Creating Engagement in the Classroom: Attendance and Student Success

Investigating the relationship between attendance and classroom success.

Academia is constantly on the move.

Whether you’re a student or a professor, your life is hectic. It just is—and it has to be to keep up with the constantly evolving trends we touched on in our first blog post.

As a professor, specifically, one of the greatest day-to-day challenges is monitoring classroom attendance. I know, it seems easy, right? Roll call was never stressful when you were in school. You sit there and raise your hand or speak up when the professor calls your name. Easy enough.

But look at it from the other side, from behind the teacher’s eyes. Attempting to keep track of 500 students per section is exhausting, stressful and downright difficult. Using traditional paper-and-pen methods of tracking attendance also results in a waste of precious class time and paper resources. Over the course of a semester, 10 minutes per day results in a near-three-hour waste of time. That’s a lot of learning your students won’t receive.

If you try to streamline the process and track attendance by having students sign-in to class, you’ll use a dozen sheets of paper per lecture, all of which you then then have to collect, log, and save for years to come. You also rely on the students being honest and not signing in their friends who decided to sleep in. Good luck with that one.

As a result, many classrooms have chosen to simply do-away with attendance altogether, but is that the answer?

For a student, the concept of an attendance-free class is liberating—and dangerous. After all, if no one is even going to notice you aren’t there, what’s the point in going? That hour saved in class provides a student with the false sense of freedom, and they can choose to spend that time at the beach, with a friend, at the mall—whatever they want. But then midterm exams roll around, and those six hours saved by not going class have transformed that student’s A to a C (or worse), all because they could not comprehend the material.

CourseKey sent out a survey to professors at San Diego State University to track the importance of attendance. All professors surveyed said attendance was either somewhat (25%), or very important (75%), but (60%) report not taking attendance. Less than 10% of professors reported that they take attendance with an iClicker, while more than 60% report that they do not take class attendance.

What is holding professors back to record their students’ attendance? The answer is time and effort.

“I do think attendance is important to inspire engagement. I highly value in-class exercise where students form groups and help each other. It helps with their own understanding a lot since you only fully understand it if you can explain it to your friends. But I never really force attendance since my philosophy is I want my class to be interesting enough so my students will simply attend voluntarily instead of being forced to my class every morning.” –  Professor Jeff Wang, SDSU Charles W. Lamden School of Accountancy


I’ve personally experienced what Professor Wang mentions here. If a teacher makes his/her class interesting or unique, I’ll go. Another option is for the professor to go above and beyond what is necessary to ensure student success. In my first finance course, professor Stephen Blum held a extra hour of lab before every class to make sure the class of 400 students had additional time to ask questions and get caught up. This was completely voluntary and he was not required to do so. Extended hours, more personal engagement, and opportunities to speak beyond the classroom make me want to show up. When somebody goes the extra mile for you, you want to return the favor. But when a class is gigantic and there’s little personalization, the results are predictable:

“Every large lecture class that I’ve been enrolled in seems to magically triple in size on the day of the exam,” says Emily Flannigan, a senior majoring in Speech and Language Hearing Sciences. “They know that the professor doesn’t bother to check who is missing on any given day, so they just show up on the one day they have to.”

“I wouldn’t say that my grades are ‘great’, but I don’t think that attendance has any relation to my overall performance,” says Karen Rai, a senior majoring in economics. “I can teach myself the material on my own time.”

Educators implement some strategies to combat these problems and to encourage student attendance. Dr. Amy Randel, an SDSU professor who teaches business management, uses an interesting, traditional method. In the beginning of each class, she draws five random names out of the hat and tracks their attendance. This encourages students to come to class to avoid being chosen.

As we identified in our first blog post, though, the classroom is changing. It’s becoming more modern, more advanced. If students need fancier high-def projectors, smart boards, and cloud-based apps to maintain their engagement, couldn’t a technologically advanced method of tracking attendance pique their interest, too?


As the classroom has evolved, so too has the need to track students’ engagement within it. This semester, I implemented CourseKey for managing attendance. I generate a unique code and share it with my students from my PowerPoint when they start filtering into class about 10 minutes before we start. As each students enters, they see the code, enter it into CourseKey from their mobile device, and the systems tracks their attendance. The GPS-based locator keeps them from sharing the code outside of class with students not present, and I really know who is in class and who is not.


I also have an online roster with a student profile. If a student has added their picture, I can now put a face with the name. This is particularly useful at the beginning of the semester as I am trying to get to know them and they are trying to get to know me. It’s personal, it’s forward-thinking, and it’s useful for both the professor and the student. From my perspective as an educator, it’s everything I could want from both sides of the ball.

There’s little doubt that attendance plays an important role in a student’s academic success–as I always say, “You have to show up for something good to happen.” More engagement equals better results, and in today’s world, professors have more access than ever before to technological advances that can revolutionize the way they take attendance and improve classroom engagement.

Just as the slate blackboard morphed into a high-definition, multi-functional smart interface, the paper-and-pen method of taking attendance will likely give way to the new age—one defined by efficiency, accuracy, and benefits all around.

Have an effective attendance-taking strategy? Leave a comment to share your insights and experiences.

Leave a comment below to share your insights and experiences to contribute to our greater understanding of what works, and what works better. Share this article with fellow students and colleagues at your educational institution.

Follow authors Kevin Popović and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share what we are learning. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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