Missing Class: What to do when you have to cancel

Welcome back to the start of another academic year! I know we are all excited about the start of classes, but today I want to talk about what happens when you CAN’T hold class. We’ve all faced this dilemma: a sudden illness, a flat tire, bad weather, an inconveniently timed conference, an invited talk, jury duty—something comes up, planned or unplanned, that requires us to miss class for a day, a week, or longer. What are our options when this happens?

Option 1: Just cancel class

The easiest option is to just cancel class, no strings attached. Students often love this option as it’s a free snow day, although they may later regret it if it means some material gets left out or rushed. And that’s the real downside to this option: we put a lot of thought into what content to cover in our classes, and missing a session entirely means either dropping a topic or rushing through several topics to find that time again. Plus, there is an obligation of a certain number of contact hours with students that we should adhere to. There are so many other options out there that this one is by far the least advisable, and may in fact be explicitly forbidden by university or department policy.

Option 2: Have a proctor show a video or give an exam

Ask a TA, department office worker, research assistant, or another trusted individual to watch the class while they do an activity without you. This is not a guest lecture (see below), as the person is not being asked to deliver content, but instead to handle the logistics behind an activity that students can do without you. If you know about a missed class in advance, consider scheduling an exam for that day. Alternatively, you can have the class watch a video or film that the proctor can easily set up and run for the students. In that case, I advise having the students complete some kind of assignment to ensure they show up and pay attention—perhaps a video guide they fill out in class, or participating in an online discussion after the fact.

Option 3: Use the time for an out-of class assignment or site visit

If you know in advance that you will miss class, consider scheduling an out-of-class activity for that time. For an intro class, maybe you can have a librarian give the students a tour of the library and go over the available resources germane to your class. Or give them this time to work on a group project, conduct a survey or field observation, or some other project. Perhaps the timing is fortuitous and there is a conference or other relevant campus event that the students could attend.

Option 4: Online lesson

Another option is to put a fully formed lesson online for the students in your learning management system. Typically this would consist of putting some form of PowerPoint, podcast, notes, or videos online with an accompanying assignment such as required discussion, quiz, or problem set. You can also set up a time where you will be available to answer questions via Skype, Vidyo, or another web conferencing system. An online lesson is also a great option if you fall behind in class—just move a topic or two online, and you will quickly catch up. I tend to use audible ( a free audio recording software) to record a lecture that is linked to PowerPoint slides, put that up, and then ask students to take a quiz on the material and participate in one or two relevant discussions. Once you have the lecture recorded, you can use it again in a future class.

Option 5: Schedule a make up class

You can also try to schedule a make up class. This is probably the best option in terms of content delivery and contact hours, but can be difficult logistically, particularly if you have students with job, family, and other personal obligations. With a large class, this may be completely out of the question, but it is doable with a small class. I did this once with a research methods class, but ended up having to schedule two separate times for students to come so I could make sure everyone could attend. That meant I had to deliver the same material twice, on a Thursday and Friday evening. I haven’t done this since, honestly—now I would just do an online lesson on this material or arrange a guest lecturer to cover the class. But check your university guidelines–some schools require that missed classes be made up.

Option 6: Arrange a Guest Lecture/TA

The final option is to ask a TA or colleague to deliver a guest lecture to your class, either on the subject for that day or on a relevant topic within their expertise. This is more than just proctoring: you are asking your colleague to essentially stand in for you on that day and run the class. This semester, for example, I’ll be guest lecturing in a research methods class while a colleague is on his honeymoon. It’s easy for me to do this, since this is a class I teach all the time, and it helps him out—and of course, he immediately offered to do the same for me if I need anything covered now or in the future. Building up social capital by helping out your colleagues means that one day when you need to miss class, they are more likely to be eager to help you out. A few years ago, another colleague of mine injured his back and was bedridden for a few weeks. We dug out his teaching materials and took turns teaching his class for him so the students were not left adrift.  When I know in advance that I’ll be missing a class for a conference or other travel, this is the first option* I turn to—I only look to the others if I can’t find someone to step in.

Obviously missing class is never ideal, but since it invariably happens, it’s important to know the range of options we have to ensure our students still have the opportunity to learn the material. What have you all done when you’ve had to cancel class? What options are missing here?

*Ok, second. If I can realistically schedule an exam during that time, I’ll do that. But often the timing does not work out for that option.