and encourage them to participate more fully in the learning process for their classes.

Dr. Ann Steffen teaches psychology at UMSL and has come with the following strategies:

  • She uses narrated PowerPoint slides for her lectures. Students can access the slides outside of class and still capture the essence of her lectures due to her narration.
  • Students are required to take randomized quizzes. Out of a pool of twenty questions, students may be given ten of those questions. Since the students have no idea what the actual set of questions is, it is more difficult to cheat. However, students are able to use their class notes and other information to complete the quizzes. Quizzes are timed, though, so that limits their ability to scan through their notes to find the information needed to complete the quiz.
  • Students only meet once a week (75 minutes) instead of twice a week because Dr. Steffen teaches a hybrid course. The rest of the course is conducted online through Blackboard (UMSL’s standard course management system).
  • Participation in discussion forums is worth 25% of the grade. Students who don’t contribute anything meaningful to the discussion won’t get the points they need to get an A or even a B.
  • Dr. Steffen gives the students the opportunity to submit their own multiple choice questions. If a student-submitted question shows up on a future test or quiz, that student receives bonus points.

Cheryl Biehlema is a Teaching and Learning instructor at UMSL and has compiled some of her own strategies to encourage attendance and participation in class:

  • Peer assessments – students conduct peer assessment of their fellow students when involved in group projects. Students who receive “0” points towards their contribution to a project will have their points distributed among the contributing students.
  • Questions are posed to ask “why” instead of “what”.
  • Students are asked to write for 2 minutes before responding — this is similar to the “one minute paper” strategy except that students are not necessarily required to share their answer with a nearby classmate before sharing their response to the larger group.
  • Students are encouraged to answer one question per class.
  • Pick the “best” answer from a set of submitted responses and have the student who submitted it to defend it in class. Some students may not be comfortable with this (they may perceive it as an “attack”), so it might be wise to exercise caution when trying out this technique.
  • Use case studies to promote analysis, problem solving, and evaluation on defending a position. I am currently grading papers for a technical communication class that uses a lot of case studies. Unfortunately, the students in the class don’t really do as much with the case studies as I might like.
  • Describe course concepts in metaphors — e.g. “How is learning like an ocean?” This may not work for every class.

All of the presenters gave some good insights into what techniques can be used to stimulate discussion, encourage participation, and increase attendance. A lot of students nowadays tend to see “traditional” attendance as somewhat unnecessary because they are accustomed to learning things online. That is how I learn a lot of stuff independently. If I generally want to know something, I’ll start with Google or Wikipedia and move on from there. As for class, I am currently enrolled in one technical communication course that has a lot of online activities for us to complete. It is a very small course (only four students) designed for graduate students who will eventually be teaching technical communication. I think any or all of the techniques and strategies discussed above could easily be incorporated into a technical communication course.