How to Handle Student Excuses
As new teachers very quickly learn, students will come up with all kinds of excuses for missing assignments and other work. Students will never say, “I missed the exam because I was out late last night—it was one dollar taps at the Silver Horse, you know how it goes.” As a result, teachers must have a policy for handling these situations, which invariably involves a decision on trust.
“Grandpa’s heart exploded, but he’s fine now,” one student reported the morning after missing a scheduled exam. “I caught dyslexia from another student last semester,” responded another when his teacher asked him about all the spelling mistakes in his paper. And then there was the pet rabbit that swallowed a needle on the day of the big group presentation. Excuses like these are so preposterous that they can’t help but make us laugh, but dealing with them is no laughing matter.
They’re a hassle. Depending on whether it means constructing a different exam, arranging a time and location to administer the exam, or grading after the fact, a makeup exam can consume a lot of extra time and effort. Unfortunately, such exams are pretty much a necessity. Most of our institutions require faculty to excuse students for certain events and activities such as serious illnesses, court appearances, military duty, and university-sponsored athletics.
Students and excuses seem to go hand in hand. Sometimes the excuses result from real events and personal problems that legitimately prevent a student from being in class, completing an assignment on time, or doing what some other policy or procedure may stipulate. Not having the wisdom of Solomon, most faculty struggle to fairly adjudicate between the real and unreal reasons offered for noncompliance.
Once I passed my 50th semester of introductory biology, I began to regret that my profession doesn’t have a real apprenticeship for teaching—why should every young professor facing his or her first big class…have to make the same mistakes I did and, perhaps more important, why should they not know that everybody…has the same problems?
Early in my professorial career, I noticed two patterns: (1) requests for extensions on papers and forgiven absences spiked immediately prior to major breaks, and (2) dying grandparents were nearly always the explanation offered for those requests. I definitely wondered, and sometimes felt guilty, about the close correlation between expiring relatives and due dates listed on my syllabus.