Dealing With Students Missing Exams and In-Class Graded Assignments

Teachers often become more aware of students’ out-of-class activities than they might wish. Announcements and memos from the dean of students inform about sporting teams and their games and tournaments, forensics, service learning conferences, community-based work, and the like. And teachers quickly become familiar with student lifestyles and illnesses ¾ mono, strep throat, hangovers, the opening of deer and fishing seasons, quilting bees, family vacations, and their family mortality statistics. The relationship between exams and mandatory in-class work and the death of students’ cousins and grandparents is so high it should be a concern of the National Center for Disease Control. Given all this, it is a certainty that students will miss exams and other required activities. What is a teacher to do?

If you want to hear colleagues express frustration, ask them about make-up exams and assignments. Despite knowing intellectually that such absences will occur, teachers hope and pray, even in public institutions, that all of their students will take exams as scheduled. Alas, such prayers are rarely answered, and teachers are faced with the practical issues of keeping track of students who miss exams and assignments, as well as managing make-ups.

All of our advice, except that related to ethics, should be read through the filter of the type of institution where you teach, and the types of courses you teach and how large they are. For example, at a small liberal arts school, where teaching is a faculty member’s primary responsibility, more time may be spent with students who miss exams or assignments, and more creative (time consuming) alternatives may be practical as compared with someone teaching classes of 300 or 500 or more in a Research I institution.

Ethics
Teachers are not to cause students harm; we must treat them fairly and equitably, and they must be allowed to maintain their dignity (Keith-Spiegel, Whitley, Balogh, Perkins, & Wittig, 2002). Whatever your procedures are for students who miss exams and required in-class work, they must be equitable, providing students equal chances to earn a good grade by demonstrating equal knowledge. The hard part may be balancing academic rigor and accountability for what students are to learn with a fair and manageable process for those who miss required exams and assignments.

Make-up Exams
These should not be more difficult than the original test but must be, as best as you can design, alternate forms of the same exam. Exam banks that accompany texts make designing such alternate forms of multiple-choice tests relatively easy, and colleagues teaching two or more sections of the same course in a semester, who give alternate forms of exams, are often a good source of advice on this matter. Be thoughtful about the following:

  • An essay make-up exam may be unethical if regular exams are multiple choice or short answer (or vice versa), since students must study differently and they may be more difficult.
  • An oral exam may “punish” students who do not think well on their feet, or are more socially anxious.
  • Scheduling make-up exams at inconvenient or undesirable times may express your frustration, but you or someone else will have to be there at the “inconvenient” time also, and such arrangements raise issues of foul play.
  • It may be inequitable to students who meet all course requirements to allow their peers to do extra credit or drop their lowest grade instead of making up a missed exam.

In-class Assignments
The same considerations exist for students who miss in-class required presentations, or other graded work. If possible, students who were to present should be given opportunities to make up the assignment using the same grading criteria.

Planning Ahead

Spell-out Missed Exam Procedure in Course Policies
No matter how well you teach or what inducements or penalties you impose, some students will miss exams and required class activities. Good educational practice argues that you plan for this reality as you design your course, not two days before (or after) your first exam. You want as few surprises as possible once the course begins.

Put your policies in your syllabus. Have a section in your syllabus on exams and other graded work. Specify your policies and procedures if students know in advance they will be absent, or how to notify you if, for whatever reason, they were absent, and any effect, if any, absences will have on their grade.

Keep your policy clear and simple. Before finalizing your syllabus, ask a few students to read your make-up policy to determine if it can be easily understood. If your explanation of what students are to do in the case of missing an exam, and how their grade is affected, is not easily understood, revise it. In developing your policy, do you want students to:

  • Notify you if they know they will miss, preferably at least 24 hours in advance, and give you the reason? Talking with you before or after class offers the best opportunity to provide feedback if the reason is questionable, to work out alternatives, and so forth. E-mail also can be useful.
  • Notify you as soon as possible after missing an exam or required assignment and give the reason? Again, in person or e-mail work best.
  • Present a letter from an authority (e.g., physician) documenting the reason? Keep in mind any student can “forge” such documentation or manipulate it in other ways, e.g., “Fred came to see me complaining of a severe headache.”
  • Have their grades lowered if their absence is not “acceptable” (e.g., overslept versus seriously ill)? How will you decide what is acceptable? Our experience suggests that “legitimate” reasons for absence include, but are not limited to: illness of the student or a close relative, accident, court appearance, military duty, broken auto, hazardous weather, and university activities (e.g., athletics, forensics).

Policies should reflect the nature of the exam or graded assignment. If you are teaching an introductory course and each module largely stands alone, it may be appropriate for students to make up a missed exam late in the semester. But if you want students to demonstrate knowledge or competency on an exam or assignment because future course material builds on that which comes earlier, you want to give the students much less time to make up the missed work.

