eCoaching Tip 71 When Students Are Away from a Course for a While…

October 16, 2009

eCoaching Tip 71 When Students Are Away from a Course for a While…

A real advantage of online courses for adult learners is their flexibility.  But, extended absences from a course by one or more learners impact the other learners in a course by changing the dynamics of the course community. Lengthy absences by students also create additional work for an instructor.

Yes, adult learners have very legitimate reasons for taking extended absences — defined in a recent study as “up to two weeks duration” (Conrad, 2009).  The reasons cited in this study included family pressures and demands, including child and health issues, work-related travel, and family vacations. While not specifically mentioned, work-related travel would include the extended absences by learners who are in the military.

Given the very nature of online learning and the learners that it serves, it is good to be prepared to manage a course that occasionally has learners who may be gone for a period of time.

The length of absence combined with the levels of potential access to the Internet can be categorized into these three types of absence:

  1. First of all, there may be total absence with no access to the class site, such as foreign travel and military duty responsibilities
  2. Almost total absence, meaning students have access to the course site, but no realistic time or energy for doing productive class work
  3. Minimal absence, meaning less than average, but students are able to participate in class discussions, but may need adjustments in assignment responsibilities or due dates

So as faculty you may ask yourself, “What are some strategies that might be useful in dealing with absences while helping everyone manage life and learning in a practical way?”

Preparing for an Absence

Some absences can be anticipated and others cannot be.  For those absences that can be anticipated, here are some questions to help the students plan for the absence.  If you choose, you can create a checklist from these questions.  Then communicate with the student and work out the details.

  • Will you have daily or almost daily access to a computer and Internet access?
  • Will you be able to keep up / continue the discussion postings while you are away?
  • Which assignments will be due while you are away? And when will you plan on submitting them?
  • Are you prepared for having access to the resources that you will need for keeping up with the topics and readings?
  • When will you post a note in the class discussion café about your schedule so that your classmates will know what your schedule is?
  • Will you be able to adequately do the small group or collaborative work, or will we need to make changes in your responsibilities?
  • If you’re involved in small group or collaborative work, have you worked out your responsibilities with the group?

Obviously some of these details will depend on what type of absence is anticipated and for how long. For absences due to family or life emergencies, learners should be aware of the rule of thumb for communicating with the faculty as soon as possible about the emergency. That communication then makes it possible for the instructor to communicate with the class community and to make the adjustments that may need to be made. Initially this can be as simple as a posting by the faculty member that Student Y has had X kind of emergency and will be returning, maybe gradually or whatever the schedule might be.

While the Student is Away

As mentioned earlier, the absence of a student is felt, particularly once a community has formed in the class. For some absences, the perspective that an absent student might be able to provide can be part of the conversation. In other words, the faculty member can create a space-holder in the virtual head of the community by making the observation that Student Y’s life experience or thinking might be particularly valuable on a topic and create a wrap-up that holds a spot for that perspective.  This is one way of the student being present while being away and helping to keep the community intact.

Group or Team work

Group or teamwork suffers even more with learner absences. For planned absences, here are some strategies:

  • Do not assign the learner to a group or team; rather, modify the assignment to be an individual assignment
  • Work with the group to assign the learner a role that “kicks in” upon his or her return, such as a reviewer or editor role
  • Let the group negotiate with the learner to assume a role that can be done while the learner is away.

For emergencies that could not be planned existing teams or groups may need to be reformed or reshaped. Depending on the nature and length of the absence the strategies for planned absences can be adapted for emergencies.

In all cases it is best to acknowledge the change and the impact that such absences have on a group and on a community.

When the Student Returns

In the face-to-face classroom, we welcome students back who have been away for a while.  Making time and space for an explicit “welcoming back” in the online environment is good as well.  It is a similar to a visual of opening the arms of the community and welcoming back one of our own.  Depending on the reason for the absence, it might be appropriate to have the student share pictures or observations, possibly connecting the “away” experience with the course concepts and topics.

In the Conrad (2009) study mentioned earlier, successful learners were aware of the need to plan well for absences.  They were aware of the impact of missing the type of interaction that results from their normal interaction with the content and fellow learners in discussion posts.  For example, one learner commented that, “No one responds to a late post and it just hangs out there in space; they may not even be reading the late posts because they have already moved on” (p. 11). So, it may be welcoming of the faculty member to facilitate a thread within a current forum to capture the contributions of the returning learner and use it as an opportunity for review, connections and linkages of core concepts.

Another strategy might be to hold a review session for all shortly after the learner returns. This can be a learning opportunity for all, while also being of particular value to the returning student.  One or two other students might lead the review session?

Assessment of Learning

Since community work is an important part of online courses, lengthy absences can have a negative impact on learner assessment.  Learners may choose to simply take a “hit” on the points for while they are away, or they might negotiate with the faculty member for additional assignments or discussion contributions, such as wrap-ups or facilitation when they return.

Another element of grading is the timeliness of assignments.  A learner may be willing to simply lose the points associated with late assignments, or agree to additional work.   At other times, when an assessment plan uses the best 13 of 15 weekly scores, the learner may only have to focus on doing well in the weeks that he or she is there.

What is important to the community overall that grading and assessment requirements seem fair to those learners who are present the full time.

Of course, as the instructor, you also have the right to make adjustments in assessment and grading if students are unable to participate at a reasonable level.  In some cases, it might be useful to assign a student an incomplete for the course.

Avoiding Feelings of Alienation

In a discussion of adult motivation (2008) Wlodkowski noted a connection between alienation and learning success for adults.  A feeling of alienation can occur when learners are “away” from a course. Wlodkowski observed that there can be many ways of feeling alienated from others, including the feelings of separateness that can come from holding a different point of view.  He commented that, “When my instructor created an atmosphere that allowed my differences to be respectfully heard, I spoke more easily, learned more and was certainly open to learning more” (p. 104).

Wrap Up

In summary, how you support learners beforethey leave, whilethey are gone, and when they return makes a difference in learning for all.


Current Policy Statement – SLPA Guidelines for Online Students

In the policy and guidelines for the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement, it is stated that students should  “Notify their instructor in advance if they will be “offline” and/or unable to participate on any two or more consecutive days that occur during a Weekly Discussion Period. Students are also encouraged to alert their instructor to occasions that have cultural or religious significance to them (e.g., Thanksgiving, Easter, Yom Kippur, etc.) when observing such events could affect their online participation.

Policies on Course Work Completion and Incompletes

Information and requirements about giving a student an “incomplete” for a course is part of a document — The Role of the Online Instructor in Student Retentionat  A link to the igradeform

is also there.

Fall 2009 Webinar Schedule Info

A separate note with the webinar schedule and topics will be out very soon.

Don’t forget the library of ecoaching tips is available at

Send questions/suggestions/comments on tips or webinars to


Conrad, D. (2009). Cognitive, instructional, and social presence as factors in learners’ negotiation of planned absences from online study. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,10 (3). Retrieved September 25, 2009 from

Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults (3 ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley/Jossey-Bass pp. 508.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by