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Checking in (a quick teaching tip)

Topics/tags: Teaching, short

As I’ve noted in an earlier musing, I get concerned when students miss class. There are a host of negative impacts when students miss class. They learn less and may miss some important points. If they are working in a group [1], their group-mates suffer. I also have to reshuffle groups to accommodate the absence.

I will admit that my initial inclination when a student misses class and does not send me an email about it [2] is to take it as a slight and to be upset at the student. But then I take a deep breath and remember that students generally don’t miss class because they don’t care about the material. Some of the time, it’s that they are ill. Some of the time, their alarms didn’t work. Some of the time, something else is going on in their lives. None of those are intentional slights. Hence, instead of sending a message that says I’m disappointed that you missed class or even I’m disappointed that you missed class yet again, I generally try something more like the following message, most typically with a subject of Checking in.

Dear Student,

I’m sorry that you weren’t in class today. I hope everything is okay.

I look forward to seeing you in class on Friday.


– SamR

You’ll note that it’s relatively terse. That’s intentional. I don’t ask why they missed class because, in many cases, it’s none of my business. I don’t immediately offer extra support because I’d like them to take the initiative to ask for help and because their first step for help should be getting notes from someone else in the class.

However, I let them know that they important to me, both by sending the message and by including a short note expressing concern. And I’m not misleading the students; they are important to me. The confirmation of importance also provides an implicit offer of help.

I’ve found this technique relatively successful. While some students seem to ignore the message, most respond. Some students just send along an I’m sorry. Others send an explanation of things that are going on. I often ask for permission to forward those to someone who can provide them with some support. And some ask for help, as they should.

There are times I neglect to send these notes, most typically because I’m too disorganized [3], too busy, or too stressed. When I don’t send the notes, I find that I regret it. Every once in a while, I realize that there’s a student who has missed a lot of classes, regrets it, and really would have benefitted from the extra push of the notes.

What should you take from this musing?

  • If you are a student, you should know that your faculty care when you miss class. It may also be good to know that some of us take your absence as a slight [4].
  • If you are a faculty member, you should consider whether some kind of Checking in approach might work for you.
  • If you are neither, you might consider whether you should try a similar technique in other aspects of your life. First, when someone fails to do something that’s important to you and it upsets you, try to accept that other issues may be at play. Second, when such things happen, reach out with tenderness rather than rage.

[1] I often have my students work in groups.

[2] I don’t need an explanation; just a simple I’m sorry that I was unable to attend class today. I’ll get notes from a classmate and contact you if I have additional questions.

[3] I’m always disorganized. Too disorganized is more so. For example, I might forget to record names of missing students or I might lose the list as soon as I sit down to do the next thing.

[4] I have not discussed the issue with other faculty. It may be that I’m the only one takes absences as a statement that my class is not important.

Version 1.0 of 2018-06-04.