So, thanksgiving break is coming up. On my campus, a large portion of the students leave early Wednesday to get back home. The break doesn't officially start until Thursday, but since that is the holiday the students (understandably) leave earlier.

I teach on Wednesdays (among other days). I had forgotten about this poor attendance when I planned my syllabus and am currently planning to teach new material next Wednesday.

Now, I anticipate about 75% of the class (50 total students) will be absent. They knew I would be teaching new material that day, since it was on the syllabus.

Do I cancel class so that the majority of students don't miss a lecture? Do I hold class but post my lecture notes so that the students who missed could (theoretically, at least) make up the work they missed on their own?

If I cancel class, I could shift around material so that nothing is lost (by moving a review day). However, something feels "wrong" about cancelling a class that the university has scheduled to occur because the students decided they wanted to start their vacation early.

Is it fine to cancel a class because you don't expect many students to attend?

  • 4
    Its completely up to you as the lecturer. If you're concerned about being unfair to students who are planning on showing up, I'd say go ahead with having class and just post the material for those who won't be there. Make it clear in advance that its 'okay' if students choose not to attend on that particular day but that you will be available for those that decide they want to (they do pay for the course after all). Nov 20, 2014 at 16:09
  • 17
    Your university may have a policy on this. You are likely not the first to encounter this problem. Nov 20, 2014 at 16:36
  • 11
    So you want to punish those motivated enough to attend and reward those who'd stay away? Feels the wrong way around to me.
    – Raphael
    Nov 21, 2014 at 11:22
  • 5
    In my university, as I guess with most, no, you're not supposed to cancel class on an official lecture day for such a reason. (In practice, my students tell me many faculty in other departments do this though.) It is the responsibility of any students not attending to figure out how to catch up on what they missed.
    – Kimball
    Nov 21, 2014 at 13:07
  • 11
    I don't know why so many American universities hold classes the day before Thanksgiving. My undergraduate institution used to do that, but they changed their policy because students died every year as they drove cross-country through the night on Wednesday trying to get home for Thursday. I'd much rather have my students skip class on Wednesday rather than having one never come back.
    – DaoWen
    Nov 22, 2014 at 3:59

8 Answers 8


I have known a number of professors who took a third approach: on an expected low-attendance class day such as the day before Thanksgiving, they held a lecture, but did not make it part of the "standard" curriculum. Instead, they would schedule some sort of fun and exciting "bonus material," like a notable guest speaker or a cool demonstration. That way, those students who showed up got something out of coming, but the ones whose plans prevented them from being there didn't have any missed "core" material to make up.

  • 11
    This certainly depends on the type of the class and whether I am generally interested in it, but I'm not sure I'd have liked that approach as a student. I make the effort of coming to class on a day where most of my peers do not, and all I get as a reward isn't even a "real" class, but something that could easily have been skipped without any severe consequences? Why, thanks ... (Of course, the alternative content of the class can be communicated beforehand, so I can decide whether or not to go.) Nov 20, 2014 at 23:16
  • 26
    So the super cool guest lecturer would like to sit in a classroom with professor and one goofy student who is obsessed with parametric search?
    – blankip
    Nov 21, 2014 at 7:30
  • 2
    I did this in general as well when I taught. I'd give a lecture the day before Thanksgiving that was about something interesting but tangential to the "core" material of the course. (The fact that I'd planned for this actually turned out to be very useful one year when I had to make a trip to see a dying relative that happened to correspond with Thanksgiving and could easily cancel that lecture.) Nov 21, 2014 at 17:10
  • 2
    I had a physics professor who, on the Friday before Thanksgiving break, gave us an extra credit exam. The exam consisted of "write your name and draw a hand turkey, then leave". The points were just tacked on to the midterm that we did the most poorly on. This way, he made it worth our while to stick around, but didn't unnecessarily punish those who may have had a valid reason to need to leave early.
    – Chris
    Nov 21, 2014 at 19:17
  • 6
    @blankip Hey! What's wrong with parametric search?
    – JeffE
    Nov 22, 2014 at 6:07

I agree with other answers that, in general, it is defensible either to hold class on such a day, or not hold it. However, your question is different because you're asking it now, less than a week before the day in question. I'd like to make the point that, if you are making the decision at this late date, I think you are honor bound to do something to compensate the students who would have attended because they have already planned their shcedule in order to do so.

