George Lucas Educational Foundation

Absenteeism and PBL

Absenteeism and PBL

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Hi all - at the Emery/Weiner School's middle school in Houston, TX, we have begun to introduce PBL to every curriculum. One problem a lot of teachers are having is with absent students. While students can at times video conference in or do work in the cloud collaboratively, if they are ill or out of town, the whole group is set back. Do you all have any suggestions for dealing with absenteeism? Thanks!

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Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

Hi Benjamin,
I have run into the same problem many times. As you said, absenteeism is a problem in PBL that we often have to deal with.

These are some of the things that I do to deal with the problem. I teach a specialized course for high school students in Japan, but despite the cultural differences and all, I think some of this might be useful.

When making groups, I tend to use three-person groups, but not all class sizes can be divided by three, so there are always some four-person groups. If you have chronically absent or likely-to-be absent students, put them in these larger groups. I also would use a larger group at times when there is a high possibility of absences, such as flu season.

Another thing that helps is to give deadlines, usually a week apart. For example, when I assign our students to do a country presentation, I tell them when their outlines, scripts, powerpoints, are due. This way, the students who are not absent know what they should be working on.

If a student is absent and the other group members do not know what they should be doing, I will sit down with them, go over their group's progress and give them some suggestions as to what they could be working on.

If the absenteeism has seriously affected the group, I would be flexible in the grading of the project, and if possible, give that group an extra few days to do their presentation or project.

It is also helpful, if possible, to let the parents of the students know what the students are doing so that they understand what the students are doing. This can help with absentees.

I also have found that encouraging teamwork (many times) is important. Often, students want to divide up the group's work and each take a piece of the work, go off, and do it alone. However, if someone is absent, no one else in the group knows what they were doing. That is one reason that I encourage students to do their work together as a team.

Hope this helps.

Blake Wiggs's picture
Blake Wiggs
Instructional Coach

I have found that having each group develop a "contract" that is both printed and signed by all members, simulates real-world collaboration and problem-solving skills among students that are necessary for completing a project/assignment in the midst of absenteeism. Their contracts usually include a mission statement, project timeline, individual expectations, consequences, and their contact information. They also can have the freedom to include individualized consequences for not contributing equally to the project (e.g., grades deductions, apology letters). That being said, I personally believe that this solution is only as good as the contract itself, which should clearly spell out individual expectations, responsibilities, and consequences for the group.

Ghostwheel's picture

What PBL schools forget is that they need to show students HOW to spread out the work fairly and document it. If each student is assigned a portion of the project, then everyone knows what each other is supposed to be doing. In the work world, you aren't guessing what your position is, you've been told what it is.

Collaborating online works well for a lot of situations ( my daughter was stuck at home for a week because her brother came up with Whooping Cough, so we were all confined to quarters and another time my son sent reports from Hawaii for the Volcano project). However, as in the real world, if one person is too ill to work, someone else fills in for the day. Often, when the ill person comes back they might help out with remaining work that was not originally theirs. With responsible students, this works. What throws the monkey wrench into it is when the students who just do not do their share of the work flake. Teachers should then grade EACH student on the work they did on the project, not give all of the group the same grade on a finished project. This keeps over zealous students form taking over, while allowing them to shift responsibilities if needed.

Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

I think that Ghostwheel has a good point here. Even though we teachers encourage our students to be responsible, (Responsibility is rule #1 in our course), sometimes, there are students that are not responsible, so we need to be prepared for that. In those cases, as he said, all things considered, if I felt that student had done much less than his or her share, I would grade that student differently. This does not happen often though.

I stress responsibility and teamwork because they go hand in hand and are essential for any group project. I have found that if students are not responsible, they will not work together well as a team, and if they cannot work as a team, the results of any group project will be fairly to completely awful.

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