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Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?

Has this ever happened to you? You plan a learning activity for your group of students, and when you arrive at class you find that a large number of students are absent. You think, “What I planned will never work with such a small group! What are we gonna do?

Of course it has!  Quality instruction that meets our students’ needs often requires teachers to be highly flexible in their approach to what and how we teach – to be able to “think on our feet” when the unexpected (like fluctuations in attendance numbers) gets in the way of our careful planning.  Being flexible in this way is particularly challenging if we are using a published curriculum to guide teaching. And this seems especially true in the context of Adult Education, where attendance is voluntary and the lives of the adults we teach can sometimes be quite chaotic. Few of us can assume that all of our students who start a class will be able to attend regularly, or that a stable group of students will persist from the beginning to the end of an instructional program.

This leads us to an important and interesting question:
How do we develop the capacity to be flexible with the instructional plans we make, so that we can adapt when something – like class attendance numbers – suddenly changes?

Since almost ALL adult education teachers face these issues, please share with us:

  1. Your thoughts about how to successfully adapt your instruction when class attendance makes it hard to teach in the way you have planned to teach. What have you put in place to help your students learn what they need to learn even when class attendance fluctuates?
  2. How you help students learn what they need to learn while “tweaking” the instructional approach you THOUGHT you were going to take when you arrived in class, any particular strategies you use, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc.  What instructional strategies do you use when faced with the need to quickly change the plans you have already made for a class session?

To get you started, below are some strategies that one teacher successfully employed in these situations – do her experiences sound at all familiar to you? Have you tried out anything similar to the strategies she used?

Meet Elizabeth Gardner –  a Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ. For the past 2 years she has been teaching her adult clients using the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum.  Below are 3 examples of “adjusting on the fly” she has done as her class attendance has fluctuated.

Example #1:  Elizabeth reports that there are several times when she had only 3 students in the room when the Preparing for Work curriculum indicated a partner discussion activity. To adapt the activity to the realities of her context, she simply combined the partner discussions and class discussions indicated, and had all three students discuss the topic – with some instructor “nudging” of the conversation as needed.

Example #2:  One time, Elizabeth had planned to facilitate a problem-solving activity in the curriculum that included role-playing in groups of 3, and then groups discussing the role play with each other. But at class time, there were just four people in class that day. So she turned the role play into a four person scenario, had students do self-assessments at the end of the scenario, and then asked them to get together to discuss how their self-assessments compared with how others thought they did.

Example #3:  For another planned 3-person role-playing activity with only 5 students in attendance, Elizabeth decided on a different approach. The activity focused on reading text to find information in order to address a situation with a client or supervisor at work. Instead of asking them to role play in groups, Elizabeth asked students to individually read over all the role-play scenarios and look to the texts for the relevant information. Then for each scenario they went around the room, and one by one all the students demonstrated what they would say to their client or supervisor in that situation. This seemed the best way to make sure everyone had a chance to practice what they were learning and for students to hear many different approaches to work-related situations.  It also provided a great opportunity to assess individuals’ skill use.

We look forward to your ideas and strategies for adjusting instruction “on the fly”!

Click to learn more about  the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum or contact us via

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Elizabeth Gardner, Instructor,  Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