Common policies. A common procedure is for the teacher, teaching assistant, or departmental secretary to distribute and proctor make-up exams during prearranged times (Perlman&McCann, in press). You might also consider allowing students to take make-up exams during exam periods in other courses you are teaching.

Make your policies easy to implement. To maintain your sanity and keep your stress level manageable, you must be able to easily implement your policies. For example, even if you, a secretary, or a graduate student distribute and proctor make-up exams, problems can arise. For example:

  • The secretary is ill or on vacation, or you are ill or have a conference to attend. You never want to change the time make-ups are available to students once these are listed in the course syllabus. Have backups available who know where make-up exams are stored, can access them, and can administer and proctor them.
  • Too many students for the make-up space. Investigate room sizes and number of rooms available. You may need more than one room if some students have readers because of learning disabilities.
  • Students often forget there is a common make-up the last week of the semester. Remind them often and announce this policy on class days when students are taking an exam, as this may be the only time some students who have missed a previous exam come to class.

Encourage appropriate, responsible, mature behaviors. Take the high road and let students know how they “should” behave. For example, one colleague includes this statement in the syllabus:

I expect students to make every effort to take required exams and make course presentations as scheduled. If you know in advance you will miss such a requirement, please notify me. If you are ill or other circumstances cause you to miss a required graded activity, notify me as soon as possible.

One of our colleagues states in her syllabus for a psychology of aging class, “It is very bad form to invent illnesses suffered by grandparents!” By giving students exemplars on how to behave appropriately, you can then thank them for their courtesy and maturity if they follow through, positively reinforcing such behaviors.

God lives in the details. Always err on the side of being “concrete.” If a make-up exam is at the university testing center, tell students where the testing center is. If you or a secretary hold make-up exams in an office, you may want to draw a map on how to get there. It is not uncommon for students to fail to find the office at the time of the exam, and wander around a large university building.

Students Who Miss Exams
You have a variety of alternatives available on how to treat students who miss a scheduled exam. Select those that fit your course and the requirements of learning students must demonstrate.

Requiring make-up exams. If you collect all copies of your multiple choice or short answer exams, you may be able to use the same exam for make-ups. Our experience is that it is extremely rare that students deliberately miss an exam to have more time to study, whereas asking peers about specific exam questions more commonly occurs. Your experiences may be different. However, if you put exams on file at the university testing center, and students can take them weeks apart, you may want different forms. If you have concerns, you will need to prepare an equivalent, alternative form of the regular exam, as is often the case for essay tests.

Using procedures other than a make-up exam. Some faculty have students outline all text chapters required for an exam, use daily quiz scores to substitute for a missed exam, use the average of students’ exams to substitute for the one missed, score relevant questions on the comprehensive final to substitute for the missed test, or use a weighted score from the entire comprehensive final substituted for missed exam. Some teachers just drop one test grade without penalty (Buchanan&Rogers, 1990; Sleigh&Ritzer, 2001). Consider whether students will learn what you want from various alternatives and whether this work is equal to what students must demonstrate on exams before adopting such procedures. If your course contains numerous graded assignments of equal difficulty, and if it is equitable for students to choose to ignore a course module by not studying or taking the exam, you should consider this process.

Other teachers build extra credit into the course. They allow all students opportunities to raise their grades, offering a safety net of sorts for those who need to “make-up” a missed exam by doing “additional” assignments such as outlining unassigned chapters in the text.

Scheduling make-ups. Pick one or two times a week that are convenient for you, a department secretary, or teaching assistant, and schedule your make-ups then. Some faculty use a common time midway through the semester and at the end of the semester as an alternative.

Students Who Miss Other In-Class Assignments
Allowing students to demonstrate learning on non-exam graded assignments can be tricky. Such assignments often measure different kinds of learning than exams: the ability to work in groups, critical thinking as demonstrated in a poster, or an oral presentation graded in part on professional use of language. But you do have some alternatives.

Keeping the required assignment the same. If the assignment is a large one and due near the end of the semester, consider using an “incomplete” grade for students who miss it. Alternatively, students can present their oral work or poster in another course you are teaching if the content is relevant and time allows it. The oral required assignment also can be delivered just to the teacher or videotaped or turned in on audiotape.

Alternative assignments. As with missed exams, you can weigh other assignments disproportionately to substitute for in-class graded work — by doubling a similar assignment if you have more than one during the semester, for example. The dilemma, of course, is not allowing students easy avenues to avoid a required module or assignment without penalty. For example, oral assignments can be turned in as written work, although this may negate some of the reasons for the assignment.

