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Increasing Access During Times of Disruption: Supporting Students During Absences

By Sreyasi Biswas, Patrick Kelly, Brenda McDermott, Roxanne Ross, Johanne Tottle and Alysia Wright

Students might be absent from class for varying reasons and lengths of time, which will impact their ability to engage in learning and participate in classroom or online activities. For example, they may experience illness and/or requirements for self-isolation. There are many ways academic staff and their instructional teams can support learners during these temporary absences.

Instructors can support students who are facing transitory illness or absence from campus. If students anticipate that they will be able to return to the course and complete it, no formal accommodations need to be put in place.

Understanding the unique lived experience and situations of students facing these challenges can help you and members of your instructional team help continue to support student learning and success. The following strategies provide support to students during absences and reduce potential barriers to learning. They have been developed based on common scenarios from Student Accessibility Services and the Student Success Centre to help students who are unable to come to campus, recovering from illness, or facing life events.

As a course instructor, you have likely encountered situations in which students share unexpected challenges that impact their learning and ability to engage in course learning activities and assessments (e.g., student illness or injury, family circumstance, etc.). Although instructors often aim to set and maintain consistent expectations for students across courses, when these unique and unforeseen circumstances arise, they require individualized and nuanced responses to support students’ individual needs in accessing learning materials and assessments. Making these decisions in the moment can be difficult.

Recent shifts to online learning have the potential to present unexpected technical barriers for students, such as unanticipated breaks in access to the Internet or technology. Students may be relying on a laptop that suddenly crashes or be facing an abrupt power outage. As a result, students can quickly fall behind on course content or be unable to fully demonstrate their knowledge on an online assessment. Smaller, timed online assessments (e.g., quizzes or participation activities) accessible to those students only during a particular online window, can quickly add up to have a large impact on students’ opportunity to succeed.

To support students in these moments, you may want to consider some of the suggestions below:

  • Can students demonstrate their knowledge in assessments in a modified way? For example, they could submit a short reflection on a reading in lieu of participating in class. 
  • Can students complete quizzes at an alternate time when they can access technology on campus?
  • Can the window of time to complete an online assignment be extended over a 24-hour period to account for Internet outages, particularly for those studying in remote areas or internationally?
  • Can the grading requirements be modified to allow students to adjust their assessment deadlines and/or submissions without penalty?

Travel delays and limitations during the pandemic continue to pose significant learning access challenges to our international students. Although students may have anticipated learning from Calgary when registering in courses, issues may arise that prevent them from arriving in time for the beginning of classes. As a result, students may unexpectedly have to learn in the middle of the night, which affects their wellbeing and ability to learn.

When supporting international students who are delayed from arriving in Calgary, consider the following:

  • Can a pattern for communicating by email be established to aid initial support conversations and ease student distress? For example, you could email the student at a particular hour in the workday and will watch for a communication from the student the next day.
  • Would the student benefit from trying to register in a different course if the delay is expected to be lengthy? If it is before the drop and add period in the term, referring students to an academic advisor in their faculty to explore alternative course sections and/or courses may be helpful.
  • Can lectures be recorded and/or class notes be shared to support the student in accessing the class content?
  • Can assessment conditions be modified in consideration of the student’s time zone? For example, participation can be demonstrated by a short-written reflection and online assessments can be accessed at an alternate time.

If students are temporarily away from campus, it is important to consider how and when they can access course materials.

  1. Lectures

    Audio recordings of in-person lectures may be helpful to all learners. If the majority of the in-person learning is lecture-based, you may want to consider the following:

    • Could the class create a peer note-taking system? Could the notes be shared through D2L to help all students access course learning?
    • Could two or three students become the class audio-recorders? They could record learning sessions and share the recording with the professor or D2L site. Further information related to media recording in learning environments can be found here.

    Could you provide supplementary readings or resources for students who have missed content to review? They could review key texts or materials used to build the lecture content.

  2. Group work

    If in-person course time is dedicated to group work, instructional teams may consider the following:

    • Could some students opt into an online-only group? These groups could work together in a physically-distanced manner.
    • Could the absent student complete parts of the assignment independently? How could group work plans include expected disruptions? When providing outlines or instructions of group work, encourage students to plan for unexpected absences.
  3. Labs

    If you are running in-person labs, consider reflecting on the learning outcomes of the labs:

    • Could the student complete the analysis section of the labs based on other student’s data?
    • Are there video lab activities from 2020-2021 that could meet course requirements?

If students are temporarily away from campus, consider how they can complete or achieve the learning outcomes. Could certain assessments be removed and/or could grading requirements be shifted to other parts of the course? What solution would help the student best meet the learning outcomes intended for the assignment?

  1. Participation grades

    If part of your assessment includes in-person participation or attendance grades, there are alternative ways to support student engagement:

    • Could the student draft short progress reports or reflections on the content?

    • Could the student create a few questions about the content that they would ask?

    • Could the student create a video or audio file explain an idea or how to solve a problem?

    • Can the assessment approach allow for one or two absences in the term?

  2. Oral presentation

    If in-person oral presentations are included in the class, consider these options:

    • Could the student lead a live video presentation? Could the student create pre-recorded video presentation?
    • Could questions and answers be done with the professor via videoconference?
    • Could the student respond to classmates’ questions through D2L, Microsoft Teams or Zoom?
  3. Quizzes and exams

    If the course assessments involve in-person quizzes and tests:

    • Could the test be offered through an online platform?
    • Could the test be done in a different form, orally, or a combination?
  4. Top Hat questions

    Top Hat questions are often used as a preliminarily measure of students’ understanding of a topic and provide feedback to instructors.

    • Could the student create a Top Hat question with answer options?
    • Could the student write a short definition or diagram of the concept?

Students facing unexpected disruptions to their education may need greater flexibility in completing course elements. When setting deadlines or providing extensions, consider the following options: 

  1. Exam windows

    Providing a 24-hour window to complete a timed assessment supports many students, such as those studying internationally, dealing with fatigue, or managing family commitments.

  2. Late banks

    Provide students with a series of days that they can use to extend the deadline of assignments. This approach reduces the number of last-minute email requests. It also helps students to take control of their scheduling and planning.

Helpful student resources

Student Wellness Services

Student Wellness Services provides a variety of health and wellbeing resources for students who may benefit from medical and/ or counselling support. 

Learn more

Academic Success Planning

The Student Success Centre offers individual appointments with academic development specialists who can help students map out tailored strategies to support of their academic success.  

Learn more

Financial need-based awards

For students needing financial support to replace or augment technology, there are a variety of bursaries and awards available.

Learn more

Academic Advising

Students can contact their faculty advisors for support in exploring alternate courses and/ or course modalities.

Learn more

International Student Services

International students can receive help with visa and immigration matters, along with support transitioning to Canada by connecting to International Student Services.

Learn more

Student Accessibility Services

If students anticipate that they will not be able to return to or need additional supports as a result of illness, please have the student connect with Student Accessibility Services to see if academic accommodations are appropriate.

Learn more

Related content 

Increasing Access During Times of Disruption: Instructor Strategies


Increasing Access During Times of Disruption: Working With Graduate Assistants (Teaching)