When Students Ghost the Course

Helping instructors manage student absenteeism during pandemic times.


Teaching and learning is grounded in relationships between instructors and students. Like any relationship, compassion, flexibility and communication are essential factors, particularly during pandemic times. Students ghost a course when they stop attending class, virtually or in-person, without providing the instructor notice or explanation. Ghosting is one form of student absenteeism, a topic that’s been around as long as students have skipped or missed class for any reason. 

During a pandemic when students are encouraged to stay home if unwell, absenteeism has nuances worth considering. Faculty communication on student absenteeism has largely depended on unique course circumstances, with many faculty encouraging students to attend class and connect with peers if they feel socially isolated. Instructors exercise compassion and flexibility with their students when the course learning outcomes, the instructor expectations and limits of support are communicated and respected. 

Attendance required in learning outcomes

Some courses are designed for students to attend in real time, whether in-person or on Zoom. The learning experience created by the instructor necessitates being present at a specific time and place commonly due to the skill or practice learning outcomes. Examples are field placements, clinical rotations, mock-trials and courses in which students practice debating, relating and communicating interpersonally. Some assessments are set up to have timed limits for completion, such as a quiz in eClass, a midterm take-home exam, a live presentation to the class or a final exam in-person. 

 When students are not able to attend, the instructor may be required to create additional learning opportunities, re-issue an assessment, and enforce absenteeism policies. Despite the extra time, effort, and stress involved, U of A instructors continue to show compassion for each student’s pandemic situation. Nonetheless, ghosting a course can have serious consequences for student learning and academic performance, for instance.

Attendance optional in learning outcomes

In meeting with instructors over the past 20 months, CTL Team Members have shared ideas about tasks, assignments, and communications that can be asynchronous rather than synchronous. When students can achieve the course learning outcomes with flexibility over time and place for learning, attendance, and potential barriers to attendance such as time zones or other distractions, are less of a concern. 

At the start of the pandemic, many instructors saw online teaching as taking their in-person lecture course and delivering it on Zoom. Over time, both instructors and students have adapted to teaching and learning from home workspaces by engaging a range of innovative projects, lecture videos, activities, and communication online in asynchronous ways to make learning more adaptable, flexible, and effective. We’ve also assisted instructors in considering if course textbooks, resources or activities could be open to improve accessibility to learning materials. 

The caveat is that not all students have the motivation, self-determination, discipline, bandwidth or circumstances to learn this way. Some absenteeism may continue despite flexible learning opportunities which is why clear expectations are key.

Provide clear expectations

Students are aware of a course delivery location (online, in-person or hybrid) at the time of registration; however, it is important for instructors to clearly indicate attendance requirements on day one of the term, including:

  • Is the course fully asynchronous wherein students can self-pace and never have to attend at a specific time? Is the course mostly asynchronous, yet students are expected to attend a once-weekly session in Zoom? 
  • Is this course fully synchronous due to pandemic circumstances? 
  • Is the course fully in-person, yet what is the communication plan if restrictions suddenly change? 
  • When a student is unable to attend, what are the expectations of the student in communicating the absence? What are the consequences of routine absences?

When students ghost a course for a stretch of time, we have coached instructors on how to open a dialogue about this lack of attendance and engagement. U of A instructors are deeply compassionate and understand that students' anxiety, fear and stress during these uncertain times inhibit learning and diminish focus. Instructors have repeatedly shared with us their “humans first, students second” mindset when enforcing course policies.

Communication is key

The challenge in opening these conversations about absenteeism or lack of participation in courses is that instructors often need to recognize their own limits. Instructors are subject matter experts who are having their own experiences of the pandemic. Instructors are not counsellors and need to refer their students to experts in mental health and wellness services beyond that initial conversation with the student. 

When some instructors are lenient with students about absenteeism but others in the same department are not, it creates different expectations for students within courses within the same field or department. These shifting expectations about attendance can be confusing for students and lead to poor USRI comments for instructors. We've encouraged faculties and departments to have open discussions about consistent expectations for students. While they may not arrive at "a party line" on absenteeism, instructors can support each other by identifying students at risk. 

The Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) welcomes instructors who wish to learn more by sharing ideas about their unique teaching needs. Visit the CTL website and request a consultation with a member of our Team. 

Cosette Lemelin, Assistant Director, CTL; Anita Parker, Educational Developer, CTL; Krysta McNutt, Open Education Lead, CTL