April 29th, 2016

An Exploration of Student Excuses


female college student

I once received a call from a student who told me that he could not make the next day’s exam because he was in jail. He was wondering if he could make it up after he got out. I guess he got his one phone call and used it to call his professor.

This raised the moral issue of whether I should allow him to take the exam late. On one hand, he really could not make it, assuming that expecting him to escape would be unreasonable. On the other hand, the whole punitive point of incarceration is that it is inconvenient—you miss out on opportunities that you would have had if you were not in jail. By allowing him to take the exam late was I undermining the very foundations of our penal system?

This raises the even deeper question of whether we, as teachers, can justify the distinctions we draw between acceptable and unacceptable excuses. If a student was in the hospital due to a broken leg, every instructor I know would treat it is as legitimate excuse. But what if the student’s situation was caused by his or her own bad judgment, such as falling off a ledge while drunk? If we discount those, must we similarly treat a broken leg due to skydiving as a self-inflicted injury due to reckless behavior? How many of us even ask for the reason for a hospital stay? Even if the hospital stay turns out to be legit, is that sufficient for a make-up? Maybe another student had to visit the hospital but stayed up late after getting home in order to get the work done? Maybe learning to work around these life events in order to get your work done is one of the lessons that college is intended to teach.

By distinguishing between illegitimate and legitimate excuses, we also put ourselves in the position of having to make snap judgments that do not hold up to later scrutiny. As a young professor I had a student disappear from class for three weeks, only to reappear without a word. I asked her to stick around after class, where I asked her what happened. She said she had surgery and that the dean was supposed to have sent a letter around to all of her professors. Didn’t I get it?

I told her that I had not, and since she missed an exam that I would need some type of note from the dean. Could she ask him to send it to me? She replied “Ok, but maybe it would be easier to just show you,” at which point she opened her suit jacket. Underneath she was wearing a black turtleneck, and since I didn’t see any bandages or cast I asked her what I was looking for. She then replied incredulously, “Can’t you tell? Breast implants.”

I was so badly thrown off balance by the reply that I hastily accepted the excuse and let her take the exam without penalty. Put yourself in my position and ask what I was apparently expected to say when she opened her jacket. But maybe it was all just a story meant to throw me off balance. After all, I never did get a note from the dean. Maybe he was similarly thrown off balance by the story. Even if it was legit, should this clearly elective surgery count as an excuse?

A faculty member at my institution dedicates four full pages in his syllabus to distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate excuses. He identifies four categories of legitimate excuses, including funerals. “Funeral Attendance: I will need proof of funeral attendance with the date of the ceremony clearly listed and your name in the program specifying that you are a relative to the deceased.” I’m not making this up.

By contrast, he lists no fewer than 34 categories of illegitimate excuses, including: “Elevator malfunction. Domestic situations of any kind (involving but not limited to situations involving boyfriends, girlfriends, domestic partners, roommates, current or former spouses, etc.). Anything in the news or media that is related to you. Internet disconnection because you spent the money for the bill on alcohol, cigarettes, raves, concerts, and movies, or weed man.”

My guess is that he is poking fun at the whole enterprise of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate excuses, and maybe he should. Perhaps we should concede that there is no way to draw morally relevant distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable excuses and just not allow any excuses at all. Maybe we need to teach students that even when you have a legitimate excuse, missing a deadline has negative consequences. You may tell your boss that a medical issue prevented you from getting the proposal to the customer, and your boss may believe you, but it still causes a problem for the company. By allowing students to miss deadlines without penalty, are we cheating them out of an important life lesson?

Colleges tend to allow faculty to set their own policies on student excuses, which leads to a hodge-podge of different policies that students miss, misinterpret, or exploit. Maybe institutions should enact a “no excuses policy,” or appoint a Dean of Excuses to make for consistent decision-making.

If my reasoning seems muddled, you will need to forgive me because I missed my noontime cup of coffee. That is my excuse.

John Orlando is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University and the editor of Online Classroom.

  • beep55

    I feel you. Students have three weeks to complete an exam and in the final week, there’s a death in the family. They ask for additional time. Later, they send the relative’s obituary. Earlier, I had indicated they could send the work they’d done prior to the death. No response on that request.

  • David Long

    In these cases as others, we must be careful to to put our value judgments on others. In this case, you wrote “skydiving as a self-inflicted injury due to reckless behavior”. My guess is that you don’t participate in skydiving and you consider it an unnecessary risk.

    How can we judge that?

    Is riding a unicycle dangerous?
    Is a student who drives a motorcycle being reckless?
    How about someone who drives an older car that predates airbags?
    Is riding a bike an unacceptable risk to get to and from classes in Cambridge, MA?
    Is a certified pilot choosing a reckless choice of transportation when traveling cross-country in a Piper or Cessna?

    We cannot expect everyone to have our same values and risk assessments. I don’t believe it fair to project our values on others’ risk-managed choices.

  • Allison

    It may also come down to the character of the student and her reliability. In fact, for me, it is sometimes not even about the action or injury itself, but the situation and the student involved: I had one student who had cosmetic surgery done during the semester she was in my class. Prior to the surgery, she often skipped classes, left early when she did manage to attend, and rarely did her work. In fact, she didn’t even approach me about the possibility of getting an incomplete or doing make up work until AFTER grades were in and she decided she received a grade she didn’t like. Frankly, I told her that she had no excuse to not make up the work because she was able to recover in a timely manner before the semester ended. (She even sat for the final!) I can’t help but think that if another student who attended every class, approached me for the make up work had the same surgery, I’d be a bit more flexible because I trust they would do all they could to submit the work in a timely fashion. Similarly, I had a student this semester who was busted on a drug incident and missed one in-class discussion. However, prior to and after the incident, he was an outstanding student who was present during all the other in-class discussions, presentations, and exams. If he was a habitual flake would I be as willing to work with him? Maybe not. Then again, I am aware that my suggestion could pose some larger questions of (in)consistency and favoritism, but like all the other skills and habits that the author mentioned, college is a great practicum for trust building, and if you can’t build trust with your professor, will you succeed doing the same with a boss?

  • Heather Craig-Morton

    No doubt that some of the excuses we get as Faculty members are silly, I think we also need to consider why students feel the need to generate them in the first place. At a surface level, we can easily – perhaps too easily – assume that excuses are the result of poor planning. One frequently repeated response I hear from professors is: “poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”. True. However, I also wonder how many of us move beyond the surface-level analysis (or judgment) to ask what else might be leading students to offer up excuses in our classrooms. Have we clearly articulated assignment guidelines? Are we approachable in terms of creating welcoming spaces for discussion in the classroom/in our meetings? Are we coming from a place of privilege that inhibits others in their communication with us? I have had my fair share of interesting – and sometimes humorous – student excuses. I have also given my fair share as a student because it was easier to provide an excuse than to discuss personal situations with complete strangers.

  • emily stein

    please please please… I want to read the 4 pages of legitimate vs not legitimate excuses. I’m dying!