Using Grace and Accountability to Uphold Course Expectations

minimizing student excuses

Hello. My car caught on fire last night after leaving homecoming game. I carry my laptop everywhere I go. I’m in the process of strapping to get another one. I’m just glad I got out cause the driver door was messed up. By the grace of God.


So reads the email and accompanying photo we received from a student.

Carmichael and Krueger (as cited in Weimer, 2017) report the challenges of verifying student claims for why an assignment can’t be completed on time. But how is an instructor expected to respond when she receives emails like the one above?

During the past year, through the collection of anecdotal accounts from our online instructors, we have observed a rise in the number of students who contact us with excuses for why they cannot possibly meet the course deadlines. We wonder if this is a result of our failure to be more explicit in our syllabi, even though we take great care to outline our expectations and requirements regarding deadlines and extensions. In an effort to minimize student excuses, we even added the following language:

Due Date Extensions

  1. Students should submit requests for due date extensions to faculty in writing at least 24 hours in advance of the specified due date.
  2. Extensions are granted at the discretion of course faculty in emergency or extraordinary circumstances such as the following:
    • Medical Illness: a medical certificate may be requested by faculty
    • Compassionate Grounds: those situations for which compassionate leave is normally granted
    • Unexpected misadventure, hardship, or trauma: documentation may be requested by faculty.
  1. Work or other study commitments, computer crashes, or printer failures are NOT valid reasons for an extension.
  2. No penalty will apply if an extension is sought and granted by the responsible person or delegate. If the assignment is handed in after the extension period, then established penalties will apply.
  3. Students whose circumstances require extensions longer than one week are advised to meet with faculty to discuss available options, including course withdrawal or incomplete grade assignment.

We’re convinced there are some students who are requesting extensions because they truly believe their absence falls under the umbrella of “compassionate grounds” or “unexpected misadventure, hardship, or trauma.” Some recent examples include: 

  • My husband and I need a break. We are going camping and I will not have cell service.
  • I am going on a family cruise that was planned a year ago.

Lastly, there are the students who write to their instructors in the 11th hour or after missing class, and provide a laundry list of woes they have experienced during the week.

So, what are some effective ways to minimize the number of students coming to us with such scenarios? First, as a proactive step, we encourage our faculty to emphasize to students on day one that earning a graduate degree requires sacrifices—from themselves and their families. Who among us didn’t miss out on things during our grad school days because we had a paper or project to finish? Adding a personal story from our own journey helps to express the commitment that is needed. Smith (2016) reminds us that instructors always serve as a model. Shaping desirable behaviors can often be achieved by providing students an opportunity to observe instructor behavior.

We further suggest crafting responses to students to follow these guidelines:

  1. Start with an empathy statement. Dear____, I am sorry your life has been hectic of late. I appreciate you contacting me.
  2. Describe concern in behavioral terms. As the syllabus indicates, ___ % of your final grade relates to class participation. I understand that you are choosing to receive point deductions for your absence.
  3. Conclude next steps that can improve desired expectation. I hope the loss of points will not greatly impact your overall grade. To ensure that this does not occur, please review the participation criteria identified on the rubric.

As a final suggestion, we encourage faculty to keep their sense of humor when confronted with student excuses. Some days this is easier than others.

Smith, K. (2016). Modeling behavior: A proactive intervention for teachers in the classroom. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2017).  Prof, I need an extension… Retrieved from

Debbi Leialoha is a professor, Shelly Leialoha is an associate professor, and Sherry Leialoha-Waipa is a faculty associate—all at the Gleazer School of Education at Graceland University. The three are sisters (Sherry and Shelly are twins). They have been faculty members at Graceland for 15 plus year, primarily facilitating coursework in the online M.Ed. program through Graceland’s Independence, Missouri campus. They also facilitate an adult literacy program in Falmouth, Jamaica.