Encourage students to attend class to improve academic performance

September 22, 2015

Students won’t experience or benefit from great in-class learning activities if they never come to class. Provide an incentive (such as taking attendance) to ensure that students experience the meaningful learning activities you create. Both are necessary to achieve the benefits for student learning and improve retention and graduation metrics.

Crede, Roch, & Kieszczyka (2010) examined the relation between class attendance, student characteristics, and academic performance reported in 52 peer-reviewed articles and 16 unpublished dissertations or papers. The research represents work conducted in a variety of disciplines, institutions, and countries. Crede et al. found that class attendance explained unique variation in grades independently of student characteristics such as SAT scores and high school GPA. They found that students enrolled in courses with a mandatory attendance policy tended to earn higher average course grades.

Based on these findings, we can confidently advise students that they are more likely to perform well in class if they attend class regularly. But George Kuh (2001) notes that “students don’t do optional.” He recommends that if an activity benefits learning we should require it.

Instructors face a dilemma. On the one hand, we believe that students who come to class regularly learn more and perform better on exams. On the other hand, we may be reluctant to require attendance because we believe adult students should be intrinsically motivated. Adult students should manage their personal lives, take responsibility for their educational goals, and make choices that help them achieve those goals. One of our goals is to develop life-long learning. Will mandates such as required attendance undermine intrinsic motivation? Will we sacrifice a long-term goal (developing life-long learning) for short-term goals (improved class performance and favorable retention and graduation rates)?

What about intrinsic motivation?

The conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is sometimes overstated. Successful behavior change programs frequently begin by offering extrinsic rewards. These programs have encouraged people to exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables, and improve reading and math skills. Because people can’t experience the intrinsic benefits of an activity they don’t engage in, extrinsic rewards motivate people to start a behavior they won’t do otherwise. Offering extrinsic rewards introduces people to beneficial activities (Price & Shireman, 2013). Once people begin to experience the benefits of the activity, the intrinsic benefits can then develop and maintain intrinsic motivation.

Required attendance can be a powerful motivator for students. Burke (2010) asked business majors to identify factors that would encourage class attendance. He asked them to describe factors that would increase their own class attendance and class attendance by their peers. Students said they (and their peers) would be more likely to attend if (1) attendance contributes to the course grade, (2) the teacher is interesting or uses an appealing style of teaching, and (3) they earn extra credit for attending.

Is mere attendance the wrong metric?

Some researchers question whether mere “butts in seats” produces improved learning, increased academic success, and improved retention rates. Golding (2011) warns that attendance policies alone do not produce improved learning. Instead, the quality of the learning activities students experience when they attend class are the real sources of these benefits. Attendance serves as an indicator for another mechanism: student engagement in meaningful in-class learning activities. Similarly, Kinzie (2005) prefers to focus on what faculty can to do engage students in deep and meaningful learning activities while they are in class. Instructors should attend to the quality of the learning activities they create for their students.

Create meaningful in-class learning experiences that intrinsically reward attendance

Ferraro (2014) describes an unobtrusive method for monitoring attendance (unannounced in-class assignments) that creates a significant learning activity and allows him to document attendance. Ferraro reported significance correlations between attendance metrics and final grades in ten psychology courses he taught over a 4-year period. Students might not understand the full importance of the average correlation he observed between attendance and exam grades (r = .71). Another way of describing this relationship to students is to tell them that 50% of the variation in final grades student earn can be explained by whether they attend class regularly. Ferraro also argues that just “showing up” for attendance is probably not the primary mechanism underlying this relation. Instead, students experience meaningful learning activities when they attend class.


Burke, L. A. (2010). Absenteeism in undergraduate business education: A proposed model and exploratory investigation. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 8(1),95-111.

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

Ferraro, F. R. (2014). Unannounced in-class assignments, attendance and final grades. International Journal of Psychology Research, 9(2), 91-96.

Golding, J. M. (2011). You can lead a horse to water . . .  Teaching of Psychology, 38, 40-42.

Kuh, G. D. (2001). What really matters to student learning: Inside the National Survey of Student Engagement. Change, 33(3), pp. 10-17, 66.  

Price, J. A., & Shireman, R. M. (September, 2013). How might altered incentives – including cash rewards – affect student success in college? The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development. [Commissioned paper under the direction of Sandy Baum and Robert Shireman, funded by the Gates Foundation.]


9/22/2015 ecr