Skip to main content

I have a friend who is a phenomenal teacher. She has been making a positive impact on middle schoolers’ lives for 20 years. I used to go into her classroom during my prep period and take detailed notes so I could refine my class. She had the ability to reach the hardest, most closed off student while still managing to make sure the “kids in the middle” didn’t slip through the cracks.

Yesterday, she mentioned that she had no students show up to her optional class meeting. It was a district requirement that teachers hold open office hours but they had to remain optional. When nobody showed up, she was crushed. She found herself questioning whether students cared and she actually messaged a group of us privately asking, “Was I wrong to think that I knew how to build a classroom community? Have I lost the ability to be relevant?”

It was painful to see her reaction because I guarantee her students love her. She’s one of the best teachers I know. And yet . . . nobody showed up.

One thing I’ve learned from teaching distance learning classes at the university level is that it’s common to have nobody show up to an optional meeting. We’re talking about students who are paying money to get a degree. They are earning a graduate degree to become teachers. They are highly motivated. We’re in a cohort model where I teach multiple classes. Even then, the default is to not show up.

It hurts. It feels personal. But that’s rarely the case. Failure to show up doesn’t mean students don’t care. Many of them don’t want to feel like an imposition. Many feel they are doing okay and don’t need “help” during optional office hours. Many of them are living busy lives or they’re simply distracted.

However, I’d like to share a few strategies that worked for me as a way to boost attendance in optional meetings.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via iTunes/Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).


Five Ways to Increase Attendance in Optional Online Meetups

A few things that have worked for me at the university level that I’ve seen work at the secondary level as well:

1. Invite specific students with a personal email.

Say something like, “I could really use your participation tomorrow.” Or you might provide specific feedback on an assignment and say, “It’s not required but I would love for you to show up to our meeting tomorrow. I’ll be reteaching it.” Students want to feel wanted. At times, I send the email to a small group of students and we basically do a small group intervention. My son’s math teacher does this. She asks specific students to meet after school. It’s optional but it’s highly recommended. It’s not an accident that she’s getting students to show up to her online meet-ups. In her case, she has very specific topics and, while she’s allowing any student to show up, she’s specifically asking those who need it to show up. I know of a teacher who makes phone calls to invite a few of the most at-risk students to show up to the meeting. For what it’s worth, that would be my nightmare. I hate making phone calls. And I want to be clear that this teacher is going above and beyond. I would never expect that from all teachers. But it is an idea.

2. Re-frame the meeting from “help” to “peer feedback.”

This reduces the stigma of needing help. Think of it as the teacher version of people wanting “life coaches” but not admitting they need counseling. I had open office hours to help students with a big portfolio project (the edTPA) and nobody showed up. I did this for two weeks in a row and wondered if my students were just really, really advanced. Then I changed it to an optional peer feedback workshop and about two-thirds of the class showed up. I broke them into small groups on Zoom and then checked in with each of them. We also had a Q&A where they began to ask for help. However, they needed to know they weren’t alone in needing help. By giving peer feedback, there was a strong message that all students were still in progress. Nobody had nailed it yet.

3. Ask students to show up to give me feedback on how I’m doing as a teacher.

Students want to have a voice in how things are going and it’s the kind of feedback I need to improve my instruction. In UX Design, there is a core idea of asking for user feedback. Think of this as UX design for your distance learning instruction.

Subscribe to YouTube Channel

As a teacher, I can ask about what’s working and what’s not working. I can also ask students for specific ideas. Afterward, we can transition into a question like, “What is still unclear for you?” or “What did I not explain well enough?” These questions lead to a place where I can re-teach core concepts or skills. At this point, the meeting begins to feel more like a true open office time.

4. Make it a social hour with trivia.

I’m totally serious here. Sometimes you need to play together for half an hour and then move into something more academic. I had a distance learning course with members of multiple cohorts. There were several people who knew each other well and it created unintentional cliques. While we met on video conferencing for our official class, the small groups were distant and the conversation was stilted. At that point, I did optional hours for the next night and made it a 90’s trivia night. I asked them to dress up in a 90’s outfit. That last part tanked. I get it. It was a big ask. But the small group trivia competition was the type of team-builder we needed. I was back to being my typical goofy self.

5. Do something hands-on.

The biggest benefit from a video conference is that it’s synchronous. I’ve found that it’s better to direct instruction as a video that they can watch and re-watch (flipped instruction style) and use this time to do something more hands-on. You could do a scavenger hunt. My daughter’s fourth grade teacher did a really cool math scavenger hunt last week. You might do a show-and-tell activity. We did the following show-and-tell activity in our last video conference class meeting. You can also find this on my Instagram, where I post visuals that you can use for free in your distance learning classes.

You could do a divergent thinking challenge:

Subscribe to YouTube Channel

But that being said . . . some groups have better luck with an asynchronous option. And that’s okay. The biggest takeaway is that a lack of attendance has nothing to do with your value as a teacher or your relationship with students.

