Strategies for reaching out to students who have gone missing or are falling behind

by Harry on February 19, 2016

A friend writes:

I am putting together a teaching workshop in my department that will focus on strategies for reaching out to students who have gone missing or are falling behind. Any suggestions of short things to read that I could circulate ahead of time?

I don’t know of any short readings, but thought that some CTers might and that, even if not, a post might generate a discussion worth reflecting on.

All I have are anecdotes and I’m inhibited from telling them because the people involved might recognise themselves — the more detailed the anecdote, the more useful, but also the more likely they are to recognise themselves. My main strategy, if you can call it that, is to write gentle emails to students who are persistently absent, in a tone that invites them back to class without bugging them or being harsh. This almost always elicits a response, and several students have observed, later, that the tone of the email was important because the student had missed enough classes that they were embarrassed to come back, and some of their absence was just caused by previous absences.
Here’s one that I feel confident the student in question will recognize, but will be fine with:

“Are you doing ok? I’m just writing because you missed class last week, and I wondered if you’re doing ok. Don’t worry, I’m not giving you a hard time: mainly I want to nudge you to be sure you’re in class on Tuesday because it will be fun, and you’ll make good contributions.”

Obviously, the final phrase is only there because it is sincere (I knew she would make good contributions if she came to class, and in this case knew that she probably knew that too). Occasionally such an email prompts much deeper interaction — obviously, some persistently absent students are just absent, but others have real problems that they are not handling well, and need help with. But even though such emails usually get a response, and always a friendly one, they are not all successful — in the class from which the above email is taken another student persisted in absenteeism, and wouldn’t get help.

Anyway — if you can recommend reading that’d be great, and if you can’t, but have stories that of things that have worked, or haven’t worked, that’d be great too.



chris y 02.19.16 at 3:48 pm

Put a Glock to their heads.


AcademicLurker 02.19.16 at 4:19 pm

If Mount St. Mary’s doesn’t adopt a bunny holding a Glock as their new mascot, I’ll be terribly disappointed.


Sumana Harihareswara 02.19.16 at 5:01 pm

Harry, in my experience as a teacher and as a manager, I can’t think of anything more effective (in a broad-spectrum way) than the kind of email you suggested, in an explicitly nonjudgmental tone. If I’m close enough to the person, as in a seminar or an employer-employee relationship, I might add a phone call after an initial email has not been answered for about two days.

When I was doing my bachelor’s and I flaked on an undergrad research assistant gig, I was embarrassed to get back in touch with the professor after what felt like a super long time had passed, and I would have welcomed the kind of note you mention.


Trivial 02.19.16 at 5:09 pm

Your individual *nudge* usually *gets a response,* but both frequently and infrequently (depending on the class) such a message is met with silence. I usually send listserv reminders to the students and, if a student initially provides documentation, a follow-up message. That said, your individual message seems to spur attendance. I’ll mull over more examples from my own limited experience.


RNB 02.19.16 at 5:39 pm
“For example, I did a study with first-year college students who were not doing well academically. They were at risk of adopting a negative, self-defeating thinking pattern in which they blamed themselves and concluded that they weren’t “college material.” We randomly divided the students into two groups. One group got information indicating that many people do poorly their first year but do better after they learn the ropes, and watched videotaped interviews of upperclass students who reinforced this message. The idea was to encourage students to change how they interpreted their own academic difficulties, redirecting them away from the negative, self-defeating idea that they weren’t cut out for college, to a more positive interpretation that they needed to learn how to do better. It worked: This group of students, compared to the control group (who got no information), achieved better grades the next semester and were less likely to drop out of college.”


Philip 02.19.16 at 5:40 pm

I am thinking more of ESOL for adults in the UK, than HE but reinforcing that being absent is okay but you need to let the tutor know what is happening. If one session is missed with no explanation then ask why and if everything is okay and give a reminder that you should let the tutor know before the session or if you can’t then as soon as possible. If it is more than a couple of sessions then a gentle email or phone call to see if everything is okay and reassure them that they haven’t missed too much or what they need to catch up. Mainly it is about having a good relationship with the students so they will communicate what is happening. Obviously this will be different in large HE classes. I would imagine more institutional support, from induction materials, student services etc. would be needed to reinforce the message that attendance is important but if you are absent tutors want to know, understand if it is a good reason, and try and help you.


Bloix 02.19.16 at 6:38 pm

And when there’s no reply to the email? In that case, you are watching a slow-motion fall from a ten-story roof.

A human being needs to talk to the student, in person, about the effect of failing a class. Promptly. This can be you or someone else.

Find out if the student participates in an activity. A club sport? A music-acting-debate-journalism-tutoring-student government activity? Ask the coach or whatever to help. This person can impose consequences. (Before you get on the bus for the away meet, you need to talk to Prof B.)

Is there a dorm mommy/daddy? Or does the kid belong to a Newman Club? Hillel?

If nothing is working, go to the dean for student affairs. Someone needs to tell the student that s/he is in danger of being asked to leave. Someone needs to say, which will be more embarrassing – talking to Prof B, or telling your parents that you flunked out? Someone needs to see if the kid is clinically depressed or has overwhelming financial, substance abuse/video game addiction (seriously!), relationship, or other difficulties.

Aside from the effects on the kid’s future – Starbucks, here we come! with $50,000 debt and no degree! – a failed class is $5000 down the toilet. Saving that kind of money is worth a vigorous intervention.