When we asked colleagues about alternatives for missed in-class graded assignments (as compared with exams), almost everyone cautioned against listing them in the course syllabus. They felt that students could then weigh the make-up assignment versus the original and choose the one that gave them the greatest chance of doing well, and also the least amount of anxiety (in-class presentations often make students nervous). They recommended simply telling students that arrangements would be made for those missing in-class required graded work on a case-by-case basis.

Students Who Miss the “Make-Up”
On occasion, students will miss a scheduled make-up. Say something about this event in your syllabus, emphasizing the student’s responsibility to notify the instructor. We recommend that instructors reserve the right to lower a student’s grade by “x” number of points, or “x” letter grades. If you place exams at a university testing center, you may not find out the work has not been made up until the course is over, leaving you little choice but to give the student an “F” on that exam or assignment.

When the Whole Class Misses a Required Exam or Assignment
On rare, but very memorable, occasions the entire class may miss an exam or assignment. For example, both authors have had the fire alarm go off during an exam. After a bomb threat cleared the building during his exam, the campus police actually contacted one author to identify whether a person caught on camera at a service station was a student calling in the bomb scare. (It was not.) The other author experienced the bomb squad closing a classroom building during finals week due to the discovery of old, potentially explosive, laboratory chemicals. Of course, the blizzard of the century or a flood might occur the night before your exam. What is a teacher to do?

The exam or graded assignment must be delayed. Prepare beforehand. Always build a make-up policy into your syllabus for the last exam or student presentation in a course. Talk with your department chair or dean about college or university policy. State that if weather or other circumstances force a make-up, it will occur at a certain time and place. This forethought is especially important if you teach at a northern institution where bad winter weather is not unusual. For exams and assignments during the semester, the policy that works best is to reschedule them (again, stating this in your syllabus) for the next regular class period. Call attention to this policy early in the semester, and post it on your course Web site. The last thing you want to do is call or e-mail everyone in the class to tell them an exam has been cancelled.

An exam or graded assignment is interrupted. Graded assignments such as oral presentations are easily handled. If time allows, continue after the interruption; if not, continue the next class period or during your designated “make-up” time.

If something interrupts an exam, ask students to leave their exams and answers on their desks or hand them in to you, take all personal materials, and leave immediately. A teacher can easily collect everything left in most classes in a few moments. Leave materials on desks if the class is large, or be the first person back to the room after the interruption. Fire alarms, bomb scares, and the like usually cause a lot of hubbub. Only if you have a lengthy two- or three-hour class, with time to allow students to collect themselves and refocus, and no concern about their comparing answers to questions during the delay, should the exam be continued that same day or evening.

If the interruption occurs late in the class period, you might tell students to turn in their work as they leave. You can then determine how you want to grade exams or the assignment, using pro-rated points or percentages, and assign grades accordingly.

If the interruption is earlier in the hour, the exam will have to be delayed, usually until the next class period. With a multiple-choice exam, we advise giving students the full (next) class period to finish their exams. If you are concerned about students comparing questions they have already answered, you will have to quickly develop an alternate exam.

A teacher’s decisions are more complicated if the exam is short answer or essay. Students may have skimmed all essay or short answer questions before an interruption. Will they prepare for those questions before the next class period? What if some students only read the first essay question but do not know the others they must answer? Preparing an alternate exam may be feasible, but students need to know you will do so, so they do not concentrate their studying on specific topics you will not ask about.

We know that such class interruptions are rare, but they can wreak havoc with students and teachers, be stressful, and raise issues of fairness that echo throughout the rest of the course. We advise teachers to talk with colleagues, and we have found a department brown bag on the topic fascinating. Your colleagues may have some creative and sound advice.

Summary
A teacher needs to plan ahead. Take some time to think about what it means for you and students who miss required in-class work. A little preparation can save a lot of time and hassle later in the semester. Students deserve and will appreciate policies that are equitable and manageable.

Author’s Note: The authors are interested how teachers deal with missed or interrupted graded in-class work (and their horror stories). Contact us with your ideas and experiences at perlman@uwosh.edu.

References and Recommended Reading

  • Buchanan, R. W., & Rogers, M. (1990). Innovative assessment in large classes. College Teaching, 38, 69-74.
  • Carper, S. W. (1995). Make-up exams: What’s a professor to do? Journal of Chemical Education, 72, 883.
  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Keith-Spiegel, P., Whitley, B.G. E. Jr., Balogh, D. W., Perkins, D. V., & Wittig, A. F. (2002). The ethics of teaching: A casebook (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • McKeachie, W. J. (2001). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed). Bolton, MA: Anker.
  • Perlman, B., & McCann, L. I. (in press). Teacher evaluations of make-up exam procedures. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 3(2).
  • Sleigh, M. J., & Ritzer, D. R. (2001). Encouraging student attendance. APS Observer, 14(9), pp. 19-20, 32.


Observer Vol.18, No.6 June, 2005

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