I have seen a shrinking trend in the number of students coming to my classes and suspect that it's due to the large number of digital tools that are available to students.

What techniques can I employ to encourage students to attend class and stay engaged through a class or lecture?

  • 1
    Do you film your lectures? Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 4:49
  • 3
    Would I be correct in assuming that the decline you're interested in is over the years, and not over the course of a semester?
    – Anyon
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:20
  • There is a fair amount written here about flipped classrooms. A simple search should turn up much of it.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 21:22
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    (Although this question is currently closed...) the obvious point is to make it worth-while, in_the_perception_of_the_students, to come to class. Some perceived benefit beyond the book or notes or on-line stuff. Yes, that is challenging. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 23:10
  • 1
    @paulgarrett The question has been reopened. If you have good advice on how to achieve that, I'd encourage you to write an answer.
    – Anyon
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 16:42

5 Answers 5


Learning tools are substitute goods - don't be afraid if students choose their favourite tools: This is an excellent question, since it raises a common issue with teaching, and it is an issue where some academics (not referring to you) take an irrational and overly defensive view. Here are a few points that I think are worth bearing in mind in these situations:

  • The goal of any university course is to give students the best possible assistance to learn the skills you are seeking to impart in the course. The lectures and other materials available to students are generally "substitute goods" in economic parlance, meaning that use of one tool assists in learning the course content and thus diminishes the demand for the other substitute tools. Thus, if the digital tools you are referring to are of high quality, they may be very helpful for students to learn the course content, and thereby diminish demand for your lectures.

  • Students appreciate having a range of teaching tools they can choose from. When I was a student, the best lecturers I had were the ones that gave us lecture notes, practice problems, and other teaching resources of such clarity and high-quality that attendance at their lectures became virtually unnecessary. It was a pleasure to be able to teach yourself the material directly from lecture notes, etc., without the assistance of the lecturer. In some cases this meant that you learned some part of the course so easily that you could skip the lectures and still feel that you had good command of the subject.

  • If lecture attendance is dwindling due to the provision of useful outside tools, this can be seen as a signal that the quality of those outside tools is relatively high. The fact that you are offering outside learning tools that the students perceive to be sufficient for their own learning should be seen as a good thing. Of course, you should want all the learning tools you are providing to be the best quality they can be, so if your lectures seem to be lagging behind in demand, you should certainly do what you can to improve them. Since you already have good outside resources, the use of a flipped classroom would be one obvious thing you could try. Another thing to try would be increasing student questions and other interactions that cannot be substituted by digital materials (e.g., recorded lectures).

  • Unfortunately, some academics take it personally when students don't attend their lectures, and so they try to encourage attendance by removing outside learning tools that compete with their lectures. (I am not suggesting that you are thinking about doing this, but I want to raise it anyway, since this is something I have seen other lecturers do in university courses.) This creates a kind of "race to the bottom" where a lecturer tries to increase demand for one set of tools by diminishing substitute tools. In the worst-case scenario, a lecturer who gives bad lectures ends up removing other material that could have substituted for those bad lectures, and the students end up with no good learning tool for the course. In my view, this is a petulant and irrational strategy, which represents a failure to appreciate that the goal of the course is student learning, not affirmation of the teacher's ego. So whatever you do, I would encourage you not to remove the digital tools that seem to be working successfully.

  • Your answer addresses what students want, but the actually important thing is what students learn. I suspect that, in reality, students who choose to use all the "tools", including showing up to class, learn the most. There is evidence that variety helpful for learning. It is harder to even tell if choice is helpful. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 6:50
  • Also this does not answer the question. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 7:06
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    That is a very obtuse reading of the problem.
    – Ben
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 7:22

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by digital tools, which could mean tools to enhance learning (e.g. lecture recording) or tools that might distract students in lectures (e.g. Facebook). I'm going to assume you mean the former.

There have been several studies looking at the influence of lecture recording on attendance in lecture rooms. The Teaching Matters team at the University of Edinburgh recently reviewed some studies and the same team has previously looked at some surrounding issues from a student perspective. The corresponding team at the London School of Economics also recently wrote about the benefits of lecture recording for students. All these links provide references to further sources you might find useful.

One thing that comes across in discussions with my own students on this is that they're more likely to attend lectures if they think that being there in person will give them some benefit that they won't get watching the recording or going through the slides. If a lecturer talks without interruption, or even worse reads off the slides, it's easy to see why a student might feel they get nothing extra from being in the room. Conversely, if lecturers answer student questions, use quizzes or other techniques to enhance or check understanding in real time, or interact with students in the room, there's more reason for students to show up.


I will take a different direction with my answer: "You cannot fix what you do not know!"

The first thing you need to do is to understand why the attendance is low / decreasing. You can find that out in at least 2 ways:

  1. Make small changes in whatever you do, one at a time, see what it works. It will be slow and does not guarantee a satisfactory result.

  2. Get actual information. Ideally, the students will tell you themselves what is going on - especially if you have a good relationship with them. Just ask them. Even better: do not ask about attendance, ask about feedback: about you personally and about the way you do your job. You may be surprised by the things you will find out.

