Our Daily Bleg: How Should a Professor Incentivize Classroom Attendance?

(Digital Vision)

Art Wright, a professor*, writes in to say:

I have this problem: I am course-planning for the fall term right now, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to develop an attendance policy.  Many professors deduct points or letter grades for a certain number of absences.  In contrast, I had someone recommend that I give points if students come to most or all of the class meetings.  So I’m left wondering: What is the best way to incentivize class attendance for my students?  What, in your opinion, will get them to attend most – if not all — of the class meetings?

What advice do you have for Art?

If you’re a professor, let us know what you’ve tried that has worked or failed. If you’re a student or used to be one (I assume that means everyone here), what did it take to get you to show up regularly?

*By the way, Art is a visiting professor of New Testament at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Am wondering how readers might answer (or engage with) his question differently if I’d introduced him as such rather than simply as a “professor.” Of all the assumptions we make and biases we carry, it strikes me that religion encourages some of the strongest ones.

Valeri Inting

The best incentive was the professor himself. It was when missing a lesson felt like missing a book's worth of knowledge.

The worst incentive was the deliberate one: the professor requiring you to go to class knowing he was worth missing.


I had an economics professor that would give a worksheet at the end of class that helped you practice the lesson of the day. You received points if you completed the worksheet and turned it in, regardless of it being correct or incorrect. In the end, those worksheets added up to the value of a test so if you did each one, you essentially had a 100% on a test. Worked well for encouraging attendance!


I had a econ teacher give us extra credit for each class we attended. Granted, it was only a fourth of a point, but over the semester they added up and gave me a nice bump on my grade.

Problem is, no one showed up even though it's free points. Personally if I would make sure people show up is to talk about topics in class that will be on the test which happens to not be in the text book. Tell the students the first day of class and tell them that chances are they will fail the tests if they don't show up to class.

If that doesn't work, threaten to feed them to sharks.


The best attendance policy is not to have one. If you want students to attend class, you need to make the class interactive (e.g., involve students in discussions or projects), and have your grading devices (tests, quizzes, papers, projects) flow from or be tied to class lectures and discussions. If all you do is drone on about what's in the textbook and test on what's in the textbook, then students can learn that on their own time and class attendance is superfluous.

BTW, I was an honors student who was probably notorious for poor attendance at classes that were purely lecture-driven. One truth I quickly learned in college was that professors who made attendance at their lectures irrelevant were the only ones who needed an attendance policy.


College student from Ireland here.

Attendance isn't measured in most of my classes. No matter how interesting I find a 9AM class, I think I would miss it unless there was a bonus/penalty for attendance. ;D


Irish college lecturer here.

Remember I don't have much (or usually any) control over when my classes are scheduled, so the 9AM class might not suit you but tough. Next term or semester, I hope you make it to all your classes :)

I don't give penalties or bonuses, it seems there is an institutional issue with 'marks for attendance'. I would be unable to introduce a direct marks for attendance scheme, even if I wanted to.

We usually don't have take attendance at the higher levels (except for student grant reasons), but I get great attendance, even at 9AM. Mixture of making each lecture practical, challenging and instilling an interest in the subject. It helps that I teach subjects like game development, but I also teach some boring subjects and I've noticed students sneaking into my classes rather than their own lecturer's (for the same subject/exam etc.). I've asked them why (after class, I'm not evil) and they say I don't rely on simply reading out notes or slides and I draw them along in a story and worked whiteboard explanations.

Léachtóir (Lecturer in Gaelic)



You should neither directly reward or punish attendance. Students (or their parents) pay a pretty penny to attend college. It's their right to choose to attend class or not. Those who attend should test better; that will be their reward.


Perhaps divide the school's cost per student by the number of classes the average student takes, and divide that by the number of class sessions per class, and you've got a more or less rough figure of what it costs the school to present that session to one student. This number is almost definitely higher than the number that the students or their parents are paying. Put that on the whiteboard in the corner somewhere, and suggest that, in essence, the school is losing money for each class session the student skips.

