Getting students to show up for class on time

Flannery Amdahl (48)

Flannery is a PhD candidate in the GC's Political Science department.


Late students — especially those ones who saunter in, take a seat at the very front of the classroom, and then proceed to unpack their bags as loudly as possible — can really disrupt the flow of a lecture or discussion.  I once worked as a teaching assistant for a professor who got so annoyed that she asked me to sit outside the door, physically blocking any latecomers from entering the lecture hall.  I would open the door only once per class, ten minutes after the lecture began, and allow anyone tardy to enter together in shameful silence.  Students complained at first — but then began arriving to lecture early.

But even if you don’t have a zealous (and slightly power-drunk) teaching assistant to help you out, there are still strategies you can adopt to ensure that latecomers are infrequent and discrete:

  • Be clear about your expectations.  Make sure your attendance policy is on the syllabus, and go over it on the first day of class.  Be explicit.  How much will attendance count towards final grades?  Do late arrivals count as absences? Should late students sit at back of the classroom?  Should they let you know beforehand if  they’ll need to arrive late or leave class early?
  • Take attendance, at least for the first week or two.  Calling roll will help you learn students’ names, and demonstrate that you care about everyone being there.  This can get tedious though, so I tend to switch to just sending around a sign-in sheet after a few weeks.
  • Make class attendance matter.  If students can just stay at home and read their textbooks in their PJs, they’re unlikely to remain motivated enough to show up to class.  Make sure your lectures do more than just regurgitate what’s in the text, and be clear in your syllabi that any material covered in class will be fair game for exams.
  • Make the beginning of class especially crucial.  For example, you might devote the start of class to talking about course policies and upcoming assignments — information grade-conscious students really aren’t going to want to miss.
  • Give pop quizzes or assignments at the start of class.  This strategy has double-benefits: students are encouraged to arrive on time AND come prepared.  I’ve had good results since I’ve started periodically asking students to spend the first five minutes of class responding to a writing prompt based on the day’s assigned readings (scored simply on a check/check plus/check minus scale).  I don’t give makeup assignments, but I do acknowledge that absences/late arrivals are sometimes unavoidable and so I throw away a student’s two lowest grades of the semester.
  • Model the behavior. Students will follow suit if you show up to class late yourself, or if you always look like you’re anxious or in a rush.  But come at least five minutes early, and you’ll also have chance to chat casually with students and establish some rapport.
  • Don’t ignore latecomers. You don’t need to be cruel about it, but a well-timed pause, withering look, or lighthearted joke can show late students that their behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed.  But keep in mind that, like us, many CUNY undergrads have multiple jobs, children and other family obligations, and/or grueling commutes.  Unless you suspect that a student is obviously trying to challenge your authority, it might be more effective to speak to chronic latecomers after class rather than publicly shaming them.

The team at Carnegie Mellon’s Teaching and Learning Center offer lots of insights on their website as to why students might be arriving late to class, plus advice on how to fix the problem.  Another useful resource is this brief article by two psychologists, who put their knowledge of social psychology to work while asking how to encourage students to show up on time.  And for tips on how to ensure that students also come to class prepared, check out this helpful podcast.