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Supporting Learning When Students Can’t Make It To Class

Whether for travel, quarantine, or illness, students may need to be absent from in-person learning. As you explore your options for supporting students and sustaining their learning, reflect back on past strategies and the ways you provided continuity during times of disruption. Technology-enhanced practices can work in this context (see the CTL’s From Online to Face-to-Face-Keeping What Works resource) to make learning inclusive and accessible. Finally, speak with your colleagues about their practices and the norms in departments or schools as you consider a plan for students who can’t make it to class. 

What do you do when your students are not well enough to learn in-person? What does continuity look like in your classroom?

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Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Supporting Learning When Students Can’t Make It To Class. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/absent-students/

Plan for Absences with Students and their Learning in Mind

Reflect on the practices that would support student learning. Prior to the start of the semester ask yourself: what would fair attendance, participation, and assessment policies look like? How can students achieve course learning objectives if they miss in-class activities, assignments, due dates, exams, etc.? How can I motivate students to attend class without penalizing students who are unable to participate in-person?

Craft policies that are flexible and accessible to all learners. Trust that all your students want to learn. Consider your students and their learning when crafting inclusive course policies (e.g., policies for participation, engagement in activities, assignments, etc. that are part of an inclusive syllabus). Recognize that students who are unable to participate in-person fear falling behind. Consider asking students for feedback on the policies and/or co-construct the policies with your students.

Set Expectations 

Articulate your practices and tell your students how you will support them if they are unable to come to class in-person. Be transparent and explain your policies and expectations about making-up missed quizzes or exams, participation, and extension requests. This will ease student anxiety about missing in-person classes. Regardless of your approach, it is important to communicate your practices clearly and consistently so that students know what you expect of them and what they can expect of you. This can be done in-class and on CourseWorks. 

Encourage communication and create space for students to ask questions through CourseWorks Discussion, Ed Discussion, email, or virtual office hours. CourseWorks Announcements can help all students keep up with the course; announcements can include class agendas, information about homework and assignments, upcoming due dates, and other important course activities. 

Build community so that students can form relationships and support one another during times of need. Encourage students to connect through icebreakers and collaborate through small group work (see the CTL’s Community Building in the Classroom for sample strategies). Create a Q&A CourseWorks Discussion or Ed Discussion space where students can ask and respond to each other’s questions and share notes. Additionally, consider encouraging collaborative note-taking as an in-class practice, whether in a shared Google Doc or CourseWorks Discussion (see the CTL’s Collaborative Learning resource for suggested implementation). 

Consider Opportunities for Asynchronous Engagement

Make course materials available in CourseWorks. Materials can include slide presentations, instructional materials, handouts, etc. This will benefit all students as they will have access to materials to support their learning – whether reviewing for an exam or to help fill in gaps that were missed in class (see the CTL’s Accessibility in Teaching and Learning resource for tips). 

Share class recordings, whether they are Zoom recordings from past semesters or audio or Zoom recordings of the current class. See the CTL’s Tips for Recording Classes in All Learning Spaces resource for further support.

Concern: “If I make course materials and recordings available online, my students won’t come to class.” 

Explain to students why you have placed course materials online and how you expect them to engage with those materials. Help students understand the benefits of coming to class. Design in-class sessions that build on the materials available online and that actively engage students with course materials and with their peers so they see the value of attending class in-person.

Create opportunities for students to participate in classroom discussion asynchronously. This can be done through CourseWorks Discussions or Ed Discussion (see the CTL’s Learning Through Discussion resource).

Consider Opportunities for Synchronous Engagement

Allow students to join class remotely and to actively participate. If students are well enough to attend class remotely, provide the option for them to do so via Zoom. Enhance their remote experience by engaging them in discussions and activities that are part of the session plan. See the CTL’s Five Tips for Hybrid/HyFlex Teaching with All Learners in Mind and Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom for tips on engaging remote students.

Concern: “If I provide a remote option, my students (who are not in quarantine, isolation, or sick) won’t come to class and will instead choose to join remotely.”

Build a trusting relationship with your students. Explain to them why you are offering a remote option for students who have to quarantine, isolate or who are sick in alignment with the University’s policies on attendance. Help students understand the benefits of coming to class when they are able to do so. Design in-class sessions that actively engage students in thinking, discussion, applying instead of passively listening to a lecture so they see the value of attending class in-person.

Invite students to meet with you and/or your TAs (if applicable). Office hours provide an opportunity to respond to questions students may have about missed course material, assignments, and how to make those up. Virtual office hours provide flexibility for students to connect while they are unable to attend class in-person (see the CTL’s Virtual Office Hours resource).

Manage the Workload By Planning Ahead

When students are unable to attend class due to quarantine, isolation, or illness, it can feel like trying to prepare and facilitate multiple offerings of the course. If possible, it’s important to consider many of the above strategies before the semester begins to determine what would be most manageable for you. How might you leverage asynchronous course spaces from the start of the course, so that engagement is integrated in course practices? How might you craft inclusive course policies that anticipate potential absences? How can you be explicit with your learners about the value of attending class in-person (when possible) and the purpose of asynchronous resources, like recordings or remote attendance? 


Columbia University. Attendance Policies and Missed Class. Return to In-person Instruction. COVID-19 Resource Guide for the Columbia Community. 

Schacter, H. L., Brown, S. G., Daugherty, A. M., Brummelle, S., and Grekin, E. (2021). A Road Map for a Compassionate Classroom. Inside Higher Education. December 1, 2021.

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