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Promoting attendance and participation

Many instructors struggle to get students to come to class and participate once they’re there. This is not a new challenge – student engagement has been declining for years, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic experience and an ever-changing array of technological distractions.

On this page you’ll find strategies for promoting in-class engagement and participation, as well as some FAQs aimed at clarifying UW’s attendance and participation policies.

Balancing flexibility and structure

Flexibility helped us navigate the pandemic, but too much flexibility is unsustainable and not particularly good for learning. As you think about ways to engage your students, remember that they benefit from structure. Clear expectations and well-designed structures can reduce cognitive load, focus students on your learning outcomes, and provide students with opportunities to practice engaging each other.

Before the term begins, reflect on how flexibility might help you and your students succeed. For students, being able to drop a grade or having assignment options can increase motivation and persistence. But overly flexible deadlines may cause work to pile up for a student. For instructors, too much flexibility can lead to constant grading, which reduces your capacity to prep for class or meet with students.

As you plan your course, consider how you might build flexibility into a solid framework. One place you might start is to learn more about Universal Design for Learning, a philosophy that integrates flexibility into course design.

Strategies for engaging students in class

There are many ways to help students engage. Don’t try to do too much at once – start with the basics and “level up” when you can. And avoid loading your course with assignments designed simply to compel attendance – those assignments only contribute to student (and instructor!) burnout. Focus on designing quality, meaningful assignments, rather than busy work.

Strategies for engaging students in class

  • Easy: Talk with students about their experiences engaging/participating in other classes. Acknowledge why many of them might feel anxious and explain how you’ll work to make them feel more comfortable participating. Include a short compassionate statement in your syllabus.
  • Level-up: Gamify engagement with a Student Engagement BINGO Card that students can fill out during the term.

Regardless of whether your course is online or in person, clearly state in the syllabus how you expect students to engage during class. Help students understand how your expectations benefit them. For example, remind students that engagement helps them learn and develop skills that contribute to career success (PDF).

  • Easy: Explain the importance of your expectations in your syllabus.
  • Level-up: Ask students to reflect on how your expectations align with their academic goals and career aspirations.

Regardless of who your students are (first years or seasoned grad students) or where you’re engaging them (online or in person), design opportunities early in the term for them to connect and invest in the class community.

  • Easy: Develop a low-stakes community building activity for the first week of class.
  • Level-up: Work with students to create community agreements that set expectations for how they will interact and engage.

Asking students to actively participate in the learning process — as opposed to sitting quietly and listening — demonstrates that what happens in class can’t be easily replicated at home.

  • Easy: Give students a poll with a challenging practice quiz question. After they do the poll, ask students to discuss their answer with a classmate, and then allow them to re-vote after that discussion. Students can often teach each other on the spot!
  • Level-up: Ask students to freewrite about how they studied for an exam, how they felt about their performance, and what they might do differently next time. Skim through their reflections and at start of the next class, share some themes with the students and ask them to develop a study plan with a classmate.

Creating group work assignments with clear roles can help students understand expectations, re-learn how to interact, and hold each other accountable.

  • Easy: Integrate low-stakes think-pair-share (PDF) or other forms of collaboration into your lecture cadence.
  • Level-up: Design a problem-based collaboration to help students learn how to engage over an extended period of time.

Creating group work assignments with clear roles can help students understand expectations, re-learn how to interact, and hold each other accountable.

  • Easy: Reframe office hours as “student hours” and invite students to meet with you at least once during the term.
  • Level up: Analyze your gradebook or Canvas course data to identify students who need additional contact. Learn how to use Canvas check in with students.

Questions about attendance and participation at UW

Many faculty have questions about class attendance and participation at UW. The following FAQ list was developed collaboratively by representatives from the Office of the Registrar, the Faculty Council on Teaching and Learning, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and the UW Center for Teaching and Learning.

FAQs about UW’s attendance and participation policies

Per the Office of Student Financial Aid, the University of Washington is a non-attendance taking institution under the Department of Education eligibility rules. See the Registrar’s page for more details.

But what can I do if I really want students to come to class?

While the UW does not grade on attendance, it is acceptable for instructors to assume that students will participate in class (in the modality listed on the Time Schedule). Instructors are encouraged to grade on participation. Talk with students about how in-class activities are central to achieving course learning goals.

Attendance refers to a student attending a class session. Participation involves taking part in something happening in class that aligns with your course learning objectives.

Instructors and students alike benefit from clear, consistent policies that balance equity, student/instructor needs, and course goals. When planning your course, create policies that address questions about missed work and include them in your syllabus. Make sure the policies you develop:

  • Align with your department’s policies
  • Take into account students who might miss assignments due to illness, so that students aren’t pressured to come to class when they are sick. (As a reminder, faculty are prohibited from requiring or accepting medical excuse notes from students).

Clearly articulate details about the course’s modality, so that students understand where and when class sessions take place (e.g., in a physical classroom, online). Instructors are not required to offer their course in any modality other than what is communicated in the Time Schedule.

While it is not their responsibility to help students make up missed work, faculty members are required by law to respond to students’ DRS accommodations. When you receive DRS accommodation requests, you may need to alter or adapt these policies.

Below are some examples of how some faculty have tackled these issues:

  • Establish course policies that include option(s) for completing missed work (e.g., dropping the lowest grade, turning in late work with a penalty, taking a makeup exam, doing an alternate assignment, etc.).
  • Establish a protocol for how students can communicate with you if they: 1) think they might not be able to turn in work and/or, 2) have missed a deadline or an in-class activity.

Instructors are encouraged to grade on participation, and each instructor has the responsibility and latitude to determine how they will handle missed in-class work. Be sure to articulate the consequences for late or missed work in your course policies (see FAQ above).

  • For policy questions, see more resources on the Registrar’s UW Syllabus Guidelines & Resources page and talk with your department.
  • For teaching questions, consult with teaching support on your UW campus
  • For technology questions, including questions about accessible technology, contact
  • For questions about responding to student accommodation requests, see the DRS resources for faculty.