Teaching is deeply relational and the physical distance makes this distance learning thing really hard at a time like this. But I think it helps to recognize that even for those of us who have been doing distance learning for years, it always takes extra effort to build and maintain community. And when the results aren’t there in the way you expect them, it’s not a reflection on who you are as a teacher. It’s a reflection on the sheer challenge presented by distance learning itself.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


    • Regina Sherrod says:

      I really enjoyed the Ways to Boost Attendance in Virtual Class Meetings. It gave some good ideas and the insight on the renaming the cause of the invite. I also would like to try some of the ideas you gave. I am a first grade Teacher Assistant and we are only having 7half of our second graders show up or even do the work. But, this something I will try, cause at this time we need all the help we can get. We have called we have e-mailed and we have also posted. only the same children are showing up. As for our at rick students, it’s a no show. It makes me sad because the teacher I work with is try so hard as well as myself. please help? If you can. thank You.

      • Val Williams says:

        I also really enjoyed the ways to Boost Attendance in Virtual Class Meetings. I am excited about using some of those ideas in the Fall.

    • Chris Boylan says:

      Very helpful! We needed these ides to get our students engaged in virtual learning.

  • Leonardo Romero says:

    Excellent ideas, John! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Jada-Jean Barnes says:

    I really like your idea of trivia to engage children and the one entitled “What can you make with this.” Those I would find both easy and ways to engage more students.

  • Ruth Allen says:

    Thanks, John. Although I teach preschool, there are still ideas in your article that I can adapt for my class! I especially love “What can you make with this?” I might have the children take turns sharing something they have made, or something they think everyone could try!

  • Irene Reid says:

    Fantastic podcast and am amped to try some of the ideas but so much more to learn and do!
    Thanks John

  • TRACEY says:

    I love what you said about trivia to engage. I had more engagement from my students during online learning when they could compete with each other, but also have fun. What they didn’t know is I used it as assessment. I would throw several questions in as exit slips it you will that gave me a picture of who understood the concepts and who I needed to check back in with without them realizing it. I called it feedback. I cannot wait to try some more of your strategies. Thank you…

  • John-Michael Langa says:

    Love the idea of “peer feedback” over “help session and also the hands-on activity.

  • Gordon Walker says:

    At the 5:49 of the podcast, I yawned along with Dr. Spencer. Yet, the content is compelling.

  • Jeffrey Lucas says:

    Good ideas fr boosting student attendance at virtual meetings

  • Edie Kendrick says:

    “…physical distance makes this distance learning thing really hard at a time like this…it’s not a reflection on who you are as a teacher. It’s a reflection on the sheer challenge presented by distance learning itself.”

    This really touched my heart. It’s so true. This is a difficult time and we need to keep reminding ourselves, and each other, that it is not a reflection on us as teachers.

  • Laurie says:

    I think that making virtual meetings the chance for the STuDEnts to communicate is key. Loved some of the engagement ideas….they want to talk to each other, not really be talked at!!!

  • Sandra M says:

    I love the podcast …it really gave me great ideas.

  • Judy T Peacock says:

    I enjoyed all the options of making online engagement more effective for students and staff.

  • Jennifer says:

    Anyone have suggestions for middle schoolers? They have 4-5 classes each day and many of them pick and choose which classes to attend, they don’t turn them cameras on (it is not required but highly encouraged) or stay for entire classes.

  • STeve Douthart says:

    I enjoyed this podcast and feel that it is true, the more fun and engaging you can make an activity the better. The key take away I got from this was that you video your actual teaching, a lesson the students can do on their own time and make your time together fun and engaging. THis helps build a sense of community and makes that students want to come into your world.

  • Sherry says:

    Enjoyed the podcast..thanks for the great ideas and options.

  • The pod cast was very informative. I will try some of his strategies to get students to come to my office hours.

  • Marwen Menorca says:

    Hi Professor! your pod cast in very informative. I can really relate to the things you mentioned. I’m really struggled with teaching this year. I felt that I’m not making any different and I’m not effective. Thank you so much I encourage once again!

  • Ann Marie says:

    Thanks for some new insights. I like the hands on for the elementary kids.

  • Sonya says:

    These are awesome new strategies. I feel all students need hands on activities.

  • Teresea Geter says:

    I enjoyed learning about so many strategies for feedback. The hands on activities and the feedback are really good for elementary students.

  • Jill says:

    I liked hearing about several ways to connect with the kiddos in class. I will try these strategies in the upcoming school year.

  • Oscar Ortiz says:

    I really enjoyed learning about the hands on activities like scavenger hunt and more importantly, show and tell, It creates a safe place for the students to express themselves and buy into the learning program.

  • Oscar Ortiz says:

    I really enjoyed learning about the hands on activities like scavenger hunt and more importantly, show and tell, It creates a safe place for the students to express themselves and buy into the learning program

  • Silvia Muir says:

    Great ideas for Distance Learning. I enjoyed the videos and the procedures.

  • Silvia Muir says:

    Practical ideas for Distance Learning. I enjoyed the videos and the procedures.

  • Silvia Muir says:

    Thank you!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.