Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom


Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick.

So I called my professor the day before the exam, then at his request I dragged myself out of my (on-campus dorm) bed to his office explain how I was sick with the flu. He sized me up and said that I would have to take the exam tomorrow, even though the flu was going to stay bad for another couple days. He said that the only way I could get a reprieve from the exam would be to get a doctor’s note, from any doctor’s office off campus. He said that this was his policy, and it would be unfair to offer an exception to me just because I looked sick. (He didn’t seem to entertain the notion that the policy itself was unfair.) He required an off-campus doctor’s note because the health center on campus was notoriously specious and would give a note for pretty much everything. (And every woman I ever talked to who walked through the door had to take a pregnancy test. Not kidding.)

So, because I was sick and because my professor didn’t trust the legitimately untrustworthy campus health center, I had two choices:

  1. Take an exam through physical misery and probably perform horribly on it.

  2. Find my way to an off-campus medical office, find the money for the visit (I only had catastrophic coverage at the time), just to get a note verifying that I so obviously have a bad case of the flu.

I found both options to be miserable, but I chose #2 because I thought that my grade was important. I got someone willing to be in a car with me to drive me to a doctor, then wait while I paid for my “Yes, he has the flu. What are you, blind?” note. I brought the note to my professor’s office, and he accepted the note and rescheduled the exam for the following week.

This happened about 22 years ago. But the memory is seared into my memory because I was so upset at the fact that the professor didn’t believe me — or had a policy in which all students are not to be believed. It was a dumb policy that made being ill even more miserable. I felt disrespected.

Here is my second anecdote, from just last year. Right before exam season, a close member of my family died. At the same time, I was chairing a search committee and the candidates were visiting campus.

At this tough moment, the members of my department came through big time. My students were very understanding about how I shifted priorities temporarily. I am grateful for everyone’s understanding.

Nobody asked to see a death certificate, or a funeral program, or an announcement in the paper. I doubt anybody sniggered behind my back that I invented this death to buy more time to fulfill my job duties. I would have been been outraged by such behavior.

Nonetheless, that is the reality for many of our students who have the misfortune of experiencing a tragedy during the middle of the semester.

I wouldn’t dare suggest to anybody that their personal catastrophes may have been invented. The risk of a suggested accusation or doubt outweighs the cost of accommodating the willful deceivers.

Of course, the proportion of students that are willing to be deceptive are fully prepared to take advantage of this level of civility.

Let’s consider Figure 1.

From Adams, M. 1999. The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome. Annals of Improbable Research 5(6): 3-6.

From Adams, M. 1999. The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome. Annals of Improbable Research 5(6): 3-6.

Clearly, students who have deaths in the family don’t mention it unless an exam is coming up, because it has little bearing on the outcome of the course. There are two possible — and non-exclusive — explanations for the positive association of grades and reported deaths that Adams reportedly found in his students.

The first explanation, which you’ve probably heard a lot, is that students are more likely to invent a grandparental death if they’re doing poorly in class.

The second explanation is that students who are doing just fine in class may experience the same rate of grandparental deaths as those who are earning poor grades, and the students who are doing well are less likely to mention their personal circumstances. However, students who are on the margin of not receiving a desired grade are more likely to mention unfortunate personal circumstances that might interfere with their ability or availability to complete assignments and prepare for exams.

Students don’t necessarily like to share personal details with their professors. They are embarrassed when they cry in our offices, and would probably prefer to not have to reveal that they are experiencing personal sorrow or unplanned travel for family circumstances. There is a power differential between professors and students, and requiring students to reveal how much personal suffering is caused by family matters is a creepy enhancement of that power differential, like how Hannibal Lecter revels in his power over Clarice Starling.

Of course I know that some students make up fake reasons to get out of, or reschedule, exams. And I’m so focused on fairness, that I am quite opposed to letting anybody profit from their own willingness to be deceptive.

I never want to be in a position to adjudicate the validity of an excuse. I don’t want to decide whose personal circumstances are valid interruptions of academic work and those are not valid. That would also be unfair.

I design my classes so that I don’t have to even hear about any dead grandparents or demand notes from doctors or coaches.

How do I do that? I build flexibility into the grading system so that everybody can miss something here or there without having to provide an excuse or evidence.

I drop the score of the lowest exam, even if it’s a zero. I accept late assignments from everybody, and the penalty for being late steadily grows in a way that doesn’t really hurt those who are only slightly late. I drop the lowest score for in-class assignments and quizzes, even if it’s a zero.