Why feedback about you personally, you may ask? Well, we had a situation at a previous job. One guy (nice guy otherwise), was always emanating a smell of food, especially onions. One day, two days... For the colleagues near him, it was a nightmare to survive throughout the day. So one of them decided to suggest him (in private) to eat onions only in the evening. The answer was astonishing: he did not eat onions. The discussion revealed the true "monster": he was using deodorant with the smell of onions. What I want to say: the real reasons for things are not always obvious in any way. No other implication intended.

So you should not rule out reasons like color of shirt, haircut or God knows what else.

Bottom line: We can brainstorm about many things here. It is only you who can find out what is going on - and you may share the results with us. If you are more specific with details of the situation, we can be more specific helping you.


Makes me think of the tape recorder scene in Real Genius (not so transparently based on reality of CalTech in the 80s) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gt4vXaoPzF8

But seriously:

  1. Make it interactive, with some amount of drill (math, science, practical topics) or discussion (history, lit). Can be quizzes (have the students swap papers and grade in class to lighten admin load), practice problems, paired stuff, recitation at the board, getting called on, etc. Doesn't matter exactly, but insert some amount of "doing" as well as "seeing".

  2. Take a class in lecturing. See what tips you get.

  3. Videotape yourself. Are you monotone and boring? Insert a little zip, juice, excitement into tone and topic. Don't worry about being false. Fake it til you make it. Think about how football coaches interact during practice. I was a ski instructor once (late in life). I got the advice to be outgoing (am not normally). I just decided to "go big or go home" and was very "on". It totally worked.

  4. Maybe listen to a few lectures by other teachers on same or similar topic. See what they do?

  5. Have a colleague come and observe you and then give you feedback.

  6. I would also consider to have more full period tests than just a semester midterm and then final. More like high school where there is a test every couple weeks. Obviously they will be there for those. And it probably just keeps more of a beat of things. It's also HIGHLY VALUABLE "practice". Getting up for a test and doing a test is more intense and drives more learning than passively listening to the font of wisdom talk.

  7. Occasionally mention importance of what you are doing. (This makes money for people, this is likely to be on the midterm, this is number one thing people mess up on, etc.) Students key for "horse". Obviously don't compromise the test after it is written (or if you have a section of a multisection group). But...let them know what is important. You can even stamp your foot like making a joke of the hint, hint.

  • 1
    Welcome to Academia.SE. While your answer mentions many options for improving teaching generally, I'm not sure it really answers the question -- the question is how to encourage students to show up. There is no evidence that OP's teaching is bad; it could be that OP's teaching is great but students still don't attend. So, I think OP is looking for examples of specific structural changes (e.g., requiring attendance or having quizzes or ....) that experienced lecturers have successfully used to increase attendance.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 4:49
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    @cag51: I think that nobody can change another person's behavior - in this case, the teacher cannot modify the behavior of the students. What the teacher can actually do is to change his ways - and maybe the students will change their behavior too. Many times (most of the times?) it is the teacher who is the problem with the attendance. I know from experience: same students, different professors. Attendance always changed according to the professor. At the other extreme, there are students who will not attend regardless of what one may decide to do. Bottom line, I think you are quite wrong.
    – virolino
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 6:11
  • Actually, I'm not sure we disagree -- of course attendance will be higher for great teachers than for poor ones, and of course everyone should strive to improve their teaching. My point is that OP did not ask for a bunch of self-evident suggestions about how to improve their teaching; they asked for specific strategies to boost engagement given their current teaching skills. The question as written could even apply to an excellent, experienced teacher with a relatively high attendance rate who is wondering about how/whether to encourage/coerce the remaining students to attend.
    – cag51
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 6:25
  • "coerce" - I love the way it sounds :)) Otherwise, I think I agree with you (new) point of view.
    – virolino
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 9:51
  • "self-evident [suggestions]" equals usually with "nobody will think about it / everybody will ignore it". There is a good reason for the joke: "Is it plugged in?"
    – virolino
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 9:53

Some well-known strategies:

  1. Tell students you expect them to attend and participate. Tell them why this is helpful.
  2. Do not lecture during your lecture. Instead of using the time to tell students what they know, use some of the many interactive learning techniques. Lecturing, in the sense of telling students what they need to know, is among the least effective uses of class time because it allows students to relax. If the students must do something, they will be paying attention and they will then realize class time is helpful.
  3. If students are not participating, refuse to continue until they participate. You can use clickers to check. Personally I use colored cards, which are much cheaper. If any student is not holding up a card after I ask a question, I will not go on. This way, students at least realize they were asked a question, which prompts them to pay attention in the future.
  4. You can assign a grade for attendance and participation.
  5. You can provide information in class that is not available elsewhere. For example, you can tell students the answers to the final exam. Most instructors do that already; students just do not realize that the answers to the exam are buried somewhere in what they are taught in class. Remind them.
  6. Tell students why you are doing what you are doing. Then they will know it is important.

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