Neil (SM)

That doesn't really make sense. Suppose it costs you, say $1 to produce a lemonade and I buy it for $.50 , (and your mom gives you grants to make up the rest).

Once I've paid for the lemonade, it makes no difference to your bottom line whether I drink it or pour it down the drain. You don't lose any money because I don't take the lemonade.


In fact, it makes a big difference to colleges whether students do well enough in their classes to graduate. Graduation rates are important for recruiting students, donors, and for general perception of a school. Also, there is a morale issue: as a professor, I don't want to work at a school where students don't succeed. Note: it doesn't follow from this that I'm willing to lower the bar so that it is easy for them to get the grades they need to graduate.


Almost invariably, the best incentive to attendance is a really interesting lecture with a charismatic lecturer. Or a cure girl in the class.


Deducting points for failure to attend or awarding bonus points for attendance is purely a semantic difference. Pragmatically, they are the same. But the professor and students can all feel better about a "bonus" than a "penalty".

Neil (SM)

Somewhat different, I think though. Bonus points often implies adding to the numerator and leaving the denominator constant. Which possibly means you could do perfectly on the coursework and the tests and get an A in the class without needing the bonus points.

Deducting points from the numerator, however, means that after acing all of the tests and coursework just like in the above scenario you could end up with a B after the deduction.

So in the case of deductions it would not be mathematically possible to get an A in the class if you miss more than X classes whereas in the bonus points case it would be possible.


I haven't had problems with attendance, but I started having problems with punctuality. So, I developed an addendum to the school's attendance policy.
Attendance policy: x percent of no-shows fails the course.
Addendum: three late arrivals are equivalent to one no-show.


Maybe have no attendance policy. Try to make lectures as interesting as possible, but leave it up to students whether or not to turn up. They are adults so if they really value the course they will turn up. If they don't, presumably it will negatively impact their understanding of the subject, which should show up in poor scores for exams or projects.

I remember in my college years some students were notorious for not showing up in class. But does it matter? That was their loss. The rest of us chose to attend class regardless of whether or not we were being checked for attendance, and it was a little annoying and patronising as young adults if lecturers decided to keep a roll call.

Michael Makovi

My mother was a TA in chemistry at UMBC (if I recall correctly), and she said once, after the end of the semester and exams, a student came to her and asked why he failed the course. She said to him, "I handed out a sheet with my expectations on the first day of class. The requirements for passing the course were right there." He responded, "Was I there?" She said, "I don't know, and I don't care. Look, I'm a graduate student working on my MSc, and I've got my own courses and work to keep up with, and I've got a husband and a child. I don't care whether you were there or not."


Most young people, and even some of us older ones, have authority issues. I was a student for a some time and I would have responded much more positively to the incentive. Plus you will have to spend less time sorting through excuses (although that is an opportunity to hear some creative storytelling). Here is a blog post about the power of choice you might find relevant. http://texaslawyer.typepad.com/work_matters/2011/08/the-power-of-choice.html


I should have mentioned that this is not my blog. Also, if you incentivize, document in syllabus and repeat in lecture that no extra credit is owed even if it was beyond the power of the student to attend.


As a current I can safely say that I will attend most-to-all sessions of a class if I feel that it is:
- interactive
- insightful
- challenging
- providing me with a true benefit

It is not just about the grades. If a class is just plain boring or not relevant for me, I'm unlikely to attend even if it may hurt my grade. I simply don't like wasting my time. Or, I may show up, but not pay attention, which probably wouldn't be in Art's interest either.

On the other hand, I had one seminar where we would have a reading assignment for every class and discuss it during the lecture. Also, there was a quiz at the beginning of every class, so it had a grade aspect too, but for me it was one of the classes I learned the most from, because the professor was more of a guide than a teacher and we really learned more from each other and the reflection on the topic. Not sure if it's the same for everyone, but I hope this helps.



Why would you want people in class that are only there for an incentive?


Because EVERYTHING WE DO is due to incentives. The only questions are what are appropriate and effective incentives.

