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In a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed, I shared some steps that I’ve taken that have proved successful for alleviating students’ grubbing for better grades than rightfully earned. In this article, I’ll discuss another challenge—one that I’ve found, in fact, to be among the toughest for faculty members to understand. It’s what we often refer to as ghosting.

Ghosting means that despite establishing relationships with our students, providing mental health and other resources, implementing flexible policies, and regularly checking in, students still—with no proactive communication— do not attend class or complete coursework, or they miss assignments. Frequently, I hear from frustrated faculty members asking what more (or what else) they can do to halt such practices.

Through my conversations with students, I’ve learned that they ghost for several reasons. First, asking for help is difficult, and not everyone is comfortable doing it. Second, students think it will all work out fine, and they’ll be able to catch up later on. Third, once they are behind, they feel ashamed and don’t know how to get out of the hole—and thus they become paralyzed and don’t know how to move forward.

Honestly, those are all understandable and legitimate reasons. Understandable and legitimate reasons, however, don't help us as instructors help our students. Professionally, students could never not show up to work for weeks at a time or miss deadlines without pre-planning and accountability. And higher education is designed to help our students prepare for a future career.

Here are some ways that I’ve found to be most effective for resetting students’ expectations about ghosting.

Invite proactive conversations. Let students know you understand that life happens, and you’re there to help. Tell them that if something occurs that may prevent their learning journey, they should reach out to you to come up with a plan. Make it clear that you are a partner, and that their success is a top priority, but you can’t help them if they don’t communicate.

Also remind students that they can’t tell their classmates to take on personal responsibility for them, either. For example, a classmate can’t tell an instructor that so-and-so is not coming to class today or that so-and-so needs to present last because they are tied up at work. Students should feel empowered to speak on behalf of themselves and not as a collective body. (That includes sharing feedback and complaints, too. Students should not be speaking on behalf of a class. My favorite response to a “we feel” is that my calendar is open to talk to everyone included in “we” separately, but right now, I’m concerned about this specific student’s experience only).

Be clear about when students may need to consider dropping your course. As instructors, we need to start being honest about when a student reaches a point of no return: for example, if a student fails a certain number of assignments or doesn't attend class a certain number of times. You should frequently discuss add/drop dates and withdrawal deadlines and also be transparent and communicative with students about their performance throughout the class. That includes sending a student email alerts that they won’t likely pass if their performance doesn’t improve. Or it means telling a student there is no way they can pass and that they should speak to their adviser about dropping/withdrawing before it’s too late.

Such notifications create an airtight paper trail, too, in case a student tries to grub for a higher grade at the end of the semester. In my own course, which is a high-stakes one, I send out letters of concern to students before the final withdrawal deadline if they are in danger of failing. Those messages detail all the math up until that point in the semester and “get out” or “dig in” options.

Tell students that retroactive permissions will not be granted. State that unless it’s an emergency situation—a sudden death, medical situation, accident or the like— you will not immediately grant retroactive permission for late assignment submissions, unexcused absences or missed exams. Be explicit that you will be understanding in any emergency, but that otherwise work and attendance will be graded as assigned.

Let them know that if they need to miss class, submit an assignment or miss an exam for a nonemergency reason, they should proactively contact you with the request before the deadline or class time. And then explain why: because you value the integrity of the learning process, which not only requires their active participation and intentional planning but also your assurance that you’ll provide timely and meaningful feedback on all assignments. And that you're unable to do that if students don't ask for help/communicate.

In the Spirit of Supporting Each Other

The advice in this piece, as well as the previous one on grade grubbing, isn’t anchored in a harsh teaching philosophy and a lack of empathy for student circumstances. I regularly grant extensions when proactively asked for them. I have bonus points built into my course grading, and I usually round and scale, too. My faculty members and I are forever brainstorming ways to provide more flexibility within the confines of the system.

My goal with this two-part series is to discuss solutions for those who are required/need to grade, as well as for those who desire a bit more structure within their classes when it comes to attendance and missed assignments. As both a faculty member and an administrator, I regularly need to toe the line between making rules and breaking them. I also have high expectations for both learners and faculty members, and I truly believe the classroom is a 50-50 partnership—meaning the student needs to put in the 50 percent, as does the instructor. Like many other chairs or directors who also teach, this makes me a student’s friend or foe on any given day.

In short, I’m not immune to the difficulties of being an educator or the heaviness of this profession. That heaviness, however, can be ameliorated through leadership support and rediscovering our confidence as instructors. It’s more important than ever to have academic leaders at our colleges and universities who listen to classroom woes and actively work to support faculty members. That means moving past that “the customer is always right” mentality, which is currently dominating higher education. Learner expectations, in general, need to be reset. Students should understand that deciding to pursue an education isn’t a transaction—it’s a transfer of learning.

Higher education, as an industry, needs to get back to that basic principle. That means backing faculty members when students demand exceptions to policies, procedures and assessments for no good reason. It means letting parents be angry and helping them understand their kids aren’t perfect. It means having difficult conversations among ourselves as faculty members so that we can empower each other to do better. It means resetting student expectations from the very first day and being crystal clear in our syllabi about the teacher-student partnership. This isn’t about a power dynamic or reinforcing it. It’s about creating systems that help set students up for success.

Additionally, we must keep close to heart that students have no right to be mad about the result of not putting in effort. If higher education was about participation only, most students would get a trophy. But most of us aren’t in the business of giving out participation trophies. We’re in the business of helping students learn, apply and go on to greatness.

Finally, it’s important to remember that within the academic community, discussing grade grubbing and ghosting—at all—is polarizing. Depending on your background, research initiatives, values and educational environment, opinions can strongly differ. No matter what camp you fall into, I think we can all agree that as instructors, we are all doing the best we can with what we’re given. And the more we can learn from one another, the more we’ll improve higher education overall.

Kerry O’Grady is a higher education consultant and an associate professor of public relations. An expert in faculty affairs and systemic improvement, she frequently writes about faculty/student dynamics, leadership and academic operations.

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