Teaching and Learning Resource Center

Student Attendance and Participation in Online Classes

What does it mean to "attend" an online class?

Attendance is critical to an institution appropriately using federal aid funds. Taking attendance allows the institution to make clear determinations of when a student last attended class, which then has implications to the use of federal funds and what federal funds must be returned. When it comes to attendance in an online course it may seem a little unclear how attendance is defined. Luckily, in the Federal Student Aid Handbook we have very specific information to draw from that can help guide our decision-making when designing courses for an online environment.

What is an acceptable indication of attendance?

According to the Federal Student Aid Handbook acceptable indications of attendance in an online course can include:

  • Student submission of an academic assignment
  • Student submission of an exam
  • Documented student participation in an interactive tutorial or computer-assisted instruction
  • A posting by the student showing the student's participation in an online study group that is assigned by the institution
  • A posting by the student in a discussion forum showing the student's participation in an online discussion about academic matters
  • An email from the student or other documentation showing that the student-initiated contact with a faculty member to ask a question about an academic subject studied in the course.

What does NOT sufficiently indicate attendance?

Per the handbook, "in a distance education context, documenting that a student has logged into an online class is not sufficient, by itself, to demonstrate academic attendance by the student" (Federal Student Aid Handbook, 2016, p. 886). Essentially, a student must be required to do more than just "log in" to be documented as having attended an online course.

What does this mean for the design of online courses?

Knowing that it is critical for our institution to have clear documentation of a student's last date of attendance, The Office of Technology and Digital Innovation encourages the inclusion of at least one academic-related activity each week as a basic aspect of course quality and compliance. This component is an important step in the course design process and appears in our checklist of effective practices for online teaching. So next time you are designing an online course, consider how you can build in opportunities for attendance to be demonstrated on a weekly basis.