May 5th, 2014

Tips for Handling 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.

The problem is that grandparents do die—it happens—but they don’t die as often as we are told and their deaths don’t always coincide with major deadlines in the syllabus. So how do we know when a grandparent really dies, or a roommate actually does get deathly ill in the middle of the night, and when we are being handed a line?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t. While not often discussed, the teaching relationship involves trust. A teacher once told me that we can only trust our students, and if they lie to us, then it says something about them, not us.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to handle these situations. I invite readers to share their own approach to trusting students.

  • Don’t take it personally. Too many teachers take it personally when they catch students cheating. Students don’t cheat as a personal affront to their teachers— they do it because they can’t succeed the regular way. Students lie for themselves, not against us. One student who was in the military kept missing classes and assignments, coming up with excuses each time. Near the end of the class he sent me a note stating that he was withdrawing because he was an alcoholic and that the army was sending him to rehab.
  • Lightening rarely strikes twice. I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt the first time, but get really suspicious the second and third time. Repeat occurrences require proof.
  • Model trust. In the movie “House of Games,” Joe Mantegna plays a con man who teaches a woman the tricks of the trade. He tells her in the midst of a con that “This is a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you my confidence and you reciprocate.” So start by giving students your trust.
  • Take it out of your hands. A famous negotiating theorist once asked what a company that builds munitions should do if protesters sit on the railroad tracks that lead out of the plant. The conductor could inch the locomotive forward toward the protesters in hope that they will move off. But the smarter move is to start the train moving, and then jump off. This takes the decision out of his hands, which is a powerful negotiating device. Similarly, establish a situation that takes the subjectivity out of equation. I might say something like “One of my jobs as a teacher is to distinguish phony excuses from real excuses, since giving extensions for phony excuses is unfair to students who planned ahead to get their assignments done on time. What I have seen here indicates to me that this is a late assignment. If you can provide evidence that this not the case, then I will happily change my decision. But until then, this is what I see.”
  • Preempt problems. A teacher once told me that he prefaces assignments with the comment that “I’ve consulted with IT, and all of the printers in the school have never failed at the same moment, so don’t use that excuse.” Establish a policy on excuses ahead of time. This not only reduces the number of excuses you will get, but also takes you out of the position of having to decide on a case-by-case basis after class when you are cornered by a student on your way to your next appointment.
  • I tend to trust adults more than traditional age students. I don’t know if this is biased, and it’s certainly based on anecdotal evidence, but I believe that adults have more responsibilities than traditional age students, and so are more likely to run into life problems. There is a story in my family about me being hospitalized as a very young child with some sort of seizure issues. The doctors told my father that they would have to tie me down to the bed to prevent me from pulling out my tubes at night. My father told them that nobody was going to tie his son down, and so he stayed up all night by my bedside holding me when I went into seizure. He had an exam for a class the next morning, which he missed, and ended up having to leave school. He always regretted not getting his degree.

As always, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage.

Dr. John Orlando helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and he has taught faculty how to teach online as well as how to use technology in their face-to-face teaching.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

  • kentsanders

    Hi John – Thanks for this post. You have given a number of helpful tips for handling common classroom excuses. I completely agree with you that traditional age college students tend to have less "life" responsibilities than older students. I really like your suggestion about taking it out of students' hands. I also love the story about being in the hospital as a young boy…very powerful!

  • Jaya Goswami

    At the beginning of every semester, I give each student a "voucher" – I call it an OOPS! Voucher. I tell the students that I'm very aware that "stuff" happens in everyone's lives ( death in the family; unexpected company; personal illness; too much partying; just plain forgot – whatever). I don't want to have to evaluate whether or not an excuse is legitimate. That's where the voucher comes in – students can use it once during a semester for a minor assignment submitted late without penalty. (It can't be used for a major assignment because they get several weeks to prepare for that.) The voucher is nontransferable, non-reproducible, and has an expiration date! This has worked very well. In over four years of using the voucher, I have had only 3-4 students use it, and then too, for very legitimate reasons. They tell me they try to get things done on time and save the voucher in case they need it later in the semester! They usually don't. And I don't have to wade through those muddy waters!

    • Rick Abel

      And I thought that I invented this practice….. For close to twenty years I have included what was originally called "Back to the Future" coupons. I like the "OOPS" title and with your permission may rename the coupons I use. I distribute two to each student (only on the first day of class). Late attendees and/or enrollees have an opportunity to receive this benefit.

