Sky-High Attendance in 6 Quick Steps

Study after study has proven what we teachers know instinctively: Empty chairs can’t learn English. Early findings suggest something to do with neuroplasticity. I kid, but really, before we can even begin to talk about methodology or outcomes or any of the stuff we come to the TESOL Blog to learn more about, we’ve first got to fill those seats and keep them full.

Like health, attendance is all about planning ahead, yet too often do we only think of it looking backward, when problems have already arisen, when it’s often too late to do much about it. Just like our health, we want to adopt a forward-thinking mindset and take preventative measures.

In this post I’ll share six tips to keep attendance high for the duration your course.

1. Anticipate Barriers

It’s important to anticipate the likely obstacles to attendance at the very start of the course, and then to walk your students through some solutions. This can be part of the intake process, an orientation, your first class, or all three. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but here’s one that we have used as part of orientation day at my program:

Start by arranging students in groups of four to eight and ask them to brainstorm reasons that they might miss class. Childcare, work schedules, transportation, sickness, weather. After about 5 minutes, reconvene and record their answers on the board. Then guide students through the process of sorting out valid reasons for missing class from not-so-valid reasons (of course, what constitutes an acceptable excuse will vary from program to program). Then assign each group one of the more common barriers that you see in your program, and give them time to brainstorm some solutions to that barrier. Then have groups share. This can be verbal or on the board, or you can even encourage them to put together quick skits.

In my program, one common reason for low attendance is an unstable work schedule, so one group of students shared the language that you can use to ask your boss to adjust your schedule. They also proposed a solid backup plan: a letter from the program coordinator to their boss (we regularly write such letters and have found that they often help).

2. Establish Accountability

Also at the start of the course, it’s essential to convey to students what you expect them to do if they do need to miss class. I recommend a call or email to the teacher (or the office, if that’s an option at your program). If you’d rather not give your students your personal contact info, you can easily set up a Google Voice number specially for this purpose. I’ve seen some teachers use the first 5 minutes of class to have students call or text their friends who have yet to arrive.

3. Follow Up

Making follow-up calls is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do to keep up attendance numbers (and persistence!). Some programs will call after the second consecutive absence; at mine we try to call after each absence, with great results. Except in the case of chronic absenteeism, these calls aren’t disciplinary or reproachful. They’re a friendly check-in: Good morning, Sofia! It’s Rob from your English classes. I just noticed you weren’t in class yesterday. Is everything okay? Will we see you on Monday? Great! Thanks!

4. Do the Math

Data is an important tool when it comes to attendance. At a minimum, you want to be calculating each student’s attendance over the course of the semester. But doing this alone, you’re still looking backward at attendance. I recommend keeping a running attendance rate for each student, and a simple spreadsheet equation is an easy way to do this. This way you can warn students as soon as their attendance dips into dangerous territory, giving them plenty of time to recover. With just a little more work, any spreadsheet app can turn your numbers into charts to help students visualize how their attendance compares to that of their classmates and to your expectations.

Another idea worth exploring is to have students calculate their own attendance periodically. This keeps their awareness up, drives home the idea that attendance really matters to you, and can even easily be turned into a friendly competition. Moreover, it introduces some important math skills and the language that comes along with it, which is increasingly important in adult ed programs.

5. Be Consistent

We as teachers can have a tendency to slip just as much as students. Putting off our follow-up calls, making an exception just this once for a particularly apologetic student, threatening consequences without following through: We can always rationalize these little slippages at the time, but we need to remember that they have a cumulative impact on attendance.

6. Use Projects

There are plenty of pedagogical reasons that teachers are talking about project-based learning. It’s got all kinds of benefits to student affect and outcomes. But one of the less-talked-about effects of project-based learning is boosted attendance. Collaborative class projects not only increase motivation, they organically bring about the social accountability and responsibility that can get your students out of their warm beds, off their comfy couches, and into those wonderful donated molded plastic unpadded desk-chairs that squeak and threaten to give when you sit with the gum underneath and the…


About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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