Trivial 02.19.16 at 7:22 pm

I also review academic dates during the initial weeks of the course, including refund and registration deadlines. After three or four weeks, my particular institution requires instructors to submit final rosters with no-show notations. This procedure shifts responsibility for silence, distinguished from limited responses, to administration. By mid-semester, however, administration provides instructors with a roster form that similarly includes grade-check notations (assume grades address participation rather than compulsory attendance). Instructors resubmit the roster, at which time an administration representative emails noted students with a grade-check message. This procedure, however, in no way precludes instructor advocacy for all students aa well as an individual student with prior documentation.


Lisa 02.19.16 at 7:47 pm

I like the way you keep it concerned but light. I wouldn’t say ‘don’t worry I’m not giving you a hard time…’ because I’d worry they’d get the idea their lack of attendance won’t affect their grade. I try to shoot for kind but firm– ‘just checking in…let me know if you need help with …midterm is in 2 weeks…’ I think keeping a tiny edge in there but showing you care is better because they may be looking for a reason why it’s OK to stay home. Totally made up figures but I’d say they respond about 80% of the time and about 50% return from their wanderings when given a breadcrumb trail to complete the course.

If they keep not showing up I say they have to meet with me or withdraw because they won’t pass without attending class–while also giving them that one last chance to catch up when this is possible.

A second suggestion is to talk to student advising. They sometimes have strategies to contact students and offer them more personalized assistance than is appropriate from a professor.

Some of my most brilliant students had periods of very poor attendance or bad grades. Usually it is due to life circumstances but it is also common for people of high ability and potential to become perfectionists and choke under pressure–both within and outside of school. Often it is temporary and they pull it together. I’ve even seen students go on to do wonderfully after a very serious bump in the road that required a leave for poor grades.

You should never shoot bunnies but I doubt anyone can perfectly identify bunnies in one semester or even in Freshman year. And even the bunnies may turn out very well.


Collin Street 02.19.16 at 8:31 pm

A human being needs to talk to the student, in person, about the effect of failing a class. Promptly. This can be you or someone else.

No, they really, really don’t, Bloix.

A communication is only useful if it contains information not known to both parties; having failed more than a few classes in my time, and knowing people who’ve done the same, I can assure you that by and large students who fail classes are fully aware of the consequences of that failure, and so communicating that.. well, it can’t be communicated because it’s information all parties already know, isn’t it.

What students don’t generally know, what Harry is trying to communicate to the students, and what you are opposed to Harry trying to communicate to the students is the possibilities and the pathways to not failing: that missing a few classes still leaves them in a recoverable position, that from where they are now failing out of the class is not the only option and attempting to catch up is not futile. Reducing the barriers to getting the student to turn up next time, reducing the stress — and thus cognitive burden, &c — on the student.

Telling students things they’re already perfectly aware of — what you’re proposing — adds stress to the students and so does not “help”. It makes things worse. If someone’s in a hole, they need a pathway out of the hole: they do not need to be told, and it is not helpful to tell them, that they are in a hole.

[to communicate effectively you need to put yourself in the position of the person you are communicating with to see the information that you have that a person in their position would want.]


TheSophist 02.19.16 at 8:37 pm

Many years ago I failed out of an ivy league school at the end of my sophomore year. Looking back on it now, it’s easy to see that after I’d missed a handful of classes due to hung over sleeping in/wanting just one more bong hit on the way out of the door/ just being lazy I got to the point where I was just plain embarrassed to show up, and so I didn’t. I think an email similar in tone to the one in the OP might have done wonders for me, in that it would “give me permission” to return to class without feeling too humiliated. Of course this was so long ago that email wasn’t a thing yet, so a prof might have had to make a phone call – an interaction that I suspect neither I nor the professors would have relished.

Best of luck to your friend with this. Sincerely.


T 02.19.16 at 8:56 pm

What you’re suggesting is standard operating procedure at some US liberal arts schools. I strongly encourage you and your friend to adopt this approach. Sometimes the issue is too many bong hits as noted by TheSophist. Other times it is depression. In either case, having a faculty member or dean show interest can be very helpful. In my experience, large public universities are terrible at this sort of thing, especially in cases of depression where a call or email might help the student reach out. So kudos to you for raising this issue and good luck to your friend.


harry b 02.19.16 at 9:21 pm

I’m basically technophobic, but TheSophist’s last point about emails and phone calls is something I have often thought about (and thought about blogging about) — I can’t imagine making a phone call with the content of the email I described, and, furthermore, I can’t imagine it prompting the valuable kind of correspondence I have sometimes had as a result. Email facilitates a different kind of communication in other words.

In addition to the fact that there are pathways to passing I am trying to communicate something else in the emails– without being too explicit (and thus seemingly pushy) about it I am trying to signal openness to hearing about the reasons for absence, which in some cases has been successful, with very nice outcomes. Students often have problems that are much more easily mitigated than they think; its just that they need to find the people who have the resources to help (and, often, professors know what those resources are, even if they don’t always know how to get the students to them!)


engels 02.19.16 at 9:29 pm

a prof might have had to make a phone call

Or written a note?


Bloix 02.19.16 at 9:31 pm

“No, they really, really don’t, Bloix.”
Yes, really, really, they do, Collin Street.

“A communication is only useful if it contains information not known to both parties.”