      Like you, no excuses are required. Things happen, so this gives the students some break, but only 2x, after that the problem seems to be habitual – no more breaks. Unlike you, the student can use each coupon for any assignment or test. It simply takes them back to the prior class and whatever was due or done is now allowed – no penalty.

      Often my students will ask what they will get if they never need to use the coupons. I tell them that they will get the satisfaction that they are on target and acting responsibly. They often do not love that answer, so I usually at the end of the semester trade with them for some little "prize".

      BTW – I have a zero-tolerance attendance policy. I allow a percentage (usually 20%) of absences from my class (again, things happen). I need not hear any reasons why they were absent. The only acceptable excuse is their absence is caused by a college activity (and that needs to be documented). Once they exceed the absence policy #, they are expected to drop the class. On a rare occasion I might negotiate their continuation in my class, but even if the absents are caused by real issues, I expect them to drop. Real reasons or not, they are missing class. I tell them if you are having transportation issues this semester, you need to get that fixed and then start back at school. (OK that does sound a bit harsh, but I will try to work with those students to keep them on the roster. It's the students that for no good reason are not attending.) Once they know my policy, I usually have only a handful of students that fall into this category.

  • Kristen

    Thanks for acknowledging the needs of adult students. I appreciate the reminder to stay as objective as possible.

  • Amy Jack

    Love the post. I try to structure my courses so participating in class makes the student more likely to succeed in the course. Then I keep track of attendance and participation and compare them to received grades. At the beginning of each course, I explain to my students that part of my job is to prepare them for the "real world" and have a policy to reflect that. They get 2 "PTO" days where they can make up the classwork if they miss a class, no questions asked. No excuses for missing deadlines on projects, especially since they can do any assignment as a group assignment. Anything other than that either requires proof of a special circumstance or they just suffer the consequences. Then I explain the statistics of how showing up and participating in my class will benefit them. I tell them they are adults and therefore they should act and be treated as such. The students respond well to this method. There is usually one or two students in every course who take advantage of the PTO time but they just help keep my stats on attendance and participation up-to-date.

  • Candyce Antley

    I've adopted a "no excuse policy". Late papers are dropped 25 % each day they are late and these assignments are given ahead of the due date. If I find the student is in the hospital, I will consider that in regard to late papers. If the student waits until the last minute to work on a paper, that is an unfortunate decision for them to make.

  • Guest

    Some helpful tips here. This may be a new one for you: a mother once faxed a FORGED obituary on company letterhead, to explain why her son missed an exam. So sad, but we had a big laugh in the dept.

  • Lee Jordan-Anders

    Long ago I stopped trying to play God in the classroom and decide which excuses were valid. Instead I offer "alternative points." All students may elect to take advantage of a varied shopping list of opportunities to earn points. Who's to say that taking a 4-chapter in-class test represents a better gauge of what a student has learned than an in-depth research project on one of the topics within a chapter, completed outside of class? Students are also permitted (encouraged!) to design their own creative alternative projects, and many of them have surpassed any kind of learning experience that I could have designed for them. Students simply earn points–it's not important if they earn them in the class (clearly the easier ones to earn) or out. Sometimes students have difficultly grasping the concept that they take responsibility for earning the points necessary for the grade they hope for. But the numbers don't lie. It's a great system that not only gets me out of the judgment business but teaches students something about personal accountability and responsibility.

    • Courtney

      This is a really cool idea, I would love to incorporate this in one of my courses. Do you have any resources you could direct me to, or have a general name this type of set-up might be called?

  • Guest

    If a student misses an exam or does poorly on an exam, the final exam (cumulative) replaces the exam grade. In this way, students get one chance in the event there is an emergency or if they don't do well on one exam. The cumulative exam is difficult as it covers everything from day 1. Thus most students try really hard to be there for the exams.

  • Marie

    After a semester where a student's grandmother died three times, I started using a policy of everyone gets a 48 hr grace period on assignments. At the end of the grace period, the gate is locked (no more papers will be accepted for whatever reason). I tell the students that I can't manage their time schedules, but I can provide this tool to assist them. I get a higher percentage of papers submitted, and I only have to judge excuses from students missing exams. What seemed like an almost constant stream of students with excuses is down to a trickle. I think it is one of the best things that I've done.

