Student excuses: Faculty need to be discerning but not cynical

One part of teaching — at whatever level — is dealing with student absences and the honesty of student excuses. A colleague recently e-mailed the department members with a link to FemaleScienceProfessor’s blog about excuses she had received from her students for missing the final exam. [A Chronicle blog post last fall also addressed student excuses, particularly the death of grandmothers.]

In reading FemaleScienceProfessor’s blog of student excuses, I saw many that were excuses I’ve received and that most faculty receive on a regular basis — a student’s personal illnes, the death of a grandparent, car accidents, ill pets, forgetting when an exam or paper is due, etc.

When we receive the excuse, we then have to decide — Do we accept the excuse? Do we require the student to document the absence? Do we investigate the authenticity of the excuse? Do we let the student make up the missed test or paper? Is there a penalty (i.e., point deduction) for taking the exam or turning in the paper late?

Most of us who have been teaching for a while have had the experience of accepting a student’s excuse only to realize that the excuse wasn’t true.

One of my “I’ve been had” experiences with student excuses was when a student e-mailed to say she would be missing class because she was sick — very sick. Then that evening I saw her at the basketball game. Not only was she attending the game bu she was participating in the halftime promotion of shooting baskets to win a pizza. Fortunately, I had my camera with me and took a photo of her on the court and then e-mailed the photo to her.

Asking a student to provide documentation is one way of confirming the story of the truthful student and enabling you not to excuse the student who doesn’t have a valid excuse. I’ll say  to (or e-mail) the student: “As you might imagine, I receive dozens of student excuses each semester. I’m trying to be fair to everyone in determining who can makeup the test. So I need you to provide documentation of your absence.”

That doesn’t solve every excuse situation but many of them. A few times I’ve checked on suspicious-looking documentation and have found the student created the doctor’s letter. At my university, we have an office of student services that works with students who have medical problems, personal issues or other reasons to miss class. So I can ask the student to contact student services, and student services will send documentation. Again, that helps seperate those who do have a legitimate excuse from those who don’t.

For the student who has missed the test because of oversleeping or forgetting, I discuss with the student (on the phone or in person) the consequences if the student were in a media job and had missed the story/ad/news release deadline without calling in advance. The student is the one who says she would have been fired or would have lost the client. Most often I allow the student to make up the assignment with a deduction for failure to meet deadline, which is one of the point deductions listed in my course syllabus.

In considering the issue of student excuses, faculty need to acknowledge that some (even many) of thr excuses we receive are true. Of the five students who may tell you their grandmothers are dying and they must go home to see them the week of the exam, probably at least one of those students is telling the truth. And we don’t want to add to that student’s sorrow and stress by treating the truthful student with disregard or skepticism.

Even though an ill or dying pet or breaking up with a boy/girlfriend may seem not as important to us as a big test, we need to remember our own experiences with those losses when we were the student’s age.

Every year, I work with students who persevere through big challenges — financial problems because a parent has been laid off, having a miscarriage, the unexpected death of a parent, putting a baby up for adoption, having a boyfriend killed in a drive-by shooting, coming back from serious injuries caused by a motorcycle accident, being kidnapped by an ex-boyfriend, or having a roommate commit suicide. Often students have difficulty in talking with us about their situations. So they appear to be students who aren’t being engaged class members. They may just miss class and not have an excuse to share with us.

I don’t want those students who are trying to get away with missing a deadline or test to escape penalty. But I don’t want those students who have legitimate reaons to miss class to be viewed with the cynicism we, as faculty, may have developed from receiving so many student excuses.


  1. Thanks, Julie, for your wisdom. Yes, some students lie. But *some* doesn’t mean *all.*


  2. Norm – Those of us who teach large classes, like you and I, may most need to guard against being skeptical of student excuses. Because we have more students, we hear more excuses, and we sometimes don’t know the students individually to be able to judge their overall integrity.


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