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Strategies to Help Students Stay on Track When They Must Miss Class

Due to illness or other circumstances in their lives, some students will need to miss classes on occasion. Proactively designing a plan for how you will approach missed classes will make it easier for both you and your students to address these challenges in the moment—particularly when your students may need to miss multiple classes.

Below are some common areas of concern when students might miss class, along with some strategies to minimize disruption when students miss class.

If you would like to discuss ways you might apply these strategies in your teaching, staff at the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning & Innovation are available to meet with you. Email CETLI to set up a conversation.

Make clear your expectations around communication.

Students are enrolled in several different courses, which may all have different policies and procedures for missed classes. Consider how you will communicate course policies to students, and let students know how and when to contact you. Keeping open lines of communication will help you and your students know what is going on, even as circumstances are evolving. Make sure your students understand how to let you know they will be out for multiple classes so you can make alternative plans with them.

There are a few tools available to you which may make this process easier.

  • Include information in your syllabus and/or within your Canvas site about how and when you want students to contact you about absences.
  • Consider asking students to submit a Course Action Notice (CAN) whenever they will miss class. Using this system can facilitate tracking student absences, keep them organized and creates a record that the advising office can access to help students as needed. Instructors can receive these notices by email or access them through the Course Action Notice link on Courses@Penn.
  • You may prefer a standard email structure or template for communication around absences. If so, make it clear to students when they should plan to email you, what information the email should contain, and if you'd like them to use a specific subject line to help you stay organized.
  • If students are out for longer than 5 days, College students should reach out to CASEnet or their advisor. Students in other schools should reach out to their advising office.
    • Students experiencing an extended absence are likely also experiencing a great deal of stress, perhaps on top of illness. Thus, reducing any barriers to communication may increase the likelihood that they do reach out.

Please note that health information is private: students are not required to submit documentation around their health regarding absences, though some may choose to disclose. Penn's code of academic integrity applies to reporting absences and requesting assistance.

Offer opportunities for students to catch up on missed course materials and lectures

Building a plan for helping students catch up on missed lectures and class content will keep students from falling behind and save you time. When planning, consider both how to share materials and what is most crucial for these students to learn. For example, will you record classes or expect students to share notes? Should students who miss class prioritize watching lecture videos, or assigned readings? Something else? Keep in mind that students who are sick may or may not be able to work while they are out, and, as such, may need time to catch up on past material once they return.

  • Consider sharing any lecture videos if you have them and they will be helpful for students. This can be done through Canvas.
    • Some rooms are set up for live lecture recording. To see if your classroom is recording enabled, check the Central Pool Classroom Finder. Instructions for recording your classes via Zoom can be found at the SAS Computing recording guide.
    • Lecture videos from prior years may be a helpful alternative.
    • If you are concerned that you don't want all students having access to the videos, you can share the videos only with students who miss class. This can be done through Canvas assignments that are assigned to only the absent students.
  • Lecture notes may also be helpful for students who miss class.
    • Consider whether your own lecture notes might be useful. Your slides may be helpful too.
    • Ask the class to generate lecture notes. These notes will serve as a record of class and can also be a helpful exercise for the students who are present in the classroom. Consider rotating the roles so that different students are in charge of notes each class or week. In a large class, it may be necessary to create different groups of students each constructing their own sets of notes.
  • Building community in your class can help students reach out to their peers for notes and help with material. Instructor-created study groups give students contacts in the class and people to ask for notes.
  • If it is important to you that students in your class work together and help each other when needed, consider communicating that through your syllabus, in class, and through assignments.

Offer opportunities for students to catch up on missed activities, such as discussions and problem solving sessions.

For courses that use class time for students to engage with course material, activities, and other students, you may want to consider alternative activities for students who miss class. This may be particularly relevant for seminars or courses that use active learning.