  • Françoise Breton

    Hello Dr Orlando. I agree with all of your propositions. Since the last 8 years, all my courses are online at post graduate level. My students are adults teachers working with their classrooms pupils. To avoid the problem of excuses, I use different strategies. One of them is to offer the possibilities of formative evaluation during the process of studying a new concept or procedures. A work in progress allows my students to get involved at the beginning of the module. A second method is to get in touch with them by messages, letters, videos, MP3 recording, short time synchroneous webconference, forums. In those messages, I recall the learnings, I ask to share and to help their collegues. I explain to them what are my reasons to ask them they must respect the deadlines; one of my reasons is that I evaluate their works immediately and give them a feedeback less than 48 hours after the deadline so they can feel what was good and what needs improvement. I accept excuses with an official or medical statement. If there is no serious justification, I apply a penalty on the result according to the number of days delayed.

    I beg your indulgence for my poor english writing and syntax, englis is a second lenguage for me.

  • Mikael_H

    I've switched to 3dgamelab and use gameification in my classroom. No more exams in other words. The result: I don't have these issues anymore (Edit: or at least, they are miminized). Students will plan their own progress through the curriculum and hand in assignments when it suits their personal schedule. They know what they have to achieve to gain an A or whatever other grade they might have as an objective and plan their work accordingly. It's very liberating to be able to give students that sort of freedom and power.

  • paul singh

    Hi John:
    Thank you for the posting. It made me chuckled and laughed as it sound too familiar. Your and other contributors suggestions to this post are practical and doable if it does not conflict with your institute protocols.

    Each student's excuse is examined on it own merits. Students,are however,warned prior to the start of the semester of alternate test or assignment which will be twice hard than the original one. It has served as a deterant which has worked for me in the past.

  • Linda Aragoni

    I teach primarily first year composition. After years of experimenting, I've learned to start the year with an assignment that has students anticipate three situations that might make it difficult for them to complete work on time. Then they have to come up with between one and three options for each difficulty. I usually have students do the prep work in groups, so the assignment doubles as a get-acquainted activity. The assignment doesn't eliminate invented excuses, but it's a big help for students who want to succeed.

    Although the "what could possibly go wrong?" strategy is ideal for a writing class, it could be adapted for other other subjects. I could imagine having students do the exercise personally at the beginning of a course following up with a "what could possibly go wrong?" analysis of an actual case in the course discipline. Imagine Napoleon doing a "what could possibly go wrong?" analysis of the invasion of Russia, or the Council of Chief State School Officers doing a "what could possibly go wrong?" analysis of the establishment of the Common Core State Standards.

  • eric bittner

    I usually tell students on the first day of class (Thermodynamics or Quantum Mechanics) that my tests and exams tend to be vary hazardous to their relative's health. One student's grandma died 3 times in one year!

    • Daniel.Finn

      Hi Eric,

      The grandma story seems to be the most popular.

      I think about the late policy. i wonder if it is counter productive for some, meaning that delinquent students will be less inclined to complete assigned work.. i realize that the late policy is designed to encourage students to finish tasks on time. Perhaps if the penalities were not as harsh, there could be a happy medium. i think more students would pass.resulting in less withdrawals.

      food for thought

  • Marie

    I had one with a grandmother that died three times too.

  • Peggy

    I have a no late papers policy in my English classes. We must meet deadlines in all aspects of our lives and turning in school work isn't any different. The students are required to turn in a rough draft on Wednesday and participate in peer review. If they do not bring the printed rough draft, then they are not allowed to turn in the final draft on Friday. No rough draft equals a zero for that 100 point paper. After the first week of accepting no excuses, they learned really, really quickly that I wasn't kidding about not accepting late work. Most students need structure. Also, my classes are set up to be repetitive. The same activities happen on the same days each week. Papers are always due the same days of the week every week. Once students get in the rhythm of class, the excuses from the first week disappear forever. They know the answer is "No, I will not accept your paper now that the deadline has passed!" No guess work for them,and I can get on with making class time enjoyable while still being hard-nosed about the deadlines. Works great!!

  • drklassen

    I'm not a firm believer in hard deadlines; people learn at different rates. For homework I have a maximum-points-decay function of 3% per day late with a maximum loss of 30%. Much in the same vein as Daniel.Finn's idea: small (but building) penalty that never gets so high it discourages them from ever completing it. Because that's the goal, to have them learn by doing.

  • Drake

    I give up on college. I failed too many classes at the university because of depression and adhd. I got expelled. I used to be good at academics in high school. I am going to flunk my classes at the community college again because I cant finish assignments on time or pass tests. I have been seeing counsellors and trying medications for years but it doesnt help.