I cannot begin to count the ways that this is a false statement.
A husband says “I love you” to his wife. Is that a non-useful communication? And we can go from there.

“by and large students who fail classes are fully aware of the consequences”

That by and large is doing a hell of a lot of work there.


engels 02.19.16 at 9:34 pm

I can remember missing a couple of classes once at college (for complicated health reasons) and getting a very aggressive response. The dynamic this set in motion was definitely not a positive one (although it wasn’t ultimately fatal).


harry b 02.19.16 at 10:20 pm

Before email, in fact, we had no way of contacting student, now I think of it — neither addresses nor phone numbers were available to faculty (here). I guess you could have gathered them at the beginning of the semester, but I’d bet that would have seemed creepy (as, eg, collecting phone numbers still would have 5 years ago, though I’d guess it would be just fine now — and, indeed, I do sometimes ask for phone numbers, especially from students who are bad emailers)


PJW 02.19.16 at 11:06 pm

I tentatively approached a professor in 1983 at the University of Iowa after missing three lectures in the hope of receiving some guidance about getting caught up in the class and they spoke to me as angrily and harshly as anyone ever had in my life before or since. I just quit going to class altogether and took the mid-term and final exams. I have always regretted her behavior and mine.


engels 02.19.16 at 11:49 pm

Before email, in fact, we had no way of contacting student, now I think of it

I’m surprised to hear that – I was assuming they had pigeon holes or similar (like we did).


harry b 02.20.16 at 12:01 am

I know! I’d forgotten. At a small liberal arts college I know they had voicemail addresses, and pigeonholes, but at the large institutions I’ve worked in — nothing at all! Probably not that hard to track down a kid living in a dorm, but impossible to track down anyone else. Maybe, of course, this made students more attentive. But I guess email is a boon to communication between professors and the kinds of students who don’t just automatically come and talk to them.


Alan White 02.20.16 at 12:08 am

Harry your approach seems very reasonable and charitable (in contrast to PJW@18’s experience!) .

One anecdatum about students’ reluctance to contact professors. . .

Many years ago when we were first using an electronic means of entering final grades on an institutional platform, I received a call from the mother of one of my best students about three weeks after the semester. She inquired on behalf of her child why s/he had received an F. I immediately replied, that’s not possible–the student got an A. She said, no–my child got an F. I assured her that was wrong and I’d look into it.

Consulting student services quickly revealed it was my entry error: a student who had stopped coming to my class early on was listed on the electronic roll just before my A student. That student, not having dropped the course, of course had an F. Somehow I not only gave the missing student an F–I accidentally also gave the following A student an F too! Even though I reviewed my entries, I’d missed the mistake.

Here’s the kicker–the A student just assumed the s/he had failed the final! (Even though had s/he done so, s/he had enough points for a solid C, and should have known that.) S/he refused to contact me because s/he was so convinced I was a diligent professional that failure on the final was the only plausible hypothesis!

(Of course the irony for this thread is that a missing student became a factor in all this.)

Thank heavens the Mom called me and had enough confidence in her child to step up and ask. Believe me–I now triple check my final grade entries.

So students can have a number of reasons for failing to contact professors–including over-confidence in the conduct of their professors’ professional lives.

Maybe we sometimes need to remind students we are not perfect, even while we also try to model strong intellectual values about responsible learning. Humility seems a nice addition to the mix.


magari 02.20.16 at 12:36 am

Interesting post. Is this evidence of a broader shift in the perceived responsibility of what faculty members owe their students?


Trivial 02.20.16 at 1:19 am

At my particular institution, procedural mechanisms attempt to address both employment guidelines and legal or otherwise behavioral modes of conduct for the fulfillment of Instructor responsibilities. But procedure does not necessarily *preclude instructor advocacy for all students as well as an individual student with prior documentation.*


harry b 02.20.16 at 4:29 am

I have a story like yours Alan — longer ago, when entry was done at the registrar’s office. An A was either mis-entered or misread as a D. It was changed ONLY because the student in question told a friend of hers she was disappointed and he came and asked me what was up. It wasn’t my error, but I had no way of knowing (because we were never given the final entered grades to compare with our grade sheets). My handwriting immediately improved, though only for grade recording purposes. (I’m slightly unnerved that I remember her name, as well — she graduated in 1995, according to linkedin…)


Bloix 02.20.16 at 5:44 am

“Before email, in fact, we had no way of contacting student,”

Anyone know Mr Jones? Ms Smith, you do? Would you please see me after class? Thanks.

“the perceived responsibility of what faculty members owe their students”

The employees of an institution that is selling a service that costs $50,000 per year, knowing full well that the money is borrowed and that failure to receive the service can ruin the recipient’s life, perhaps have the responsibility to make an effort to deliver that service.


Bloix 02.20.16 at 5:51 am

@21 – “a student who had stopped coming to my class early … not having dropped the course, of course had an F.”
Of course. And the missing student who got an F for failure to complete a trivial administrative task just dropped out of your life. You have no idea what happened to him or her and it has never bothered you for a moment. After all, he or she was an adult, right?


