Suppose an instructor shows up to teach a class and no students are present. Assuming that the instructor's institution has no formal policy on such matters, how should an instructor proceed in such a situation?

If it helps to narrow down the question a bit, assume that the enrollment is no larger than ~20 students or so.

I am in the US, but responses tailored for other physical locations are welcome, too.

The above question was inspired by the following related one: Is it okay for a professor to leave the classroom only 5 min past the class start if nobody has shown up?

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    If the class is supposed to have 300 students in it, I would wonder about my watch. If it is supposed to have 3 students in it, I would wonder what happened, hang around a bit, and figure they knew where my office was. A wide range of possibilities in between. Isn't this too broad? – Jon Custer Jun 8 '17 at 17:18
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    The official policy at my university is that attendance is required, except for documented emergencies. Following this policy to the letter suggests a draconian response to nobody showing up: Fail the entire class! – JeffE Jun 8 '17 at 22:32
  • Bring a novel, and maybe a glass of wine, and enjoy the class your way! – Kimball Jun 9 '17 at 13:58
  • I would teach the tables and the chairs.. it's like net practice in cricket. – Coder Jun 10 '17 at 19:01

At my former institution the rule of thumb was a lecturer waited 15 minutes and if no one turned up then the he/she was free to leave (this was common when the period was devoted to a problems class). However, even if one student out of the class turned up then we were expected to present the lecture.

The only case where I didn't follow this was one time out of a class of approximately 30 students one solitary student turned up. This was rather extreme so I checked and found that the students were on a field trip that day (I hadn't been informed which was rather bad) and the student who had turned up often missed lectures and had, apparently, missed the lecture when the field trip was discussed.

Because of this, the majority of students had good reason to be away I decided not to take the class since, effectively, the students on the field trip would have been at a disadvantaged through no fault of their own.


The following is a comment made on the related question by @JakubKonieczny (the comment has since been moved to chat, but I think it deserves to be included as an answer here):

"I used to be taught by a professor who had a clever solution for situations like that. Whenever nobody showed up, he would just... go ahead with the lecture as usual, thus lecturing to the empty room. To make things more amusing, because (as any mathematician will tell you) any member of an empty audience is a genius, he was able to speed up the lecture considerably. Of course, at the final exam all students were expected to know all the lectured material. Consequently, we were very careful to always have at least one student present at each lecture. [...]"

  • I disagree with the genius. Obviously, a member of an empty audience will have IQ 0. – silvado Jun 10 '17 at 9:03
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    I'm very glad to comment was of some use, thanks for keeping me in the loop! :) – Jakub Konieczny Jun 11 '17 at 16:26
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    @silvado: In fact, anything is vacuously true about a member of an empty audience. Equally well it could be said that everyone in the audience was an idiot. Or an emperor of China. Wikipedia gives an example I found amusing: "All my children are cats" is a vacuous truth when spoken by someone without children. – Jakub Konieczny Jun 11 '17 at 16:32
  • @JakubKonieczny I disagree. We can actually test that. If I put an IQ test in front of an empty audience to have them solve it as a team I presume the result will be 0. In any case, the result is an upper bound for the IQ of any individual member of the audience. – silvado Jun 12 '17 at 6:51
  • @silvado: In turn, I disagree. You are right in saying that the total result is an upper bound for any individual result; or to be more precise, for any member of the audience, their score is less or equal to the total score (which is zero). On the other hand, it is true that for any member of the empty audience, their score is both less than 0 and more than 0. A possible source of confusion is that if X is the empty set then (forall x in X, S holds true) does not imply (there exists x in X such that S holds true). – Jakub Konieczny Jun 12 '17 at 12:01

I'm assuming the professor has already checked they're in the right place, and they haven't got the time/date wrong, etc.

I would say as a good rule of thumb it would be acceptable to leave after 10-15 minutes if no one has shown up. While they wait, they can try to find out what's going on, e.g. check email/text messages to see if a notification has gone out that might cancel or reschedule/relocate things, or if several students are reporting an issue, such as a clash with an exam or field trip, or delay due to something running overtime, bad weather, traffic accident, etc. If the professor can determine what's going on, they can better judge whether it would be appropriate to wait a little longer for people to turn up, or leave immediately and cancel/reschedule the class entirely.

