July 24th, 2012

Makeup Exams: Seeking Answers in a Sea of Student Excuses


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.

Finding a lack of literature on the topic, two faculty researchers in marketing decided to seek answers to several interesting questions, starting with how makeup exams are typically handled by faculty. To answer that question, they collected 146 syllabi from 57 faculty members. Almost 87 percent of those syllabi listed some sort of makeup policy for assignments, primarily exams. Nearly 77 percent of faculty required students to contact them beforehand, indicating that they would be missing the exam; 76 percent required written documentation for excuses; and almost 79 percent let students miss exams only for university-stipulated reasons. Fewer than 30 percent indicated the period within which the makeup needed to be completed, and about the same percentage specified a day of week for makeup exams, with some seeking to deter them by scheduling the exams early Friday morning or late Friday afternoon.

Also of interest is how often students missed exams. Here the researchers looked at several semesters of a large course with four exams and a final. During one semester, the miss rate was 3.34 percent, and the second semester it was 2.37 percent. Almost all the absences involved medical reasons, with a few for deaths in the family, out-of-town interviews, and court appearances. The most often missed test was the fourth exam, and the least missed was the final. A bit tongue in cheek, the authors write, “Interestingly, we observed a situation where relatively large numbers of students were sick, grieving or taking job interviews at the time of the fourth exam. However, the following week, there were no makeup finals because the class was apparently filled with healthy students who postponed job interviews and were not grieving the loss of a loved one.” (p. 110)

Most faculty have suspected the legitimacy of a student-offered excuse, and most have these suspicions more or less regularly. The authors note that “for unethical students, makeup exams represent an opportunity to cheat.” (p. 105) They may discuss the exam with other students, not letting on that they have not yet taken the exam, or they may skip the exam debrief session but again ask specifically about test questions and answers, or if it’s a very large class, they may even attend the debrief hoping they won’t be noticed.

The authors also reference other survey results where 72 percent of the student sample surveyed indicated they had asked to be excused under false pretences while in college. Thirty-five percent said they had used a fraudulent excuse this semester. In this cited survey, 62 percent of the students said that fewer than 25 percent of their professors required any kind of proof for excuses. Does this encourage students to fabricate excuses?

Faculty can end up expending a good deal of time and energy trying to separate legitimate excuses from those that are not. Some students make it easy by regularly asking for makeup and extended deadlines. Other times, it’s not always easy to differentiate a real excuse from one that is fake. A good policy for missed exams needs to find a balance between making it so easy that students regularly miss exam dates and assignment deadlines and making it so draconian that those with legitimate reasons to miss are punished for circumstances beyond their control.

What’s your policy for makeup exams? Please share in the comment box below.

Reference: Abernethy, A. M. and Padgett, D. (2010). Grandma never dies during finals: A study of makeup exams. Marketing Education Review, 20 (2), 103-113.

Excerpted from A Look at Makeup Exams. The Teaching Professor, 25.7 (2011): 6.

19 comments on “Makeup Exams: Seeking Answers in a Sea of Student Excuses

  1. I require written documentation to support the excuse and I always investigate the claims and make sure the documents are authentic. I also require my students to submit their requests for an excused absence in writing, with their evidentiary documentation. Students have told me this deters some students with a history of fooling their professors. The written submission requirement breaks the immediate/interactive feedback on student's storytelling, so they have a tough time gauging the chance of fooling me. It makes it hard for them to know how deep to lay it on. Also, they don't want their lies to be recorded.

    I make it clear on the first day of class that I will be doing this. Since I began this practice, I rarely have students miss exams. It has not been a problem for my students who have missed class for legitimate reasons to document the cause. Further, my student's grandparents seem to be healthier now.

    • I'm currious how you investigate the claims. I am a TA in a chem lab and was presented with this issue a couple times. I just pass it on to the head lab coordinator; however, I have seen the notes our students get and they don't really say much. I believe its something like "the student was or states that he/she was ill on _____date and this may continue for _____days" which they usually fill in with 7 days. The campus health center is about 3 min away and just banging these things out. It kind of seems like a big joke.