Collin Street 02.20.16 at 6:14 am

Shorter Bloix: the best way to deal with students who have gone missing or are falling behind is to threaten or belittle them; assistance and guidance are neither useful nor advisable.


harry b 02.20.16 at 12:23 pm

Bloix — that might work for some kids. But, thinking about the class in which I sent that particular email, out of 20 students only 5 knew others in the class until I forced them to get to know each other (see earlier post); which is pretty typical, except of my Freshman class. Now, even though they don’t know each other, facebook would come to the rescue if I lacked email. But not then.


magari 02.20.16 at 2:18 pm

I show up, I deliver. I can email repeat absentees to remind them they are welcome in the class, but aren’t there possible negative knock-on effects to this type of hand-holding? I understand the urge to care for students, they are fellow human beings, and I do actually care about education. And I understand that as education “democratizes” it brings in students who, for a variety of reasons, have a difficult time applying themselves to something with no immediate pay-off. Some are working a lot of hours, some have family responsibilities, and some may end up in college just because there wasn’t anything else to do. I understand that the academic teacher-student relation, including expected duties on both sides, was founded in an era when students were relatively privileged. But what Harry is referring to strikes me as part of the general swing in the academic relation towards customer service. Not sure how I feel about this.


Bloix 02.20.16 at 3:23 pm

@27 – Shorter Collin Street: I show up, I talk, I go back to my little office to write articles no one will ever read. If some of the poor schmucks who have mortgaged their lives to pay my salary get fucked, hey! that’s their fault! They trusted us!


mdc 02.20.16 at 3:38 pm

I like being able to run into students in the hall or on the quad ‘by chance’, and take them aside for a quick check-in. (This is one advantage of a tiny school.)

One question is whether there is a shared understanding between faculty and students as to the educational significance of attending classes. At some schools, this understanding and its corresponding expectations might differ vastly between different departments, or even within a department.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.20.16 at 3:45 pm

I recommend against chewing them out for not coming to glass. At least not in the way that one English professor (department head, actually) did to me for dropping his class.
Not that his points were particularly incorrect, but he certainly did not motivate me to take another of his classes. It was true that I could have gotten my lazy self-indugent body up earlier to get to his 8 o’clock, but in my defense, I was an immature 18 year old at the time.


Alan White 02.20.16 at 3:46 pm


All missing students are informed at midterm by email and snail mail if they are below a C, with a request to please drop the course. It works about 3/4 of the time.


harry b 02.20.16 at 5:30 pm

There is NO agreement about the value of attending class, and I am sure that many classes are worth missing regularly — and I am fine with people missing mine from time to time, as they have other things on their mind. But I try hard to make sure that there is lots of learning to be gotten out of taking my class. At my institution it is rare to run into someone by chance… especially between Thanksgiving and Spring break for obvious reasons.

I don’t think of this as customer service. They are not adults as far as I am concerned, and even those that are took my class voluntarily, and so have subjected themselves to my regime. My job is to try and get them to learn a particular set of skills and content. Most of them can’t do that if they are not in my class. Some combination of their parents, their future selves (as Bloix reminds us) and the state are funding this, so I have some sort of duty to intervene in ways that will help make them both more productive contributors to society and more successful people (not necessarily financially, but all-things-considered).

On the possible negative effects of hand-holding. Sure. Bu I judge that few of my students are at risk of becoming delicate flowers due to excessive handholding. I’m much more worried about severe depressions, people getting lost, and people never getting excited about learning. However their parents treat them, very few have experience of being praised by professors. You’d be surprised how often I hear someone say “I came to Madison assuming that no professor would ever know my name”, and how many have roommates or friends still don’t have a professor that they can talk to. Might be different at a SLAC.


harry b 02.20.16 at 5:34 pm

And — I do not perceive a general swing in the academic relation toward customer service at all! But obviously, its really hard to know what’s going on!


RNB 02.20.16 at 6:22 pm

I’ve had three students thank me for having contacted students services to check whether the student was abusing drugs or alcohol. I am always so wary about doing this as I could be misreading the signs. But I tried to observe the students over some time before making the call, and I present counter-evidence to my suspicion. But I do think it is our job as teachers to make such reports, though I imagine that some here would challenge me; and I am open to hearing the other side. Again let me emphasize–abusing drugs and alcohol in the sense that the student’s speech is slurred or manic, eyes are blurred, temper seems overly sensitive.
I am lucky that at my University we have very good professionals who follow up on these calls. And I know that their intervention helped to turn around the lives of at least three of my students. I was also worried about a student becoming suicidal after writing to tell me that she could not write a paper because her boyfriend had made life not worth living after having broken up with her. I immediately called because the student had suggested to me in a previous year that she may have tried to take her life before. The professional on the other side of the call was very happy that I made the call even though the student’s comment could have been nothing but an excuse for the lateness of the assignment.
I encourage teachers to know the phone numbers and emails of the mental health professionals who support students at your school.


RNB 02.20.16 at 6:45 pm

No one really picked up on what Tim Wilson said @5. But I loved seeing confirmed what I thought was one of my important roles as an academic adviser to a struggling student–story editing. I reinforce to transfer students how well they have done in their first semester as a transfer even though they may received lower grades than ever before in their life. I tell them that the only mistake they made was not taking a reduced course load in their first semester. I tell more or less true stories of students who struggled until they found a path for themselves and went on to do great things. I validate their alienation from scholarly pursuits, underlining that university learning is indeed only one way of learning about the world and only one way of achieving distinction; but that there is still great value within these limits. If I sense the student’s alienation may have class determinants, I share with them Annette Lareau’s findings about why students from the middle class already having had many encounters with tutors are much more comfortable with professors than working class students who were not whisked to one private lesson after another as kids. There is no set list here; the challenge is getting to know students well enough to motivate them…when you are teaching seven courses a year, writing countless letters of recommendation, developing new courses, trying to write down new ideas, raising kids, and writing comments at CT.


