What to Do When Your Students Arrive Late

It’s the beginning of the semester (or quarter) and already you are experiencing the problem. Maybe it starts with just one student, who every class comes rushing in late. Or perhaps a small group saunters in just as your lecture or discussion is getting going, fresh coffees in hand. Then there is the snowball effect—it starts with one or two latecomers to your early morning class, and then gradually the numbers increase until the disruption of late arrivals is too much to ignore. Whatever the scenario, is there a solution?Digital display You Are Late in white letters on blue background.

The answer is yes, but how you choose to handle the situation may depend on the size of your class, the culture at your institution, and your teaching philosophy. Some instructors take a hard line approach, others may attempt to deal with each offender individually. The latter concept, to speak individually to students who arrive late, is worth considering. If your institution has a large campus, or several campuses from which students may be arriving, it could be that they don’t have sufficient time to change classes. Or there is the possibility that another instructor is consistently running late, leaving students to race to their next class. It is appropriate to work with students to find a solution, before penalizing them and before getting too far into the semester when habits may be harder to break.

Advice from various sources provides a range of strategies. In Late Again? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2015) Stephanie Reese Masson, an instructor of language, English, and communication at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, recommends talking to your class about lateness and potential motivators for punctual arrival. She chose two tactics—marking late students as absent with a grade reduction after four absences and periodically offering unscheduled, short, in-class, extra-credit activities at the start of class. Her essay includes other ideas as well.

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence has a page of advice on reducing late arrivals, including arriving early yourself so that you can interact with students as they come into class. “If you arrive to class early, you show your students that you value your time with them.  By arriving early, chatting with students, answering questions and starting on time, you build rapport and model proper classroom etiquette.  Do not try to embarrass late students in front of the class.  Statements such as “I see you’re late again,” or “Why are you late, Mr. Watson?” beg for a reply and can easily domino into greater classroom distractions.  A better approach is simply to welcome the late student.  A welcoming recognition of a late student lets the student know that you are aware of his/her lateness without giving opportunity to spiraling incivility.  If a student is habitually late, ask to talk to the student after class and express your concerns to him/her in private.” Other suggestions include starting class with an activity or with something that will intrigue your students.

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University has a section on their website called Solve a Teaching Problems, which is a great resource for a range of issues instructors are likely to encounter. For each issue, potential reasons are identified and appropriate solutions and strategies are offered. For Students come to class late, possible reasons include: students don’t take responsibility for themselves, students’ expectations are out of line with the instructor’s, students don’t recognize how their lateness affects others, students don’t perceive the beginning of class as important, there is no consequence to being late, students are trying to challenge the instructor’s authority, students are experiencing emotional or psychological problems, and students have physical or logistical reasons for coming late. Each link will take you to a page with applicable strategies.

The key take-away from all the advice offered is that to solve the problem of student tardiness, you must first understand the reasons that students are arriving late.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image courtesy of Stuart Mills at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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