There are lots of benefits to policies with this kind of flexibility. I don’t have to administer makeup exams. I don’t need to create special rules for student athletes. Students don’t have to  prostrate themselves before me with stories of personal grief, nor invent an excuse for a long skiing weekend. I don’t have to keep track of or excuse absences, even if we’re having a quiz. Students who miss class are treated equally, whether they were at a funeral or an amusement park, if they overslept or had a car accident, if they had a sick kid or if their boss asked them to work extra hours. They don’t need to explain, and they all get the same amount of leeway.

With my policies, those who don’t need some slack still receive it. However, I do think that students with more challenging personal circumstances win out more under this policy and students who have been putting in an earnest effort all semester won’t suffer the consequences of having a few bad days.

As you’re putting together your syllabus for this spring, what do you think about cutting excused absences and makeup exams, and instead building policies that build in flexibility for everybody?

18 thoughts on “Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom

  1. I agree with your policy. I give students more slack in the rope….if they choose they can skip rope or trip themselves on the rope but I would rather be equally fair to all than to have to get “proof” of illness, death, break-up, lost notes, etc. Being kind doesn’t seem to effect their grades. The weaker students don’t seem to benefit from the slack and the good students’ grades don’t change either. I think the life of an undergraduate is very complicated…no matter what their GPA is.

  2. I saw this sort of policy often as a student, and though I see the reasons for it now, I was fairly intensely annoyed by it at the time. Dropping the lowest grade for every student means that given two equally-skilled students, the one who doesn’t have a family emergency will have a higher grade on average, since you are choosing the best two out of three rather than the best two out of two, say. Also, tests are not just for assessment! Actually taking the test (even at a delay) seems a much better option for learning than dropping the grade.

    On the plus side: explicit flexibility like this is much better for students who are either incredibly shy about bugging professors about extensions or don’t have the awareness to know that it’s an option.

    Do you have a problem with students not showing up for the last test if they already have solid grades on the first two?

    • I have no problem at all if a student is already getting the grade they want and choose to take a pass on an assignment or exam.

      I usually design my exams to only serve the function of summative assessment. At that point, I’m not interested in using them as a learning tool, but only as a measure of what students know and can do. So having them skip one isn’t a problem for me.

      I agree that giving everybody the same free pass isn’t wholly fair because those who have negative circumstances don’t get the same boost as those who do. I think this is a lesser evil than the other options, especially as many of those who really need the flexibility are the ones who won’t be asking for it. Also, if I were to administer late exams, that would put me in the position of judging who deserved that special treatment, which is the whole problem with Dead Grandparent Syndrome in the first place. And if everybody had the option of taking an exam twice, then it would have be offered on two separate occasions every time. Which is both a poor use of my time as well as a leg up for those who defer because they’ll hear about the exam from those who took it first. And I’m not writing two whole different exams each round. As much as this is about being fair, it’s also about minimizing the time spent on classroom management to leave time for the stuff that matters.

      • Question: If a student came with evidence and legitimate excuse, would you allow them to take a make-up exam to get the 2 out of 3 advantage? If not, has this policy ever been challenged – at the university level – by a student who wanted to not lose that advantage due to their emergency? I agree that your policy is definitely the much lesser of possible evils, and probably the best policy overall to be fair to students.

        The only time where this could be a big problem is if one exam is inadvertently way harder than the others, and a student with an emergency is forced to use it. I’m guessing if that ever happened, you might check to see if anyone using the harder exam due to not taking another one were on a grade borderline and be flexible there.

  3. I use a similar method, with the caveat that if a student gets a 0 due to academic dishonesty, that score will not be the one dropped, and I instead drop the next lowest score. (This is assuming that I judge that the penalty for cheating in this instance should be a 0 for the assignment/exam and not an outright F for the course.) This avoids having the 0 be a “get out of jail free” card for cheating.

  4. I just finished Nilson’s book on Specifications Grading. How will you manage this if you move to Specifications Grading? I realize that she provides a variety of ways of building in flexibility but was curious how you might be approaching this.

  5. Another problem I see with the whole ‘seeking proof’ idea is it instills an attitude of ‘suck it up and be tough, no excuses ever allowed for not showing up to do your work’ (meanwhile, sick student shows up and spreads virus to 10 other students in the classroom….). I get that you can walk around while sick most of the time (perhaps not as effectively as usual), but it seems to set a bad precedent for me that work above all else, including your health is all that matters. Most of us don’t do our best work while sick, and in the working world, or in the lab, showing up no matter what can actually be dangerous, lead to careless mistakes, etc. I like your policy because it is at least an acknowledgement that we’re humans.