Metatone 02.20.16 at 7:12 pm

As someone who teaches, but was also an imperfect student in my time, I have to second the emphasis on helping students not be embarrassed. Shame is a huge part of the problem for some students who have gotten into a vicious circle.

For me, I think the email approach is good, but it is worth trying to make contact in other ways too. If only to say “I noticed and will try to help.”


Glenn 02.20.16 at 7:34 pm

I’m in agreement with harry b @34 that hand-holding is less concerning than depression or low self-esteem. I remember plenty of people (myself included) who suffered from feelings of isolation and of futility during undergrad. Just knowing that someone cares about your progress and wants you to succeed can make an enormous difference.


Trivial 02.20.16 at 9:56 pm

Different educational institutions may (or may not) serve different purposes, but regulatory procedures for both *teaching* and *customer service* do not always foreclose iterations of advocacy, student or otherwise.


OSweetMrMath 02.20.16 at 11:27 pm

Bloix takes the position that (a) students do not appreciate the consequences of failing and (b) professors who do not threaten the students with these consequences do not care about the students.

I wonder whether Bloix has teaching experience, and if so, whether these methods were successful.

I’d also like Bloix’s input into a teaching experience of mine: Student comes to me during the first week of class to say that they need this class to graduate, have already failed it twice, and have a job which is contingent on graduating (and therefore, on passing this class). I say, “okay then, come to class, do your homework, come to my office hours, work hard.”

The student does not do homework, come to office hours, or work hard. After the second exam, they come to me to say they are concerned about their grade. I say, “well, you failed both exams, but I’m still willing to give you a passing grade if you work hard and do better on the final.” Their grade on the final is the same as on the previous exams.

My question for Bloix is, did this student fail because they were unaware about the consequences of failure, or because I did not care enough about the student to make the consequences clear?

As for what works, I don’t have a lot of experience, but all I can offer is compassion. My sense is that students who are doing poorly are usually some combination of terrified and in denial. What they need is reassurance that they can in fact do this stuff, and that you are willing to help them if they ask for it.

I was a wildly inconsistent student and now I’m on the other side. My belief is that we need to help students to build good work habits, including an ability to recover from mistakes. This means grading their homework, factoring attendance into their grade, and giving in class quizzes. You can’t let them think that because homework or attendance doesn’t directly affect their grade, they don’t have to do it.

To help them recover from mistakes, you have to be open and flexible. Didn’t do your homework? No problem, make sure you do the homework for next week. Skipped a week of class? Make some effort, get the lecture notes from another student, read the sections in the textbook, and come to my office hours to go over it with me. Have a really dumb question in class? Ask it. It may be less dumb than you think. Other students probably have the same dumb question. I may not have taught a concept clearly, and I may not know that unless people start asking dumb questions about it. Failed an exam? It’s just one exam, you can compute its effect on your course grade. If it’s still early, maybe you should drop the course and try again next time. Or if you can do well enough for the rest of the course, you can convince me it was a fluke and I might discount it when computing your final grade. Either way, the standards for this course are now clear, and you can judge how hard you have to work to get the grade you want.

For the course I’m teaching this semester, the discussion sections are to go over homework problems they should have already done. The standard I’m trying to set is that they don’t have to walk in with the right answers, as long as they’ve walked in having worked on the problems. I want them to be comfortable saying that they don’t know, or even that they didn’t try, if I call on them about a particular problem. They’re not the only student in the room who doesn’t understand the problem. If they are willing to talk about what they don’t understand, then we can discuss it collectively and hopefully elevate everyone’s understanding.

One line I’ve been using a lot this semester is, “you probably saw this in a previous class. If you’re like me, you saw it and have since forgotten about it. Let’s review it.” The goal is to say that it’s okay to forget things or to not understand things the first time. Relearning and trying things again is a necessary part of the learning process.

So far I’ve had mixed results. Some people are clearly extremely uncomfortable admitting that they don’t understand. They don’t come to the discussions, or if they do come, they refuse to answer or just shut down if I try to get them to talk through the problems.

Others have jumped at the opportunity, and will volunteer to answer problems and then lead off by saying they didn’t get all of it but this is what they started with. Some students will also cut in to help other students, even if it’s just to say that they think they know the next step, but they don’t know where to go from there.

I have been trying to encourage the students for any response at all, even just saying that they don’t know, in hopes that more students will become more comfortable speaking up as the semester goes on. I also remind them in the lectures that attending the discussions is mandatory. (This doesn’t help for students who also don’t come to the lectures.)

I’m trying for a carrot and stick approach. Sticks: Discussion attendance is mandatory. If you don’t do the homework, you will be embarrassed in discussion when I ask you how to do the problem. Carrots: Any response at all in discussion is acceptable. If you say you haven’t done the problem, I will thank you for any contribution you can make and then move on. You may feel bad for not knowing the answer, but I will do my best to not focus on the fact that you don’t know. I want to keep the focus on the problems and answers, not on whether particular students know the answers.

Another carrot is that the problems we go over in discussion tend to be closely tied to the exam problems. Coming to the discussions and studying the solutions to the problems covered there goes hand in hand with doing well on the exams.