Many students arrange rides, trains, plane flights, etc., to go home for Thanksgiving, and if they know they have class on that day and thought it was important, they may already have configured their schedules to attend. As someone who has not forgotten what it is like to be a student, I can say that it really sucks to be in that situation and then have the professor cavalierly cancel class, leaving you (the student) in the position of having postponed your trip home for no reason.

Realistically, the only way you can do this is to hold class and make it worth attending. You could do this by making it "fun" (although I think that has to mean more than just "a cool topic" -- at least bring muffins or something to reward the diehards) or, preferably, by making it genuinely useful. Depending on what the class is about, you could spend some extra time on a difficult topic, perhaps go through some example problems (if it's that kind of class), so that those who attend will get extra practice that will actually help them in the class. If your syllabus always clearly showed that class was scheduled, and you haven't given any hint of it not being, it could also be defensible to hold some sort of trivial "pop quiz" that would give a few extra points to those who attend. (You can find other questions on this site with opinions on the ethics of this, but if you have reserved a portion of the class grade for attendance or participation, this is the time to use it to give people a bonus for showing up.)

In short, in general it is defensible to cancel class on a day when few people are expected to show up, but if you do that you have to telegraph your intentions early on. I don't think it's acceptable to cancel class for such a reason on less than a week's notice, when students may have already arranged their schedules based on their belief that class will be held. To do so is unfair to students who took you at your (and your syllabus's) word, and penalizes exactly the stalwart and upstanding students who made their plans in order to be able to go to class as scheduled, while rewarding those who had already made the decision to play hookey.

I do think, though, that you could possibly announce what you are doing on that day. In other words, you could say, "Oops, I forgot about Thanksgiving. We'll still be holding class, and it will be [whatever -- review session, quiz for participation points, etc.]." This will make it clear to the students who are coming that they are going to get something out of it, and also make it clear to the students who aren't coming that they are going to miss something that will actually be relevant to the class and aren't getting off with nothing. In a way, this can be a good litmus test for whether what you're doing on that day is legit --- if students who already planned to skip have a decent chance of thinking "Oops, that might have been helpful, oh well", then the class is meaningful enough to compensate the students who do attend.

  • 2
    And when you say "it'll be a review session", those in the class who thought it was new material and still have flexibility to change their plans, can cut it. They're the other side of the balance from the "oops, that might have been helpful" students, if you really care to assess whether the substitute class is worthwhile. Nov 21, 2014 at 17:17

You should make it worthwhile for the student that have made an effort, so you could just do what you would have done that day, but insure the contents is covered by an exam question, so as to reward the good students.

Or you could take advantage of a smaller number of students, and do something like a review of how to answer exam questions from past years on topics you have already covered.

  • 1
    +1 as I was about to say something similar - use it to run through previous papers with tips and advice, or go over the current coursework/assignments with some help. That way those who attend get something out of if, but those who don't won't be at a disadvantage over what they need to know for the core curriculum
    – Jon Story
    Nov 21, 2014 at 23:31

The fact is students have a life beyond school. They also each have their own set of circumstances, issues, whatever. You might have those who live thousands of miles away and must leave early to get a flight to see family they haven't seen in months, some may need to go home to work during breaks, others might not want to drive all night.

Cancel class, email your students tomorrow so that those who planned on staying can leave earlier if they want.


Hold the class just like any other day. If you offer some special content that day, you may end up disappointing those who show up or those who don't. And you can't just cancel class if the class is in the official schedule.

But you could agitate politically for the schedule to be changed institution-wide starting next year.