  2. In my class of 500+, there are 4 quizzes during the semester. All make-ups are given on the last day of the semester, which reduces the opportunity and incentive for students to play games. Moreover, with so many students (and so few resources), our regular exams are multiple choice, but not the make-ups. The types of questions are similar, but students don't have a 1 in 5 chance of getting the right answer. This also discourages game playing. Finaly, documentation is needed and make-ups are pretty much limited to absences due to health, religion, military service, and university-sponsored activities. Weddings, family reunions, work obligations, traffic, child care, etc. generally don't result in make-ups.

  3. Although I have a policy of "valid and validated" excuse, there are always exceptions. I have online students, the majority are adults, the majority are in the military (or married to someone in the military). Having served over 31 years in the military, I am fully aware that "stuff" happens; but, able to make a call, if needed, to ensure the "stuff" really happened. I let the students know that they need to provide validation and if they don't, I will verify. The only thing I have shyed away from over the past few years are validations of funerals (although I have asked for obituaries in the past. Also, if someone provides enough notice and wants to take a test "late" ……. I normally require that they take the exam "early". The "excuse normally goes away. I went away from multiple choice years ago. There are fill-in-the blank and short-answer. All quizzes and exams are put into a pool and randomly generated, so they will not have an opportunity to see the same test as anyone else.

  4. I don't give makeup exams. Students who miss and exam or assignment do to an emergency, illness or death in their immediate families must submit written documentation which will be verified. The zero stays in the gradebook until the end of the quarter at which time I'll average their grades in the appropriate category and give them a score for the missed assessment. Very few students miss exams, quizzes or assignments since I've instituted this policy.

  5. I have eliminated make-up exams by giving four exams with the fourth exam being the mandatory final exam with a cumulative (comprehensive) section. If students take all three of the first exams, I will drop the lowest score of the first three exams. Yes, some good students do skip the third exam if they do well on the first two, but they also know there will be questions from that material on the final. I have also encouraged students thinking about that option to study "lightly" and go ahead and take the exam, since they have little to lose. The virtue of this approach is I no longer have to verify or arbitrate excuses.

  6. I give no makeups (except for university absences for which the student must take the exam before they leave). I drop the lowest exam for EVERYONE and replace it with the final exam. That means I don't have to decide whether an excuse is valid- if they have the sniffles, they can decide if they want to give the exam a try and not feel penalized if they do poorly because they were not feeling well. For those students who just did poorly because they didn't understand the material, I hope their grade on the final exam will reflect whether they got it together by the end of the semester.

    That does mean that "A" students occasionally do poorly on the last regular exam because they don't study as hard. To prevent that, I remind students that in general the final exam is harder than all the other exams- not because the problems are harder, but because it covers the entire course and students sometimes have difficulty deciding which method or idea needs to be used. It is not uncommon for a student to earn a letter grade lower on the final than they did on all the other exams.

  7. I use Mike's policy, although final is ALL comprehensive. I tell the students in the syllabus that I will drop their lowest test score. If they miss an exam, that is the zero that I drop and they must take the final. If they take the first three tests and like their scores, they get to skip the final. But they are free to study hard and take the final, in hopes that they can drop an earlier low score. This works very well. I have only given two make-up exams in the past few years, and those were students with chronic illnesses requiring frequent hospitalizations. About one-third of the class takes the final, most of them in hopes of raising their grade.

    I love this system because we have many non-traditional students and it can be very difficult to decide what is acceptable. I find that very few miss the exams. And the students seem to like the policy–complaints are very rare.

  8. I do not give make-up exams or quizzes. I do not give a comprehensive final, but I do give four exams and eight quizzes. If a student misses a quiz, they do not have an opportunity to make up the quiz. My policy is this: If you miss an exam for any reason, then you must take a comprehensive final at the end of the semester. If you miss two exams, then you will get a zero for one of the exams and you must take a comprehensive final. This has been the policy for two years, and NOT ONE student has been absent for an exam.

