What to Do about Those Absent Students

Haven’t we all entertained that inquiry from an absent student, “Did I miss anything important?” The question is poorly phrased, but I recognize that it’s usually well-intentioned. The student is concerned about what he or she missed. My concern is about those continued absences and how to allow the student to make up for a missed class. The first day of class I read a Tom Wayman poem (www.loc.gov/poetry/180/013.html) that gets at the phrasing of the question and what the student misses by being absent.

What students miss depends on how your class is structured. I try to create an active learning environment in the classroom, filled with large- and small-group discussions and activities that help solidify course content. If a student misses a class structured like that, he or she has missed all that interaction, and a student really can’t “make up” that experience.

Students need to be in class. Absence policies that spell out what repercussions follow frequent absences are part of almost every syllabus. Most of us specify that after a certain number of absences the student cannot recover academically and should drop the course. A lot of us use policies that significantly reduce the overall course grade for excessive absences, hoping that approach will provide the motivation to attend class. Most of us have also learned (usually the hard way) that having some forgiveness for minor absences is necessary even though many students view excused absences as “vacation days,” often using them to extend the regularly scheduled semester breaks.

I have had students who missed class ask if they can stop by during office hours to “catch up” on what they missed. Some of my classes are scheduled for three-hour blocks; we meet once a week. With all my other academic obligations, I rarely have time to conduct a “private” class for a student who didn’t show up. Then there’s the issue of excused absences, those that occur due to a documented and excusable event such as university athletic and academic trips. These students are absent through no direct action or inaction of their own, yet the fact remains, they weren’t in class and missed what happened.

So what is the best way to equitably address missed content due to student absences? Here are some possible solutions:

Digital discussion
At this point most universities are using some kind of course management system that enables online discussion. This means absent students can still participate, either before or after class, if the teacher incorporates online discussion in the class. The online discussion needs to include at least some students who were in class, but they might be assigned to do this every so often, and absent students can then read and react to reports of what happened in class.

Discussion by proxy
Many faculty now assign “reflection papers,” which ask the student to thoughtfully respond to a project, discussion, assignment, or reading. The same procedure could be applied to missed discussions. Assuming course readings and assignments fuel in-class discussions, absent students could be assigned a two- to three-page reflection paper on those same topics. While it might not allow for the interjection of other points of view, it does get the student examining the material that was discussed in class.

The buddy system
Small group projects and discussions are commonplace in many academic settings. Students are assigned to such groups and spend the semester working together on various assignments and activities. What about extending the responsibility of the group to include some accountability for its members? If group members are absent, it’s the group’s responsibility to bring them up to speed. Maybe there is some bonus-point reward whenever a group discusses or completes an activity and all its members are present. Peer pressure does effectively motivate most undergraduate students.

The perfect solution is regular attendance in class, but we teach and learn in an imperfect world, which necessitates that we have some alternatives. Students should be in class, and there should be consequences when they are not there. If what they’ve missed can’t be made up, they lose points. If what they’ve missed can be approximated with an activity, then they should be required to complete that activity if they want to make up what they missed.

Rocky Dailey is an assistant professor and online graduate program adviser at South Dakota State University.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.4 (2014): 5-6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.