Not every student is going to do well. But I believe that more students will try to do well if you communicate to them that you do not expect them to be perfect and that you are committed to helping them to learn, even after they make mistakes.


OSweetMrMath 02.21.16 at 12:15 am

As a reference, the book “Teaching Mathematics in Colleges and Universities: Case Studies for Today’s Classroom” by Solomon Friedberg, published by the American Mathematical Society, has some discussion on handling struggling students. Case Study 9 may be most relevant, although the focus is more on a student who is not completing the work rather than absenteeism.

Another reference I’ve used for teaching generally is “How to Teach Mathematics” by Steven Krantz, also published by the American Mathematical Society. There’s not much in the book about absenteeism, but I’ve found its discussion of the psychology of teaching to be helpful. Relevant here is the need to convince the students that you care about the course and about them in order to encourage their motivation in the course.


Bloix 02.21.16 at 12:58 am

@34 – “I have some sort of duty to intervene in ways that will help make them both more productive contributors to society and more successful people”

Yes. Thank you. As I’ve said in response to other posts (forgive me for not saying it earlier on this thread) I have nothing but admiration for your efforts to do so.


Alan White 02.21.16 at 3:37 am

And I thank you Bloix for your apology to harry.

Now I have to deal with a student who professed severe psychological problems in a paper I read today–including self-harm–because of course I don’t care.

Stop commenting on people and situations you are ill equipped to evaluate except by sweeping self-confident generalization.


Alan White 02.21.16 at 4:32 am

BTW OSweetMrMath–terrific comments.


Philip 02.21.16 at 10:13 am

As an undergraduate I missed quite a few lectures and seminars but always did enough not to give concern to lecturers. I could have missed some of the sessions with no problems but a word from someone to give me a bit of a kick up the arse might have helped me. Other situations will need a bit of support, gentle encouragement, or reasurance, so to me the important thing is having students communicate what is going on so you can figure out how to respond. This will require effort from both sides to work.


Val 02.21.16 at 12:45 pm

Thanks Harry for this, I appreciate it. Unfortunately I don’t have suggestions, just a problem, but I’d like to mention it in case anyone has ideas or similar experiences. I have to be a bit discreet but it’s difficult – anyway in the undergraduate courses I teach in, it’s normal for teaching staff to contact students if they are not meeting attendance requirements or handing in assignments, and I think we would usually do it pretty supportively. However once a student gets behind, they usually need ‘special consideration’ in order to overcome the regulations around missing due dates etc, and to get that they have to go through an administrative process. This seems to be where they fall out.

It’s frustrating, because you can, for example, have a student who has completed quite a bit of the work, then misses an assignment. You contact them, find out what the problem is, tell them that with special consideration they can still lodge the assignment, and that even if they don’t get a very good mark they can still pass the unit, tell them how to complete the form and where to lodge it, etc – and then you don’t hear any more, a couple of weeks pass, it’s end of semester and you get caught up in assessment, and next thing is results are closing and you have to fail that student.

I think that in some cases it’s the administrative process, or the administrator, that is the block for some students, rather than the teachers. It seems there may at that point be a concern for the letter of the law rather than the spirit, if I can put it that way. It’s hard to know what to do about it though without getting drawn into some major conflict.


Philip 02.21.16 at 3:07 pm

Val, the one time I asked for special consideration was during my MA and my grandad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died when I was writing up my dissertation and I got a two week extension. Earlier in the course a lecturer had made a comment about students claiming a grandparent had died, in order to get an extension. That made me put in a copy of his death certificate with my special consideration form, which was a hassle I could have done without, especially asking my parents for the certificate but there had been that implication the reason would be disbelieved. I have been lucky and always been on courses with low numbers of students so got to know staff a bit in seminars. I got on well with my dissertation tutor so I had no problem going to him to ask for some help.

My general feeling is that there needs to be an environment where students are encouraged to contact staff if they have any problems. That would help give time and clear any admin hurdles and you would also need flexibility on the admin side for genuine emergencies and unforeseen problems. The message needs to be consistent and can’t just be delivered by academic staff, especially in large courses where you can’t get that individual relationship with each student. It needs to come from support and admin staff and general information given to students so they know they can get help and where from before they run into problems.


kidneystones 02.21.16 at 3:24 pm

All students in classes where attendance is monitored are required to take the cell phone numbers and email addresses of at least two other students. This exchange occurs in-class under my supervision during the first two weeks of class. We repeat this activity for the first four classes to ensure that all students have the contact information. It is then the students’ responsibility to come to class. If students choose to absent themselves from class for any reason, they alone are responsible for learning from other students what they missed and ensuring that they come to class prepared with the missing assignments completed and in-hand.

Like others (many, perhaps), I have been confronted by students who are burdened by health issues (physical or mental). My responsibility is to ensure that the administration is made aware of this fact, so that the students receive professional care/counseling. Once I have done that, I concentrate on ensuring that the students who are trying to improve receive all the support I can provide. Teaching practices and class activities are designed to re-enforce through peer-review, peer-teaching, and task activities designed to reveal concept error. Some students self-select for failure. That’s their decision to make and I respect their right to make that choice.


harry b 02.21.16 at 3:32 pm

Is there an actuary reading. Here’s a puzzle:

If you are teaching a class of 100 students for a whole semester (16 weeks), how many of them, on average, will have a close relative or close friend die, or become seriously ill — or a not quite so close friend die in tragic/traumatic circumstances — during that time? At least one, surely? I am surprised, to be honest, how rarely it seems to happen.