  6. What happens when there are two deaths in the family? Or an illness and a death. The policy is great for giving everyone slack once (per type of assessment) but when a student encounters more than one hurdle, doesn’t it put you back in the same position to make the difficult/subjective judgement calls?

    • Anybody with truly exceptional circumstances can of course be treated fairly. If someone needs slack on more than one exam, then that’s got to be a bad semester. At my uni, students with luck that bad usually wind up talking to the associate dean. Not that they need to first before approaching me. Since such a bad semester would be rare, then I guess it would minimize but not eliminate excuse assessment.

  7. But in that gray space between the first issue and going to the dean, it’s up to you once again to determine the degree of exceptionality, which I thought the whole point was to avoid. Fairness. We all want it, but context-dependence makes it so hard to define!

  8. I’m totally with you here. I hate taking attendance. I have to in order to comply with certain institutional policies, but I resent it. If a student doesn’t see any value in coming to class, it seems demeaning to both of us to coerce them into showing up with the threat of grade penalties. And I intensely dislike having to adjudicate “excused” vs “unexcused” absences. Then again, if I have to keep track of it, it might as well count for something–and I don’t mind finding a way to give credit to hardworking students who show up and put in an effort. My compromise position is that I grade on a point system (generally 400 points/semester) and they get a point for every time they show up for class. It’s up to them to decide if their circumstances warrant missing the point or not. I also evaluate participation three times over the course of the semester, and poor attendance sharply reduces those scores.

  9. When I was an undergrad student, my university had policy similar to your professor’s. You could go to the campus medical centre for a note, but I believe you had to pay for one. I was so scared of wasting my time to get a note only to be rejected, that I just decided to suffer through exams twice when I really shouldn’t have. This institution has since dropped its policy requiring sick notes, requesting those people who are sick to notify professors in advance and just stay home, and reschedule for later. While it cuts down on wasted resources at the medical centre, and keeping in mind that determined fakers would probably have gotten a note anyway, what sick absenteeism policies fail to take into account is that some students, especially from some cultural backgrounds, are afraid to admit to being sick/incapable, and hurt themselves academically and physically as a result.

    I like your policy, because not only does it allow for sick absences, but it also allows for improvement – one horrible assignment that a student hands in will not damage their GPA. Students who improve their work as the semester progresses will have a mark more likely reflective of the skills they have developed.

  10. I have tried the flexible way (similar to what you mentioned) but it was a royal pain in the neck, having a section of close to 500 students, then. Our department has since been awarded two grants (CSSP and now an HHMI) to promote student success in freshmen level courses – I teach Intro Bio 1 and 2 – and attendance (lecture and exam) policies are in place that are not that flexible. Students, while liking the flexible option best, have responded better to the not-so-flexible policy in place, at the time. I teach a smaller section now, 250 students max… and believe me, less students have required any special treatment since the attendance policies are stricter. It has also promoted more student-teacher interaction, since they now have to seek the professor directly if they need any help. I like that! :)

  11. One of my all-time favorite professors had very loose attendance policies (whatever the school’s minimum). His attitude was basically “You’re all adults and can decide how to spend your time, if you can do as well as you want to do without coming to class then that’s your business.” He also would routinely administer make-up exams a week or so after each exam, no questions asked, though they were as a rule harder than the initial exam.

    And it worked well. Part of the reason for that, I think, was that he really was a fantastic teacher. Going to class was worth it, because he communicated the material so much better than the textbooks did. But it also created a dynamic of personal responsibility in the classroom.

    I’m not sure this strategy would have worked at a larger institution, though – classes had <50 students in them, not sure his approach would scale up to 100+ students a class. Both because of the raw amount of work for administering makeup exams, and because there's a very different feel to a classroom when the professor knows virtually everyone's name.

  12. “I’m not sure this strategy would have worked at a larger institution, though – classes had <50 students in them, not sure his approach would scale up to 100+ students a class. Both because of the raw amount of work for administering makeup exams, and because there's a very different feel to a classroom when the professor knows virtually everyone's name."

    I teach those numbers and don't worry about this because it's not my concern – here in the UK, we see this as an administration concern not an academic one. So if you miss an exam or assignment, you put in your evidence and if it is accepted by the administration, then during the set resit period, you do a resubmission. The system is the same for any student on any course and isn't open to my whims.

  13. I used to do this, and still do for my lab classes, but am moving back to considering makeups this semester. My university policy requires that athe test receive makeup work for athletic travel, and due to some recent events, there is a student sub-population I’m extremely uncomfortable saying no to. I’m now in the uncomfortable position of re-writing my policy after the beginning of the semester and still have to find something that isn’t onerous to administer. Ugh.

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