March 28th, 2013

How to Handle Student Excuses


“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.

  • mth

    While requiring documentation for excused absences or missing assignments sounds good, what about the student who misses class due to illness but didn't/couldn't go to the doctor (no insurance, couldn't afford it, etc.). Now we're potentially penalizing a student for lacking resources…

    • JHW

      There are on-campus health facilities at just about every institution.

      • MSU

        I attend Mississippi State University. There is an on-campus student health center, but they make explicitly clear that they will not write excuses for students.

  • Rtoz66

    I deal with terminated students each semester – especially international students on a student visa (Australia)
    We have come to call this grandparent season. Culturally this can be very difficult, as a high percentage of our international students are Asian, where the grandparent is held in high esteem. I have looked at various migration review tribunals, and according to them, a grandparent is usually old, and in some cases very ill. Not an exceptional circumstance;

    "While it very sad to lose a grandparent , it is an experience that is far from exceptional for international students. Grandparents are generally old and sometimes unwell, as was the applicant’s grandfather, and their lives will come to an end."

    When dealing with terminated students, they must include documentation, over a course of time and not just a Doctor or Counsellor's letter for 2 or so days.

    • OCFac

      I don't really understand your point about Grandparent Season nor the quote. Are you saying that they want excused time for deceased grandparents, but that the source of the quote says that culturally, these deaths aren't that difficult?

  • fed

    I used to require documentation for all excuses but then came a student who was very committed to the class whose closest friend's mother died. I asked her to provide an obituary or some other document from the funeral. I thought that was so insensitive that I stopped requiring documentation and established a new policy that grants them one absence for every credit hour plus one. This is for all reasons including campus related activities. I also announce and put in my syllabus that exceptions may be granted for commuters or students with children based on the degree to which they have demonstrated commitment to the course (class participation, getting assignments in on time, taking notes, etc.). This seems to have cut down on the excuses and has not generated any substantive complaints.

    • OCFac

      It may have cut down on student complaints but you have created an enormous amount of work.record-keeping, and (subjective) decision-making for yourself requiring time that you could be spending on research (if you do that) or…imagine this…doing something unrelated to work. And why are you penalizing people who live on campus or who are child-free????

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  • dwolff

    I make assignment due dates 0800 on Friday. Students can hand in the assignment as late as 0800 on the following Monday without penalty, but, I do not accept ANY excuses that occur over the weekend – as the assignment was due Friday at 0800. Assignments handed in after 0800 MOnday receive a mark of 0.
    Works well.

  • davidjwilliamson

    I find that accepting most excuses on face value works best for me. I teach adult students, and asking them for documentation implies that they are untrustworthy juveniles. Over time, those who fabricate excuses also tend to penalize themselves in other ways like turning in substandard work and getting caught plagiarizing. Another approach is to accept late work with a % penalty for a limited time, and then do not accept it after that date for any reason.