Regardless of the approach you choose, keep in mind that some students may be too ill to stay current with class material and will need to manage a lot of missed material from multiple classes. Consider whether a single comprehensive make-up assignment is a better fit than an assignment for each day. The assignment you provide will communicate to students what you find most important, and where they should focus their time and energy. Note that you may not know how long students will be out for when you initially assign the make-up work, so this may be an evolving conversation.

  • Students may be able to participate in part of a discussion individually. You might consider:
    • Assigning a brief informal response paper.
    • Assigning written or oral responses to discussion prompts or questions. Creating video responses is easy to do via Canvas discussion boards and assignments, for instructions, check here.
    • Suggest your in-class students write very brief summaries or conclusions from class; you can then ask absent students to respond to those summaries.
    • If the student is not too ill to work outside of class students who expect to be absent could submit comments or questions ahead of class, for others to engage with.
    • If you use an annotation tool such as Perusall elsewhere in the course, absent students could use this tool to add comments and answer questions on text that they otherwise would have analyzed in class.
  • If students generally work in groups, absent students may be able to engage with the group work outside of class time. Students can work on group activities or worksheets individually. Note that work designed for groups may be too much for an individual student to complete on their own. Consider shortening or focusing the activity, or providing group notes.
  • If multiple students miss class and are not too ill, they can meet together over Zoom to discuss the readings or work through problems. If meeting together is challenging, students can use a discussion board to have these conversations.
  • If you generally grade in-class work or participation, set a policy for how this will apply to make-up work for absent students. Are you grading for their engagement in the thinking process or for a polished product? Often in-class participation is a messy process, so you may be comfortable with that in make-up work. Additionally, as these students will be working more individually without peer collaboration you may not be able to expect the same depth of answers. Consider grading based on effort and communicate to students that the goal is to learn the material and not to achieve perfect answers.
  • If it is important to you that students in your class work together and help each other when needed, consider communicating that through your syllabus, in class, and through assignments.

Create a plan for how students will make up or substitute for a missed exam.

Student absences during exams can be stressful for students and challenging for instructors to manage. It is useful to create policies around exams so that students do not feel pressure to attend class when they are ill. Further, policies that are proactive will prevent instructors from needing to devise a plan in the moment when a student does not show up for an exam.

When possible, use policies that allow flexibility for all students. With flexible strategies, you're less likely to need to individually manage multiple requests to make up an exam. You might also plan ahead for how you will administer a makeup exam, including how you will design an exam that might need to be taken at a later date or by a student who is not in class.

  • Include multiple low-stakes assessments rather than a few high-stakes exams. With multiple assessments spread out over the semester, it is less problematic for a student to miss one, especially if you incorporate a policy that allows for students to skip an assessment.
  • Consider a drop policy: If students are able to drop the lowest exam score or skip an exam, students can use this option if they need to be absent.
  • Allow students to substitute one or two exams with an alternative take-home assignment, such as a paper or short research project.
  • Plan that you may need to give students a makeup exam. In an effort to minimize academic integrity concerns, you might:
    • Administer multiple versions of the same test, wherein you vary the question order, the order of answers within questions, or have multiple versions of the same question. For quantitative fields, this could include changing the numerical values of a word problem or equation. For fields that involve texts, this could include swapping out which texts are drawn upon in the question.
    • If you are worried about exam questions being shared with students who take the exam later, you might share exam questions with the entire class before the exam.
  • Given that you might need to administer exams to students who will miss class, consider reimagining your exams entirely.
    • If all exams are take-home exams, then rescheduled exams becomes much simpler. There is little incentive for students who do become ill and need to reschedule their makeup exam to share information, as they will have access to the same materials whenever they take the exam. To make take-home exams work well, you might consider asking questions that emphasize critical thinking and other skills, and you may want to explicitly state whether or not collaboration is acceptable. For more, see our page on Online Exams and Assessments.
    • You can use Canvas to administer an exam for even a single student that is open for a set period of time over a specific duration.