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ATD Blog

Participation Versus Attendance: When Just Showing Up Isn’t Enough


What does it mean to “show up?” In a learning context, being physically present is not enough; instead, showing up to learn means that you must be mentally present and available to engage during the session. In a learning context, the difference between attendance and participation is key.

Research shows mixed findings when it comes to how attending a lesson relates to students’ performance in a course, as measured by knowledge retention. Some studies show that the more classes a student attends, the better they perform in the course (see References 1-3). Other studies show a more modest correlation between attendance and achievement in a course (see References 4-6). Additionally, some studies also found that there wasn’t a meaningful correlation between attendance and knowledge retention (see References 7-9).

Our research shows that the quality of students’ participation, as reflected by their participation grades, were predictive of their grades on a final cumulative exam (see References 10). Attendance, on the other hand, was not predictive of exam performance when participation was controlled for. This is why we say above that it is not enough just to be physically present. You have to do something to be engaged with the session.

We investigated the relation between students’ participation and overall success (final grade) in a blended course, with the delivery consisting of in-person and online components (see References 11). Consistent with our findings for courses delivered in person, we found that students’ participation grades predicted their overall grades in the courses. We also found that students’ participation grades were predictive of their grades on different types of course assignments that they completed independently, specifically for their performance on tests, written work, and oral assignments. Although students’ participation was predictive of the work they completed independently, it was not predictive of the oral work that they completed in a group.

Overall, our research demonstrates that across various learning contexts (such as online and in-person), connecting with the content is critical for effective learning. For this reason, it is important to let those who attend the lesson or training session know that their level of engagement affects their learning and knowledge retention and that it is in their control to make an effort to connect with the material. We’ve included a list of active learning strategies that we have found effective for promoting engagement and participation in different learning contexts.

Recommendations for Encouraging Participation

Discussions: The leader of the session is not the only holder of knowledge. Learners are more likely to engage critically with content if they discuss it with their peers. The process of articulating a thought and of explaining idea to someone else passes the idea, the thought is constructed and the memory formed as part of the process of speaking.

Case Studies: Learning is more effective if the learner can apply what is learned to a concrete example. Case studies can be used in myriad of ways, including to provide context and practical examples.

Peer Review: Feedback can be provided by the instructor but is useful from peers as well. For example, ask learners to summarize a concept as haiku or a diagram then critique each other’s versions. The discussions that this provokes settle understanding and highlights misconceptions.

Think, Pair, Share: Give learners time to process new information or ideas. Ask them first to consider a response individually (think), then share their ideas with one other person (pair) and finally share as a group. It is not necessary to hear from every pair, the process will expose misconceptions while cementing learning for the group regardless of whether all speak or not.

Game-Based Learning: Turning a lesson into a game can make the experience more enjoyable as it appeals to some learners’ competitive natures.


Pass the Chalk: Use this to give learners control over who speaks next. As each learner finishes making their point, they pass on the chalk, or any other chosen item, to the next speaker of their choice. This ensures that learners stay focused because they won’t know if they will be asked to speak next.

Chain Notes: Write a question on the outside of an envelope containing an index card. A learner writes their response on the index card, replaces it in the envelope and passes on to the next learner, who does the same. With multiple envelopes (and questions) circulating in the class the learners become absorbed in formulating their own answers having considered those of their peers.

Board Rotation: A form of this is also known as “World Cafe.” Learners sit in groups at a table with a portable white board. They write on the board in response to a prompt provided by the instructor. The boards are then rotated to another table, where learners add to the board following a second prompt from the instructor. This can be repeated several times, and can be most effective when the board ends up back with the first group of learners.

Additional Resources


1. Andrietti, V. (2014). Does lecture attendance affect academic performance? Panel data
evidence for introductory macroeconomics. International Review of Economics
Education, 15, 1–16.

2. Credé, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class attendance in college: A
meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student
characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 272–295.


3. Deane, R. P., & Murphy, D. J. (2013). Student attendance and academic performance in
undergraduate obstetrics/gynecology clinical rotations. Journal of the American
Medical Association, 310(21), 2282–2288.

4. El Tantawi, M. M. A. (2009). Factors affecting postgraduate dental students’ performance in a biostatistics and research design course. Journal of Dental Education,
73, 614–623.

5. Horton, D. M., Wiederman, S. D., & Saint, D. A. (2012). Assessment outcome is weakly
correlated with lecture attendance: Influence of learning style and use of alternative materials. Advances in Physiology Education, 36, 108–115.

6. Thatcher, A., Fridjhon, P., Cockcroft, K. (2007). The relationship between lecture
attendance and academic performance in an undergraduate psychology class. South African Journal of Psychology, 37(3), 656-660.

7. Eisen, D. B., Schupp, C. W., Isseroff, R. R., Ibrahimi, O. A., Ledo, L., & Armstrong, A.
W. (2015). Does class attendance matter? Results from a second- year medical school dermatology cohort study. International Journal of Dermatology, 54(7), 807–816.

8. Hammen, C. S., & Kelland, J. L. (1994). Attendance and grades in a human physiology
course. Advances in Physiology Education, 267, 105–108.

9. McConnell, C. R., & Lamphear C. (1969). Teaching principles of economics without
lectures. Journal of Economic Education, 1, 20–32.

10. Kim, A. S. N., Shakory, S., Azad, A., Popovic, C., & Park, L. (2019). Understanding the
impact of attendance and participation on academic achievement. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication.

11. Kim, A.S.N., Nairn, B.C., Popovic, C., Carozza, L., & Balidio, E.C. (2021). Participation
is predictive of individual, but not group, work in the context of a blended general education course. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

About the Author

Alice S. N. Kim, PhD, is the founder and managing director of Teaching and Learning Research (TLR) In Action, a not-for-profit research organization focused on conducting and publicly disseminating research on teaching and learning. Alice’s research is focused on factors that impact students’ learning trajectories, including student engagement, experiential education, and application of cognitive learning principles in course design. Outside of higher education, Alice also partners with colleagues in industry on projects related to workplace learning.

About the Author

Celia Popovic, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. For 8 years she was the founding Director of York’s Teaching Commons. She has published widely in topics related to Educational Development, Student Engagement and Academic Conferences. She specializes in educational development and scholarship of teaching and learning research.

About the Author

Brian Nairn, PhD is an educational developer and contract faculty member at York University. He is the liaison developer for the Faculty of Science, but also works closely with all faculty members and graduate students in supporting their teaching, with the aim of providing the best student experience possible. Brian is particularly interested in the areas of experiential education, eLearning, and curriculum development. He also teaches a large, first-year course in the Faculty of Health at York University.

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