A College Instructor’s Guide to Canceling Class

Are you one of those college instructors who never seem to have enough time? You have so much material you want to cover and so little time. Then it happens – no class! You must cancel class. Maybe you are ill. Maybe you were called out of town. Maybe it is the weather. Today for example. It is February 2, 2011, and virtually every college and university in my area is closed due to the “Blizzard of 2011.”

So, what are all of you college instructors in the path of this storm going to do? Sure, there is a lot of snow shoveling. Hope you have a snow blower that is more effective at clearing two feet of snow than mine! Any way, how are you going to make up the lost time?

What Not to Do When You Can’t Hold Class

You could decide to cover material in less depth. You could decide to cover material more rapidly. Or you could decide to skip some material. Covering material in less depth may allow you to get back on track, but you may derail your students in the process.

A common complaint I hear from math students is that their instructors do not work enough examples. Some students complain their instructors go to fast. Some say they can’t follow their instructors because they skip steps. So, if you want to make things worse for your math students, speed it up. By the way, those of you who teach other subjects can also make it worse for your students to by speeding it up.

Another thing not to do is to shift your schedule by pushing things out and foregoing the material you planned to cover late in the term. If it is a required learning objective, you need to cover it.

What to Do Before You Can’t Hold Class

Create a contingency plan. One way I did this was by including a “mystery lesson” in my schedule. At some point during the second half of the semester I would put the mystery lesson in my schedule. What was it? Duh! It was a mystery. It all depended on what had preceded. If I needed the time to make up what we missed in an earlier canceled class, that is what we covered. However, if we were on schedule, I gave my students a voice. As long as it related to the course and our learning objectives, they could help me decide what we would do. Canceling class, however, was not an option.

Another thing to do is to set up a communication protocol. If you use some form of courseware such as BlackBoard or the increasingly popular Moodle, you already have a mechanism for “distributing” group emails to all your students. If not, figure out a way to communicate with your students on short notice. In this day and age, there is no room for Luddite college instructors. I am sure that all my readers use email. You do, don’t you? Okay, I should not discriminate against the technically challenged. If you are a Luddite, perhaps you want to set up a telephone tree. You do know how to use a telephone, don’t you?

What to Do When You Can’t Hold Class

First and foremost, communicate with your students. Give them something to do in lieu of attending class. Sure, it could never match up with one of your captivating, stimulating lectures, but maybe you can come up with something that will help them learn. Wait, I didn’t mean to imply that your captivating, stimulating lectures don’t help them learn. Sorry about that. 🙁

Then identify any “extras” you had planned for that semester. If something is not required to help your students achieve their learning objectives, it may have to go. This is may be your favorite lesson, but it is about your students not you. For example, if you are an earth science instructor whose passion is geology, you may need to cancel the field trip you planned to view glacial outcroppings. Similarly, if you are an art history instructor, you may not have time for your students to do in-class presentations to report on their visits to a local museum.

And finally, just do what is right. There is not a one-size-fits-all quick fix. Focus on the learning objectives. Do whatever must be done. Do not, under any circumstances, take the easy way out. Don’t just forget that lesson and move on.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

February 2, 2011

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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