Liz Morgen

I think this is really interesting issue. I graduated from my undergrad in 2009 and there was nothing I hated more than "attendance" being taken for courses with over 200 students in a class. For the honest students that did show up, we watched friends sign in their absent friends, making us wonder why we bothered to show. (This particular class was boring but known as an easy course to earn a good grade).
When I began my graduate degree, class attendance marks was replaced by class participation marks which helped encourage everyone to participate. Of course this wont work if your class size is larger than say 50 people.
In the end, the classes I regularly attended were those that were intriguing and presented in an interesting manner (which I know isn't easy for some subjects and professors).
If you still want to try something to entice attendance, I had one professor tell us a random fact about himself every now and then that he would ask as a bonus question on tests. Another professor used the sign in system, but didn't put out the sign out sheets till the end of class (ensuring no one signed in and left) and he monitored the sheet (making sure no one signed their absent friends in).


Caleb b

Actually, loss-aversion is pretty well studied in humans as overriding any 'gain' offered. So you should impose a penalty for missing too many classes if you want the highest attendance.

Loss-aversion example: let's play a game,
1) heads you get $50, tails you get zero
2) I hand you $50, then if it comes up tails, I take the money back.

It's the exact same game but humans AND primates overwhelmingly prefer game 1. If the game is altered so that the participant must perform a task, they will try AND succeed more often if they play game 2.

caleb b

Sorry, I forgot to mention, I don't agree with taking attendance. Your might be forced by your department, but I think it should be up to the students to attend.

However, an attendance policy at least provides CYA for grade beggars. They whine, "my grade should be higher!" and you get to reply, "really? Because you weren't in class very much."


Teach a great class/give stirring lectures, then you won't have to incentivize.


Isn't incentive's to go to class, either as a penalty or a reward mechanism, a way to insure people who sit there and update Facebook in class via a laptop. Just say there is no attendance policy, but class participation is a way I differentiate grades. If you say interesting things in class and you are on the border line between grades, you'll get the bump up.

Matthew Brown

I guess I would ask....*why* are you trying to incentivize attendance? If attendance is necessary to pass the class, or if your class is entertaining/educational in such a way as to make the students want to attend, then that should be all the incentive you need.

Speaking from personal experience, not everyone does as well in a classroom/lecture setting...I would regularly skip lectures in medical school in favor of spending that time in the library listening to the prior day's lecture on tape (which I could rewind or fast forward at my whim, and could get up and stretch without disturbing other patients)

Renaissance 2K

I'm going to echo Valeri's point. The professor's the biggest incentive to go to a class.

If he or she is animated, creative, and easy to understand, it becomes the highlight of whatever you happen to be learning.

If the instructor is dull, straight-forward, and difficult to understand (either because they don't address the class properly, they have a thick accent, or they don't keep good notes), the actual lecture is just a waste of an hour when the textbook and web-posted notes explain everything in a more concise and explicit fashion.

A few instructors mentioned posting only incomplete notes or slides on their website, which were filled out progressively as the lecture proceeded. Other instructors made attendance manditory; you would fail if you missed three lectures without a documented reason. The former results in students that pay attention for 5% of the lecture. The latter doesn't even get that 5%.


Tyler Kochanski

A class I had featured a "Three Strikes" attendance policy (my professor liked baseball); we were allowed to miss class twice, for whatever reason, but if you missed class a third time, you failed the class. That sure as heck made me wake up for that 8am class.


Make your class worth attending.

Certain professors can pack the room to overflowing (Feynman???). Be that professor.


This depends entirely on the desired outcome - what is it you are actually trying to encourage? Is attendance at lectures seen as desirable in itself? Or as a proxy for something else?

If it is the second of these, then it's better to tie the reward more directly to the outcome that is desired. If, for example, attendance is actually about learning through the year, then attach some reward to this (frequent tests for example) rather than to attendance.

Gaming the system, I could turn up to all your lectures, learn nothing, and get free marks - is this the desired outcome?