  • 5
    The last paragraph won't really help: if the institution makes Wednesday a holiday next year, you will find yourself with the same low attendance on the Tuesday. Nov 21, 2014 at 13:39
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    @NateEldredge: is that necessarily true? I'm not in the US, but I assumed on reading the question that people want to travel on Wednesday (a) to arrive by Thursday and (b) to avoid late-Weds and Thus red-eye transport. Not because they inherently like to leave a day early regardless of when the break officially starts. Here in the UK, closing a workplace on Christmas Eve doesn't generally result in a mass rush to take leave the day before that. Unless Christmas happens to be a Weds, I suppose. Nov 21, 2014 at 17:20
  • 3
    Well, maybe not "the same" low attendance, but I think you'll still see a significant number of absences on the Tuesday. For one thing, since so many people want to travel Wednesday, airfares are much lower on Tuesday, so students will start to think "If I just miss this one class, I can save $300..." Nov 21, 2014 at 18:05
  • @SteveJessop: I think in the long term it is true. There may not be a massive shift the very next year, but eventually things will creep. Some schools (at least elementary/high schools, I dunno about colleges) actually now give students the entire Thanksgiving week off due to this sort of "holiday creep".
    – BrenBarn
    Nov 21, 2014 at 18:25
  • 1
    My university actually cancels class—and kicks students out of the dorms—for the entire week of thanksgiving. Attendance starts dropping off the previous Wednesday.
    – JeffE
    Nov 22, 2014 at 6:09

There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with canceling class and being honest with your students. Just tell them the holiday slipped your mind when you were planning out the syllabus. You are human after all. Besides, you don't want to look like some sort of scrudge do you?

  • 5
    In some cases it is not totally up to you. My previous institution had a very strict policy that classes must meet as scheduled on the day before Thanksgiving. Any exceptions required a compelling reason ("low attendance" did not count) and the express permission of the Dean. Nov 20, 2014 at 23:04

I would hold the class and make it available as a podcast if the class were after say 2PM. But that's actually being a bit generous. The holiday is after all a 4 day weekend. It isn't a 5 day weekend. If it were a workplace, they would be expected to report to work and I don't see university studies being held to a lower standard as being good preparation.

My concern stems from having seen too many grads from "name" university programs (health care field) - ill prepared for work and life and death responsibilities. They did not know enough to work safely nor survive their 90 day probationary periods. Staff who are seasoned instructors of such students are very concerned that recent grads increasingly show inadequate preparation and too lax attitudes to be safe in patient care. It was not just one or two individuals. Ones education at advanced level is preparation for life and work - it needs to reflect that reality.


My attendance policy is if you miss more than 20% of the class FOR ANY REASON, you fail. That ends up being 3 classes in a 15 week semester. Everyone gets the same three classes. If you miss that Wednesday and no more than one other class during the semester, no problem! If you have missed two other classes and then you miss that Wednesday, you fail the class. Everyone can plan accordingly. You should probably not teach new material but you've put the decision to make or miss that class squarely in your students' hands without unfairly rewarding or penalizing anyone for their travel plans.

  • Missing a once a week class is a much bigger deal than missing a 3x a week class... Also are you worried about the students getting to know you or knowing the topic?
    – blankip
    Nov 22, 2014 at 3:34
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    I sure hope you don't count time taken off while sick against the 3 days. Please consider 1) it is unfair to the other students as you are exposing them to the illness. 2) in many companies you are not allowed to go to work if you're sick because you will infect your colleagues
    – Celeritas
    Nov 22, 2014 at 12:51
  • Of course, I count everything. Why would a student need to be sick more than twice in 15 weeks? It's not a Draconian policy because of course things happen, but yes it all counts. Bear in mind I teach mostly hands-on seminar-type courses where classroom participation is a significant part of the grade and mandatory attendance is usually departmental policy. Students always have a appeal to the department or the school if they think I've been unfair but that's never once happened. You all miss my point in attacking my policy, and no one addresses the basic issue of fairness that I raise.
    – Raydot
    Nov 24, 2014 at 19:22
  • I like how six people thumbed-up the intimation (based on a grossly incorrect assumption) that I would force a sick student to go to class, coupled with the intimation that I don't understand how the career world works as if someone who misses 20% of his or her time at work wouldn't be fired. Thanks for setting me straight, Celeritas. And thanks to the rest of you for proving once again that no one thinks like an academic. Xxoo, unless you're sick in which case <fist bump>.
    – Raydot
    Nov 25, 2014 at 16:52
  • Three days in three years is not 20% of their time at university. It's just your class that they've missed, and you're punishing them for the temerity of poor luck: once for getting an educator who sees the relationship as antagonistic and once for being sick during such educator's class.
    – Nij
    Nov 17, 2017 at 1:54

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