  9. I only give make up exams for the midterm and the final exam, and those make ups are comprehensive essay questions. I haven't had to give one yet. I give tests every class, and I count the top ten. I even through in some pop quizzes that count towards the top ten. Not only has it cut down on missed tests, but it has improved the overall attendance in my classes. I do not have to arbitrate the reason for missing tests and make up extra tests, etc. It also eliminates the whining about those who took it late had more time to study, and it allows for a bad day every now and then. This policy has worked well for two years. It takes me more time to grade these extra tests, but I prefer that to dealing with make- up schedules and making new tests. As an adjunct faculty member, I do not have a lot of leeway in my schedule to administer make up tests. My students find more resourceful ways to attend class rather than making up good excuses for missing. When someone totally bombs a test, they do not despair because it will be the low one that they can drop.

  10. I like Gwynn's approach. I might shift my strategy to see how well it works. Meanwhile, this is what I've been doing:
    In my Intro class and Physics 1, where I give weekly quizzes, I drop the lowest quiz, and I don't allow quiz make-ups. There is also a cumulative midterm and a cumulative final. Students never seem to miss the bigger tests; perhaps they assume that make-ups are also forbidden for those.
    I don't accept their textbooks assignments late, but I do accept late lab reports. Late lab reports lose credit at an escalating rate that starts at 1 point per calendar day.
    I am unwilling to decide which excuses are truthful, and which excuses are worthy. I avoid all that grief, while keeping for myself the option to waive the late penalty because of truly extenuating circumstances. I've very rarely needed to do so.

  11. I handle tests and quizzes differently in Physics 2. I give just three quiz/tests, with each counting more than the prior one. If someone misses a quiz or test, they can earn a maximum of 75% on it if they make it up within three calendar days. If they make it up within 8 days, they can earn 50% of the raw grade. This compensates for the presumed extra study time that a student winds up having, whether they simply want to delay the test or whether they have a genuine major conflict. This also allows me to use the same quiz or test as the class received, and the students have to come during my regularly-schedule office hours to take their make-up test. (The quiz and tests are pretty difficult in the course, so losing an additional 25 to 50% discourages most laggards.) I often have a few students who need to make up the first quiz, but it's unusual for students to miss the midterm. I don't allow make-ups for the final.

    Physics 2 homework and labs reports and handled the same as in my Intro and Physics 1 classes (above).

  12. Some thoughts from afar! At most, if not all, Australian universities, this is simply out of the hands of those teaching. Universities have policies and procedures on supplementary (or replacement) exams to be given where medical or compassionate reasons exist. There is a standard form and supporting documentation is required, eg from a medical practitioner, counselor, etc. Most medical certificates I have seen simply state that the student has a "medical condition", as privacy laws militate against greater detail being provided. Decisions are made either by administrative staff or a senior academic (eg Associate Dean Teaching and Learning) to ensure consistency of treatment. Universities schedule Supplementary Examination periods a few weeks following the end of the primary examination period. At many universities, students who fail are entitled to academic supplementary assessment if their overall mark is between 45-49%. So, you can pretty much count on a supp for every subject you teach. Some universities even require submission of a supplementary examination paper at the same time as submitting the primary exam paper.

    • I'm curious as to what procedures are in place for students lying about funerals? I currently have a student that is possibly lying about a funeral, and I feel that he may have constructed a funeral service booklet to falsely prove he went to this funeral. I'm not so sure how to bring it up though. I can't just outright confront him. What are the Australian universities policies about this?

  13. I have to do lot of work with studies in Physics and Chemistry because my exams are near :O

  14. I just had a student in my office furious that I was trying to verify her medical excuse. I asked for supplementary information when I found that the form she gave me did not include the doctor's full name or phone number. She is now accusing me of violating her medical privacy in trying to verify her medical excuse. Any thoughts?

  15. My students are allowed 3 unexcused absences. After the fourth absence, no makeups will be allowed. Also, the makeup exam is not the same as the original exam that the rest of the class took.

    Any feedback is welcomed.

  16. I give makeup exams for Midterms and the final. However, they are notoriously difficult that regular exams.

  17. What do you do about funerals? I believe there are students lying about deaths in the family. I don't feel comfortable asking for an obituary. What do you do about these?

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