Re-Engaging Students

by Kelly Coons

Let’s set the scene. You’re midway through the semester—one or two projects down, so two or one project to go. Most of your class is along for the ride. Key word: most. One of your students has disappeared over the course of the semester. You reached out to the student over email, looped in their advisors and other relevant support networks (like International Student Services), but, despite your efforts, they did not respond. You logically decided to focus your attention on the students who are coming to class, handing in work, participating in group work, and doing the other things that make up ENGL 1007.


But, today, you look over your classroom, and… Oh! They’re back!


Now what?


In Class:

Don’t make a big deal out of the returning student’s presence!

Do you remember being a teenager and coming out of your room to interact with your family and someone made a remark like, “Look who’s decided to come out of the cave.” Yeah, don’t be that kind of person. When students choose to return the class, they are aware that they have missed class. This is a situation that is rife with opportunities for embarrassment. Don’t be someone who adds to that. That being said…


Do help the student ease back into classroom life.

This is particularly relevant if the student returns during a group activity. Consider pairing the student with a peer who has either shown that they understand the material well and/or a peer who is already the type to ask clarifying questions. The returning student will, naturally, have questions about what is going on. However, they do not know what questions have already been covered in prior classes, so they are unlikely to risk revealing themselves as someone who “wasn’t paying attention” by asking you. Students are more likely to ask their peers questions, though!


After Class:

Do email the returning student.

Let the student know that you saw them in class today. Emphasize that you are happy to see them!


Don’t “fix” everything for the returning student.

It can be tempting, when a student returns, to drop everything to try to get them “back on track.” However, you still have a responsibility to do the rest of your class. Moreover, a student who has returned… is just returning to a lot of new information. That’s overwhelming!


Do require the returning student to take some initiative.

Students who are returning need to put in extra work in order to catch up. This is just part of the nature of “catching up”: Students need to do things more quickly than they would have on the original timeline quicker than the original timetable, and they need to prove to you (and themselves) that this class is indeed worth that extra effort. Give them a taste of this extra work in your “reach-out” email: that first (re)contact. When I’ve had returning students, I’ve included these things in that message:

  1. The current state of their grade (and rationale). Often this is, at least in part, because of a missed project or two.
  2. Relevant deadlines (e.g: the withdrawal deadline and how, in many cases, a W is better than an F).
  3. Explicit telling them that they need to contact their advisor and that you will not meet with them unless they agree to fulfill this responsibility.
  4. Offering several times and dates to meet (preferably in-person).


Do contact your teaching counterparts.

If the student responds to your email, great! But before you get into a plan of trying to get the student “back on track,” you need to let your counterparts know about this student’s return—especially if they are missing work in both Seminar and Studio. Present a united front if you agree to let the student catch up. Keep in regular contact with each other. Equally important is to let your counterpart know if you are not able to work with the student to let them catch up. If this happens, let the student know as soon as possible that “there is not enough time in the semester to make up the amount of work you need to.” Keep the statement neutral. It’s no one’s fault—it’s just a fact of time.


Meeting With The Student:

Do reiterate the strength of character they have.

It’s intimidating to return to class when you know you’re behind! Tell the student explicitly—and repeatedly—that, by embarking in this work, they are being brave and honest.


Do set the stakes clearly.

Let the student know the current state of their grade and tell them what is the maximum grade they can earn at this point. It is unlikely that they can get the baseline grade, but tell them the exact letter grade that is up for grabs.


Do emphasize the work ahead.

The returning student will need to complete work at a faster pace than their classmates in order to “catch up.” Say this clearly. At the same time, reassure the student that you will not assign everything at once but break the work up into chunks. I recommend the chunks being weekly divisions of work—paired with a weekly meeting with you. I find that going more or less frequently confuses both me and the student when exactly the meetings are.


Don’t make deadlines without the student’s input.

You don’t know what else is going on in a student’s life (including other classes they may need to catch up on)! Make your deadlines strict, but do not make them without the student’s input. For each week’s “chunk” of work, present the student with your idea and ask them if that is something they think they can reasonably do. If they say no, ask them why. It might be a case where one week you need to less work than you thought but another week, the student is less busy and so can do more. Please make these deadlines on a shared document of some sort, so you both always have access to them! You can also use this document to “check off” each of your tasks as you do them!


Don’t forget to talk about what you promise to do too!

You are working together to catch up. Make your own, analogous promises. You also agree to meet once a week. You also agree to contact the student if you’re unable to make that weekly meeting to schedule an alternative. You also agree to do your tasks (e.g: grading, feedback), according to the shared document.