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What About the Students That Don't Show Up?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

3 Factors That Prevent Students from "Showing Up" and What We Can Do

Student engagement is the ultimate goal, whether we are teaching virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid model. We know that students learn more when they are engaged, and many of us have found ways to really engage the students who show up to our classroom. We craft interesting lessons and give lots of feedback and encouragement. In the past year, we have even gotten really skilled at doing all of those things virtually, too. With breakout rooms, interactive whiteboards, and clever facilitation tactics, we have worked hard to keep the learning going.

But, what about the students that don't show up?

One of the biggest challenges we face in these uncertain times is the challenge of getting kids to "show up" to our online classes. We can't control all the factors that influence their attendance or absence from school, but we can start to understand what those factors are.

3 Factors That Prevent Students From "Showing Up" to Online Learning

#1: Disconnection. Learning online can be lonely and isolating, leaving students to feel less connected to their teachers and friends. When students are disconnected from others, they tend to disengage or disappear from virtual learning completely.

What we can do: Tap into the power of the "Social Brain." We learn through our interactions and communications with others (McLeod, 2018), so let's emphasize social interactions whenever we can. One way is to use our live time together (whether in-person or in web conferencing) to foster strong relationships with our learners, giving them a chance to interact socially as well. When students feel like they are a part of a community, they tend to participate more in synchronous and asynchronous parts of class. Here are a few community-building ideas to explore: 5 Virtual Ways to Build a Classroom Community (PBS Teacher's Lounge).

#2: Overwhelm / Confusion. It's true, learning online can be tedious and overwhelming. When students do log in and see a long list of lessons or assignments, they can feel defeated before they even start to do any work. If they're working on school work on their own, our students may be feeling uncertain about what they are supposed to do, or how to do it.

What we can do:

Simplify! Most learning management systems have features that allow us to hide or unpublish items that are to be completed in the future. Simplifying the daily view and minimizing the asynchronous activities can help students feel less overwhelmed. For example, post current assignments in a "This Week" folder, or post a planner page that shows what to focus on each day.

It can be helpful to send a short video to our students to remind them what to focus on today, while showing where to find the activity or lesson. Posting daily or weekly videos establishes a routine that is helpful to students and parents. Sending the same videos out (via LMS announcements, email, text, Class Dojo, Seesaw, etc.) help us guide and support our learners.

In our World of Learning program, our World Language teachers send out Monday Morning Messages, which really guide the learning for the week to come. Tools like Smore or Microsoft Sway make it easy to incorporate media and distribute in a variety of ways. For example, here is a Monday Morning Message from a Spanish 1 class.

#3: Distractions/Interruptions. Let's admit, it's hard to stay focused on working or learning when something more interesting catches our attention. When our students are not on campus, they are surrounded by a multitude of distractions. These distractions may be things they have control over, such as playing video games or scrolling through social media. Or, distractions may be out of our students' control. We've learned that some of our students with jobs have taken on more work hours to help with family finances, while others are taking care of younger siblings. We're also aware that many of our learners share devices with other family members and are also sharing strained Internet connections with others in the household. All of these challenges can distract or interrupt the learning process.

What we can do: Let's be flexible! Research shows that teens are their most productive later on in the day (Gariépy, et al., 2017). Consider ways to acknowledge students learning outside of "normal" school hours, perhaps through personal messages of encouragement or shout-outs in classwide announcements. We may even take some time to survey our students (or just talk with them) about what part of the day seems to be their best "learning window." This gives us insight as to their time commitments and distractions. It also gives them a chance to be heard about the obstacles, along with some autonomy to manage their time. See 7 more flexibility suggestions by ISTE: Flexibility is Key to Successful Remote Learning.

As a side note, some of the fun distractions may have merit in learning contexts too. For example, video games involve challenges, competition, and frequent rewards. We can replicate some of those qualities in the activities we design (online simulations, digital games, and problem-based learning activities). Many learning platforms have built-in gamification features, such as badging, leveling-up, and shared leaderboards. Take a look at some ideas for using digital badges: Digital Badges in the Classroom (What, When and How).

As we continue to find ways to keep our learners engaged, we will likely face challenges that seem out of our control. What we can control is establishing a classroom culture that is social, supportive, and flexible so that students feel a sense of belonging and are more likely to participate.



Gariépy, G., Janssen, I., Sentenac, M., & Elgar, F. J. (2017). School start time and sleep in canadian adolescents. Journal of Sleep Research, 26(2), 195-201.

McLeod, S. A. (2018). Lev Vygotsky. Simply Psychology.


Christine Davis is a Virtual Learning Specialist with Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. In her role, she guides teachers in developing online courses, provides professional learning about virtual teaching practices and supports educators in all their blended and online learning efforts.

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