Setting online attendance and participation expectations

Young man having Zoom video call via a computer in the home office. Stay at home and work from home

There is a strong correlation between student engagement and achievement (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). Through regular participation in online classes, students can develop connections with their classmates and the instructor and become more engaged, active, and ultimately successful in their learning.

Our students also lead busy lives. With online classes, students may especially need some clarity and guidance for managing their time and workload. In fact, the 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines, provided by the The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), proposes the following elements for assuring quality in distance education programs:

  • “information regarding what students need to be successful in the program, including… expected amount of engagement per week or per term.”
  • “expectations for students’ engagement as active learners with learning resources, faculty, other students, and assignments as appropriate…”

For this reason, Missouri Online recommends that online instructors clearly set expectations for participation and/or attendance in online classes (#7 in the 5 Pillars Review form).

You can help students in participating actively in their learning and in managing their time by taking simple steps to support them.

Key questions to address

One of the most effective ways to support online students is by anticipating some of their needs and concerns. Students may have the following questions:

  1. How much time should I allocate to the course on average each week?
  2. How often should I check the course website?
  3. How should I participate in discussions or group projects?
  4. What are the best platforms for communicating with my classmates and my instructor?

Consider addressing these questions in the course syllabus and, if expectations differ week to week, in module overview pages. Whatever approach you use, please share with your students your expectations for participation and engagement in the course.

Estimating student workload

You may wonder: How can you determine the amount of time it would take for a student to finish all of a week’s assigned tasks? One rule of thumb is that the typical student would need fifty percent more time than you take to finish the work yourself. If you can finish a week’s worth of readings and homework in six hours, the average student would need nine.

There are also online workload calculators available, such as this one from Wake Forest University. Entering some information, you can use these to calculate the time your course would demand on average of students weekly.

What to discuss with synchronous courses

Synchronous courses present further opportunities for engagement and interaction. Students will have concerns and questions unique to these courses, which include:

  1. What are the expectations for attending synchronous sessions? What consequences are there for missing them?
  2. What does participation look like? How often should I share and interact in synchronous lessons, and what would that involve?
  3. Will I need to turn my camera on, or can I leave it off?
  4. What other expectations or norms should I be aware of, such as being muted unless speaking, etc.?

With synchronous classes, you may like to take time during the first class to discuss and model your expectations for participation and engagement.

Why to set expectations for discussion forums

Even without the immediacy of synchronous discussions, you can still foster an active and collaborative learning community in your class with asynchronous online discussions. Students will contribute to the conversation more meaningfully when they receive clear and direct guidance on how often and when they should check and contribute to discussion forums.

While norms for discussion forums may seem familiar and obvious to many of us, they may not be for all students. For instance, specify when students should make their initial posts and when students should respond to classmates. Including clear participation expectations in instructions and rubrics will establish what you would like to see out of the forum, such as an initial post by Wednesday and at least two replies to classmates’ posts by Friday.

The value of setting expectations

Effective online courses make relationships a priority because they provide the foundation for students to achieve their full academic capacity. Unfortunately, research has indicated that students are less inclined to engage and interact in the online classroom (Kipsert & Gross, 2023). ​​Providing a variety of ways for students to interact with you, each other, and the content encourages participation (Missouri Online, n.d.).

By setting expectations for participation and engagement, you can encourage students to contribute to the conversation, learn from one another, and succeed in their learning. Setting expectations for participation and engagement will establish a lodestar for students as they embark on and move forward in their learning.


Barre, B., Brown, A., & Esarey, J. (n.d.). Workload estimator 2.0. Wake Forest University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved October 20, 2023, from

Martin, F. & Bolliger, D.U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment.Online Learning: The Journal of the Online Learning Consortium, 22(1), 205-222.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. (2021, March). 21st century distance education guidelines 2021. Higher Learning Commission.

Our top 3 library resources

The articles below were hand-picked by our team of designers, specifically for the UM System community, to bring you the best content we could find! Check with your university library for access via subscription or interlibrary loan.

Kipling, R.P., Stiles, W.A., de Andrade-Lima, M., MacKintosh, N., Roberts, M.W., Williams, C.L. Wootton-Beard, P.C., & Watson-Jones, S.J. (2023). Interaction in online postgraduate learning: what makes a good forum?. Distance Education, 44(1), 162-189.

Discussion forums serve as one of the primary ways students participate and interact in asynchronous courses. However, how do students view the use of discussion forums as part of their learning? This study uses both surveys and interviews to gather feedback from students about their perceptions on discussion forums. It explores the value, benefits, and risks of discussion forums.

Kipsert, S., & Gross, C. (2023). Engagement in the undergraduate science course: Lessons learned about participation and distraction from the remote classroom. HAPS Educator,Journal of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, 27(1), 16-25. Available through libraries and online at

The move to online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for both faculty and students. What impact did the switch have on student engagement, and what strategies are most effective in fostering it in online learning environments?

Muir, T., Milthorpe, N., Stone, C., Dyment, J., Freeman, E., & Hopwood, B. (2019). Chronicling engagement: Students’ experience of online learning over time.Distance Education, 40(2), 262-277.

How does students’ engagement with an online course evolve over the course semester, and what factors contribute to these changing degrees of engagement? This study adopts and uses a longitudinal approach to illuminate and clarify how student engagement does not remain static but is instead dynamic and organic, responding to numerous situational factors.

Created on: January 8, 2024