I usually, in large classes, make a comment early on saying that I know that a bunch of people are going to be dealing with difficult things over the 16 week period.


Bloix 02.21.16 at 4:33 pm

@44 – I’m not apologizing to Harry. I liked the OP and it’s not my problem if you’ve read me so carelessly that you don’t understand that. What I do not like – what fills me with rage, in point of fact – is universities that fleece their students and professors who don’t much care. Harry is not one of them. And yes, I understand that you’ve got no choice but to deal with a student who has announced to you that s/he’s going to kill him or herself. You’d be sued if you didn’t. But how many of your students simply disappear?

@50 – in one three-month period an uncle, a grandparent, and a very close friend died. Three funerals and one four-day bedside vigil. I didn’t flunk any classes but it wasn’t my best semester.


harry b 02.21.16 at 7:09 pm

That’s awful. When I wrote #50 I thought about the kid who lost his father in early March a couple of years ago. His mother and father weren’t talking, and his mother offered no help. No will. A younger brother. He had to do everything including the funeral. He only told me because two of his friends knew me well enough to know I’d be sympathetic, and they bugged him to talk to me (or, maybe, told me to talk to him, I can’t remember).

Phillip @#48’s story suggests something that is very hard, actually, to process and internalize — that off-hand, seemingly insignificant, comments can have quite bad unintended and undesired consequences. During one of the times that Charlie Sheen was making a fool of himself in public, I made an offhand, humorous, negative comments about him. Later on that day a student who was dealing with pretty serious mental health issues very sharply pulled me up on it — “He’s bi-polar; you shouldn’t have said that”. I was pleased that an 18 year old kid felt comfortable enough to be so sharp with me; and I became more careful (but I am sure not careful enough).


Collin Street 02.21.16 at 7:38 pm

> @44 – I’m not apologizing to Harry.

You really, really ought to. Harry told you that he had no way to contact students; you rather flippantly proposed a method. Which is to say, you rejected his direct claim, denied the reality of what he says he experienced. “I can’t do this”. “Yes you can”, when you don’t have the knowledge or experience to override what harry was saying to you.

In context this meant that you were calling Harry a liar. This is, fundamentally, disrespectful; if you had reason to believe that harry were a fantasist or liable to miss obvious things, then you could do this without needing to apologise then your disrespect would be justified, but I can’t see anything like that and you haven’t mentioned anything either.

[which is to say: people think less of you precisely because you won’t apologise; it shows that you’re bad at spotting when you’ve made mistakes and dogmatic about your own correctness. This will severely impact the interactions you have with others… except I, and probably others, worked this out about you years ago, so this particular incident won’t have any huge effect.]


RNB 02.21.16 at 8:11 pm

“worked this out about you years ago” Did these previous exchanges happen under other noms du plume (assuming that these are that)?


Philip 02.21.16 at 9:11 pm

Harry, yeah I think the comment was about undergrads trying to blag an extension and not serious students like us but it still stuck. From my ESOL experience classes had people of all ages from 16 to older adults. One tutor planned a lesson on the topic of families and a student, I think she was 17, left the class upset because her parents in Germany were getting divorced, so it can happen with something totally innocuous. Also there would be asylum seekers and refugees in the class where you wouldn’t know their history, so you would try and be careful around some subjects but might not know if something hit a nerve. Another one I read on a blog was a teacher playing hangman at the end of a lesson, a common EFL activity, and one of the pupil’s parents had been hung.


Alan White 02.21.16 at 10:55 pm

Thank you CS @ 53–some lessons on charitable reading certainly could be learned–
and harry I apologize for inadvertently diverting discussion. I didn’t sleep much last night.


harry b 02.22.16 at 1:01 am

Just to say Bloix doesn’t need to apologize to me — Bloix has been very complimentary about my pedagogical threads, so I take his good will (toward me at least) as read, and I know where he is coming from. We both know this, and his “I am not apologizing” is not a refusal to apologize (as it might look to other people) but a signal that he knows I know where he’s coming from due to other interactions.

The hangman thing is so awful.


harry b 02.22.16 at 1:04 am

Phillip — its something a number of colleagues have said to me, and I have (rather humorlessly) gone through the actuarial probabilities with them.
Alan — i hope its ok, You didn’t divert anything!! Looking forward to seeing you in a week or so!


Alan White 02.22.16 at 1:39 am

Thanks harry–I’ll borrow your forgiving attitude since I certainly cannot know the ins and outs of others’ lives and should model my own pleas for epistemic/judgmental humility. I’ve been reading for our get-together and still have a way to go!


Val 02.22.16 at 1:59 am

Phillip @ 48, thanks for that example, it illustrates how easily an unsympathetic atmosphere can be created as well as the hurdles students have to jump over the meet the admin requirements.

I had all sorts of family problems in my undergraduate days but I never talked to anyone about them – one of my tutors did once ask me if everything was all right, but only after he had failed me on an essay and given me a tongue lashing – by that time I would never have spoken to him about anything personal, I was just trying not to cry in front of him.

In later years a friend of mine (similar age) told me that when father died in her second year at University, she never spoke to any of the academic staff about it, just ‘sort of dropped out’ – she was doing commerce, which in those days was quite male dominated, and said she never felt like she belonged anyway – there was no way she would have tried to discuss it with any of the academic staff.

