March 28th, 2013

How to Handle Student Excuses

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“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.

As a book for new psychology teachers points out, “The way you handle excuses conveys a message to your students about your teaching philosophy, and most particularly about whether you view students as partners or adversaries, the degree to which you trust them, and how you care about them.” (p. 137)

The trick is separating the legitimate, bona fide excuses from the contrived, just plain made-up ones, and there are lots of gradations in between. Sometimes a teacher needs the wisdom of Solomon.

Some faculty opt for the hard line . . . no excuses accepted, none, under any terms. That was my policy early on. Then one semester a responsible, dedicated student lost his father in a car accident. He missed an exam to attend the funeral. In a situation like that, the hard-line policy fails pitifully.

On the other hand, it does seem absolutely true that the more excuses you accept, the more you are asked to consider. You can err on the side of gullibility. And learning that an excuse placates for missed deadlines, scheduled presentations, and far-in-advance exam dates should not be the lesson reinforced by experiences in college.

And so the teacher must adjudicate with firmness and with finesse. I’d like to report that it gets easier with age. It doesn’t. Some students are very good at making up stories, and some with legitimate excuses don’t present them very persuasively. The net result is that sometimes even concerned and caring teachers make mistakes. If they can be rectified, fine; if not, life does go on.

As for a general rule of thumb, the book reference below recommends “taking a firm, consistent, rational and caring approach to excuses that incorporates a ‘trust, but verify’ policy. Treat every excuse as genuine, but in fairness to the entire class, required that it be accompanied by supporting documentation.” (p. 137)

Reference: Lucas, S. G. and Bernstein, D. A. Teaching Psychology: A Step by Step Guide. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 20.1 (2006): 4-5.