If they do leave, it may be a good idea for the professor to contact the students in some way to let them know what's happening, such as informing them of when the rescheduled class is, or redirecting any late arrivals to their office, either to fetch them for the class, or to replace the class with general homework help/questions/etc. A note on the board or door could be sufficient for the latter.


I do think that contexts for to this will vary so greatly that there can't be any one consistent answer. Obviously it depends on existing institutional culture and policies. And also number of students in the class (3, 30, or 300?) and duration of the class (1 hour, 2 or 4?). And level of the class (intro freshmen or graduate seminar?). And proximity of other resources like department or lecturer's office, so as to possibly direct students there (maybe you're at a foreign location where that's not possible). And availability of other work the lecturer can do (e.g., Sascha's answer about work via laptop).

Here's just one example for me: I'm in a pretty traditional math department in the northeast U.S. where almost everyone still lectures with chalk. A few years back when I did the same, I had a trigonometry class during a winter module at 8 AM (think: snowy January, not a residential campus, everyone's on the road, need to leave home before sunrise). Several mornings no one was there at the class start time; and yes, I did start writing the presentation on the board as usual. I figured students could show up and copy what was on the board, which was the only way they could get those notes (and that's what did in fact occur).

Now I've switched my method to use projected digital slides, which are all available for download off the school's learning management system any time at a student's convenience (for which I've had to request room changes outside our usual math department lecture wing). So there isn't the same motivation to mime-out the lecture in students' absence. This semester I had an intro programming course which several times had no students present at the 9 AM start time. In this case I just waited and did some reading until the first student showed up, and commenced a one-on-one conversation about questions or difficulties. Once there were 2 or 3 there I started the normal presentation.

In short: Good responses to this question will vary without bound, depending on context (e.g., even depending on the lecture format itself).

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    Thanks for your answer (+1). Good point about taking the lecture format into account. – Mad Jack Jun 9 '17 at 17:56

Take out you laptop and:

a) check your emails (and if you have a mailing list, possibly mail the students)

b) assuming that your laptop is enough to work and there is wifi: start to work there (e.g. by checking and answering your other emails)

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    Assumes (a) One has a laptop, (b) one has legitimate work to be done that way. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 9 '17 at 15:42
  • Yes, if that is not the case, then waiting 10 min should do it. – Sascha Jun 9 '17 at 15:50

I feel it is okay for the teacher to leave should there be no students showing up. Almost every class has at least 1 person who shows up early. For no one to show up after waiting x period of time, I would put a note on my door saying class has been cancelled due to no attendance. Please see me in my office / faculty dept for notes. This way, anyone who does show up late can still contact the teacher.

A teacher's time is valuable. They have multiple classes to go through content and grade. Multiple classes to prepare for. Emails from 3-4 classes worth of students and class preparation. To have no one show up is frankly insulting to a teacher no matter what kind of justification you make for why you showed up late or feel entitled to him having to sit and wait for 2 hours.

The best thing a teacher can do is post on the boards/door before leaving the class that it has been cancelled and that each student needs to find a way to make up the missing notes on their own time. I say this because if you provide students with a way to just pick up lecture notes in your office or at a different time, you are reinforcing the notion that the students can skip class and just take the 5 minutes to get notes from your office and taking away accountability. You can also set up a mutual block where you can teach the class again as a make up class depending on what the reason is for half the class not showing up.

To comment about the original question, weather is provided multiple times a day on tv, your phone provides weather forecasts for a week at a time as well. A quick glance at tomorrow's weather will tell you if you need to wake up earlier or not due to weather. Accidents are a bit harder to plan around but that is still not an excuse. You should never plan to arrive where you are going within 5 minutes of that start time. It leaves very little room for issues. I feel in the original thread of this question, there seems to be a failure to communicate tardiness to professor as well as didn't do their due diligence to make sure they will arrive on time regardless of issues.

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