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Dealing with the Unexpected: Teaching When You or Your Students Can’t Make it to Class

by Stacey Margarita Johnson and Rhett McDaniel Print Version
Cite this guide: Johnson, S., & McDaniel, R. (2017). Dealing with the Unexpected: Teaching When You or Your Students Can’t Make it to Class. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from

For much of the academic year, scheduled classes meet at the appointed time without incident. A small percentage of students may have to miss any given class period, and most faculty have systems in place to prepare for such absences. (If you have questions about attendance policies for normal circumstances, check out this blog post.)

However, occasionally, the instructor or a large number of students cannot make it to the classroom, despite their best intentions. Some reasons faculty and students may be unable to make it to class include:

Academic travel

There may be times when a conference or other academic obligation requires a faculty member (or students) to miss class. Even if you plan to arrive back in Nashville in time to teach, what should you do in that rare case when cancelled flights or unpredictable obstacles keep you from your classroom?

Inclement weather

Nashville’s nearly annual snow or ice storm often wreaks havoc on face-to-face classes. If classes are officially in session, but many students (or even the instructor) are unable to make it to campus, how will faculty ensure that everyone has access to the course content?

Outbreaks of communicable illness

A 2017 statement by the Provost about the mumps on campus and the current coronavirus information page reinforce the potential for illness to affect attendance in our courses. Various varieties of influenza also pose the risk for unexpected absences in our courses. According to the Technical Report on CDC Guidance for Responses to Influenza for Institutions of Higher Education during the 2009-2010 Academic Year, more than 17 million students attend the 4,300 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the United States and more than 3 million people work as faculty and staff. Planning ahead for the potential course impact of the illness will help minimize departmental and classroom disruptions.

Preparing for Class

A high absentee rate could interrupt the flow of your course, hinder the ability of students to complete assignments, or delay group work. Leveraging Brightspace and other web-based tools can help you continue instruction if you are not able to teach, as well as communicate with students who are not able to attend class.

Promote communication with and among students

Take advantage of online discussion forums to 1) help keep open the lines communication between you and students, and 2) give students opportunities to exchange ideas with each other. Brightspace support at the CFT has some resources to help you create and manage discussions.

Consider using the announcements tool in your Brightspace course as a consistent source of official course communications. In addition to seeing announcements in the course, students can adjust their notification settings to have announcements sent to their phones as text messages by following the instructions on this page. If students know that all important course information will come through a single, consistent channel, they are more likely to feel connected and up-to-date even during times of upheaval.

Create sites of interaction

Blogs and discussion forums in particular can aid student interaction by allowing students to keep a learning journal, comment on posts from other students, and give students an environment in which they post reflections on course content or assignments. For more information about using blogs as classroom supplements, see this blog post on Brightspace blogs or this teaching guide on course blogs.

Additionally, a wiki or Google doc allows student groups to work collaboratively at a distance by giving the ability to share and edit content over the Web. Web-based document sharing applications like Google Docs can also prove useful to students as they complete group projects and assignments.

Conduct a virtual class meeting

Brightspace has a Virtual Classroom space that allows instructors and students to meet online to conduct class through video conferencing. Instructors can set up a virtual meeting by going to any module on the Content page, clicking the “Existing Activities” button, and choosing “Virtual Classroom”. Brightspace support at the CFT has series of brief guides to the tool here and a handy, printable quick start guide here. Vanderbilt instructors may also consider using a tool like ZoomGoogle Hangouts, or Skype for Business to conduct a face-to-face meeting virtually and in real time. These tools both allow all participants in a course to contribute to a class meeting allowing for group activities, class discussion, and follow-up questions in addition to instructor-led activities.

If instructors need to ensure access to course content, they can also use the Kaltura media platform through Brightspace to record video lectures, video presentations, or lecture captures. When instructors record a lecture or presentation on Kaltura media, they can ensure that the presentation is only accessible by streaming video to students through a Brightspace course. Posting audio or video recordings of class assignments or lectures can make content available to students from home and asynchronously.  The CFT has detailed guides on posting media content on Brightspace and how to make effective educational videos.

Assignments and tests can also be conducted through Brightspace, as can a number of additional class activities. Please refer to the CFT’s Brightspace on-demand resources page for resources, or consult with one of our instructional technologists via email at, by phone 615-322-0222, or by scheduling an in person consultation at the CFT.

Providing online access to course documents helps students who cannot come to class connect to course materials. Instructors are able to post homework assignments, case studies, and other course materials in Brightspace courses through the library’s Course Reading List tool, or you can ask a librarian for assistance.


Are you looking for a more detailed discussion of how to translate face-to-face teaching into online activities for your students? Check out this recent blog post by the CFT’s Assistant Director for Educational Technology, Stacey Johnson.

Health and Safety Resources

Becoming familiar with the Vanderbilt’s processes and guidelines regarding illness and emergency response will help you as you determine your classroom policies. The following resources may be useful as you provide recommendations to students and determine what kinds of alternatives to offer.

  • The Vanderbilt Emergency Preparedness and Planning site provides current information to help you plan accordingly. It includes travel advisories, guidelines for faculty and staff, a frequently asked questions page for students, and a list of healthcare providers.



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This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  Photo Credit.