Engaging students and improving attendance


Attendance officers’ key priorities are promoting attendance and absence, ensuring that students do not miss out on education  and learning. This is most successful when a whole-school approach is taken. In this article, Ben Dunford offers some strategies to motivate students and keep them connected and engaged.


  • There is a clear link between attendance and achievement – motivated learners are more likely to attend.
  • It is important that students receive clear, specific and accurate feedback about the tasks they have completed.
  • Absences can be related to lack of engagement in the classroom – recognising a range of strategies to improve learning can help address this.

Teaching staff and what takes place in the classroom, and the relationship between the student and teacher, are pivotal to the success of a whole-school approach. The relationship between attendance and attainment is undisputed and research into this can be found via a link at the end of this article.

Below are strategies to motivate students and keep them connected and engaged. Attendance officers may consider using the information in dialogue with teaching staff to gain an understanding of life in the classroom and the impact this can have on student engagement.

Engaging our students is especially relevant as we emerge from a long period of pandemic disruption and the motivation and engagement of students is a vital consideration for every school. Here is just a selection of the wide range of techniques that Firefly Learning has gathered from schools across the country for our new e-book The rules of student engagement; techniques that can help boost student motivation and keep them engaged in their learning.

Get creative with learning

Enquiry-based learning, for example, gives the reins back to students, who start off with an ‘essential question’, such as ‘How can we protect our oceans?’ or ‘What makes a great leader?’ Students can then develop their investigation from their own questions, ideas and curiosity, with the teacher guiding and facilitating the process. They get to use a range of resources, from the library to the internet, and collaborate with their classmates to pursue their line of inquiry.

Capitalise on students’ prior knowledge

What do students know already of your subject or a new unit of work? This is a great hook to engage them with the learning ahead and an excellent basis for building new knowledge, but make sure you check for incorrect beliefs in their prior knowledge.

Harness the power of real-world stories

Storytelling makes learning meaningful and keeps students engaged. Think of a human rights lawyer talking to your students about their most difficult court case, a war veteran recounting how communications in wartime used to work, or the local council representative challenging students to find a solution to a waste management crisis; the possibilities to bring the world into your classroom are endless.

Get out in the community

Community projects foster students’ responsibility and promote their understanding of the role they play in society. Some projects are quite transformational for both the students and the community. For example, an award-winning community project saw a group of students from a school in Londonderry help the residents of a local care complex look after their garden. Both generations found they had a lot to teach each other!

Get feedback right

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has produced evidence-based tips on how to get feedback right (see Further information). Put simply, effective feedback needs to be specific, accurate and clear, pinpointing the precise achievement or areas needing improvement. 

It is also helpful to make comparisons with the students’ previous work to provide a holistic picture of their progress. Remember to provide feedback on elements of complex, ongoing or longer tasks – it will keep students motivated and show them the importance of perseverance. And if you opt for peer review or peer feedback, be sure to provide clear guidance and support before the process starts.

Look forward

Another crucial feature of feedback is its role as a guide: it needs to outline how students can improve further. Clear guidance on how to move learning forward, targeting the specific gaps the student needs to fill – or giving advice on how to extend and broaden their skills – is vital. Some think of it as a ‘feed-forward’: with clear instructions, students can feel confident to move on, and that could be a great motivator.

Get a helping hand

Make use of technology whenever you can to facilitate and boost the feedback process. For example, you can provide comments via email or use audio notes to give feedback to students. Screen captures can also make your feedback on essays or projects more precise and powerful. Remember that technology can help simplify the teaching admin, freeing up time for teachers to support students to understand and make use of feedback.

Be clear and consistent when celebrating success

Ensure that students know exactly which behaviour or achievement they are being rewarded for and be consistent in your praise. For example, you can set up a points system to reward good behaviour or achievements. Once students have collected enough points, they can spend them on a dedicated online ‘shop’ in full control of the school. Most importantly, remember that rewards are best given sparingly and that it is crucial to know what your students will appreciate the most. Check out a list of fun rewards at the end of the Firefly booklet.

Sharing is caring

Technology can help to celebrate student achievement, too. The possibilities are wide ranging, with learning engagement platforms from using a tool to keep tabs on the number of daily praise statements to sharing your students’ successes with school leaders and parents. You can also use tech to showcase your students’ or class achievements to the rest of the school – or the world – with leadership boards and by awarding badges and certificates.

Of course, there are basic rules to keep in mind to ensure that celebrations and rewards don’t go awry, including using rewards sparingly to avoid reward inflation, rewarding effort and good learning strategies, keeping parents up-to-date, and rewarding meeting expectations over a long period of time, for example at the end of each term or year.

The importance of understanding the lived experience of students in the classroom can make the difference between a student feeling motivated to get to school each day, and not. Meetings with both parents and students often raise issues about learning and staff relationships. The information in this article can be used to follow through where absence may be related to this. The new Ofsted inspection framework focuses on curriculum and this link will enhance attendance work.

Further information

About the author

Ben Dunford is a former secondary computer science teacher, founder of Epraise and Head of Product at Firefly Learning. Epraise is a school rewards system and learning engagement platform that helps schools motivate students, engage parents and save teachers time. www.epraise.co.uk www.fireflylearning.com

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About Author

Sarah Murdoch

Sarah Murdoch is Publisher for Attendance Matters Magazine. She is supported by an experienced team of commissing editors, editors, and designers.

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