I think things are somewhat better in principle now, but in the system in the large university where I am, it is important that everyone – tutors, unit coordinators and administration staff – is on the same page and that’s hard to achieve, especially when everyone tends to be overloaded anyway and ‘just wants to get things done’.


magari 02.22.16 at 2:30 am

There is one big issue that hasn’t been addressed yet: people of color and people from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to privately engage the professor when they are having moments of difficulty. Growing up in a social setting where you have no entitlements, plus a racial order that moves against you–many don’t even think/know special arrangements are an option. White students from middle class and higher backgrounds are much more assertive, by contrast.


Matt 02.22.16 at 2:50 am

At Penn, where I have done most (but not all) of my teaching, there is a very active and supportive student services program that helps students who are having all sorts of problems – from the fairly mundane to the unusual or serious. If anything, they may be slightly too ready to help students and to reach out to professors on behalf of the students, asking for accommodations of all sorts. (I think I have always granted them when asked.) It is the exact opposite of who Bloix sees many universities as acting. I cannot say for sure if this is unusual.

At the start of all of my classes, I make a point of noting to the students that these services are available to them, and that Penn is greatly committed to their doing well. I tell them that if they have problems of any sort during the semester, they can go to student services, and they will provide help. Importantly, they will contact all of the students professors, try to arrange (or sometimes demand) accommodations, and pass on only needed information. That last part is something I emphasis. Typically, I do not need nor want to know the personal problems of my students. If they go to student services, I will have no need to know them, but will just be told that the student needs an accommodation for some broadly stated reasons (health, or family, etc.) This seems preferable to me. Sometimes students still approach me, of course, and I’m happy to work with them, but the centralized system works nicely.

(I’ll note that I’ve sent out an email like Harry suggests to a student just a day or so ago as well, to a student who was missing many classes in a class where that is likely to be a serious problem.)


harry b 02.22.16 at 4:17 am

Magari’s right — and that’s a reason for professors to be proactive and purposeful about interactions with students. Such students are also, in my experience, less likely to feel comfortable going to a mental health professional, and once they exhaust student health services they are more likely not to want their parents to see on their medical insurance bills that they visited a counselor. And, of course, much more inhibited about it, because it typically costs their parents (who have worse insurance, or no insurance) more money, which they can less well afford.


RNB 02.23.16 at 12:41 am

@61. May be interested in Annette Lareau whom I cited above. Many of my students have told me how interesting they find her work; she is one of the respondents along with harry b to James Heckman in a short book on early childhood education. Here is a brief discussion of her work.


harry b 02.23.16 at 4:21 am

One student, about Unequal Childhoods, which we read when she had been a freshman for 6 weeks, said, 2 years later: “I have thought about that book every day since we read it”. That’s only the most vociferous of many endorsements from students I’ve read it with.


Meredith 02.23.16 at 6:34 am

This post and comments put me in mind of the double accusative verbs of teaching take in Latin and Greek. (What’s may be going on in English is obscured by the shared morphology of dative and accusative.) Each student and the subject and skills we teach are intertwined in a complicated way. It’s all about the student (otherwise, why bother?). It’s all about what we’re teaching them (otherwise, why bother?). If a student doesn’t even show up, the intertwined connection is broken.

The Penn comment above: student services are so pervasive in my life at a small liberal arts college that, if anything, they threaten to displace my relationship with my students. But still, does any professor these days not have access to useful, professional resources beyond emails (in the olden days, handwritten notes sent by campus mail)? I mean deans, psychologists….

Several have commented that they failed out or had bad semesters from too much partying or when family/personal problems even briefly disrupted things. So, we can learn from our mistakes and overcome stuff life deals us. Let us remember to give our own students such space for learning and overcoming. Each and every student does not have to produce a fine looking transcript to be of value as a person, or to have benefitted from the courses they took, or half-took.

Just some thoughts.


Ronan(rf) 02.23.16 at 8:26 am

I wonder if we overdo the class/gender (and I guess in theUS race) stuff. I went to college from a relatively privileged (middle class) background, and a lot of these things (asking for help, approaching lecturers for non academic advice etc) would never have occurred to me. I would also have found class participation or presenting relatively discomforting (although I’m not overly shy, it just took a long time to develop any sort of comfort in them.) I understand badly remembered anecdotes really only go so far, but I can certainly recall a number of people I Knew from what you might call working class backgrounds who hit the ground running (joining everything , getting involved , speechifying in college politics etc)
Also related to other parts of this conversation. My brother died when I was in second year, and approaching student services (or anyone) would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do. That worked okay for me, and retrospectively I still think it was the option that best suited my personality. I think at times we try to hard to cram square pegs into round holes by adopting general principles about how a person should cope with such a thing , and instead should adopt something more skin to a horses for courses approach . Though, one lecturer did put me up to a passing grade so I wouldn’t have to repeat the exam over the summer (the death happened a few weeks before exams, though I probably would have failed anyway )
I’m Obviousky not trying to contradict Harry or anyone who works in this area, my memory and skewed perspective on myself doesn’t really match up toa professionals experience and research. It just always struck me a little that a lot of the stronger claims in this area (about class, or gender , or I guess race) suffered a little from selection Bias and taking these categories as too homogenous

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