Exceptional Circumstances

I continue to think about course policies. One consequence of a strict rule about deadlines and makeup exams is that students don’t expect to receive grace from the instructor. If “the rule is the rule,” then there isn’t much point to initiating a conversation with the professor about an extension. The circumstances have to be dire for a student to be willing to plead for an exception and deal with a teacher’s scrutiny.

I softened my makeup exam policy about five years ago. It consists of one line. “Makeup exams are only given under exceptional circumstances.” When I changed the policy I feared many students would seek extensions or request makeups. That hasn’t happened.

Instead, I find myself dealing with the question of how to define an exceptional circumstance. “I know it when I see it” has worked until now. But a few conversations with students this semester suggest I need to clarify my thinking.

Conversation 1: We’ll call this student, Marine. He is stationed overseas. He fell behind in one of my World Campus sections (WC; the online branch of Penn State). WC sets course policies, not the instructor; everyone teaching this course has to follow the same rules. In this case, the course policy is that late work is not accepted. If a student asks for an extension, before the deadline, the instructor may allow an accommodation. Otherwise, late work receives a zero. Marine and I skyped for 40 minutes. I got to know him. I believe his intentions are good but his time management skills need improvement. I suggested he provide evidence that his job precluded him from completing a couple of assignments on time. That would be sufficient to allow him to make up the work. But this will involve superior officers. Marine was loath to put a spotlight on his academic situation.

Does poor planning / time management + military service = exceptional circumstance?

Conversation 2: Let’s nickname this student, Grace. She emailed me the night before the second accounting exam. Our class meets once per week.  She didn’t want to fabricate a bogus excuse, or claim to be sick when she wasn’t. Grace simply knew she wasn’t going to be ready for the test the next night. She acknowledged that failing this exam would mean failing the course since she didn’t do well on the first test. Late-dropping the course is not an option. Grace asked for additional time to prepare for the exam.

Does poor prior performance + feeling overwhelmed/unprepared = exceptional circumstance?

The third student is nicknamed SMH because I was Shaking My Head when he left my office. SMH missed the first accounting exam. He discussed his absence with me, in advance. I agreed with him; he had good reason for being absent from the first test. We scheduled a makeup time. SMH contacted me an hour before the appointment to say he wouldn’t make it. Then he disappeared. When SMH stopped by my office this week, a month had elapsed. He sat down and said very little. Even now, I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish by visiting me. I asked what happened. He said he wouldn’t lie or make up an excuse. He didn’t have an explanation for his disappearance and he made no request. I asked about his major and career plans to try to draw him out. I got very few details and no insight about his non-performance. He will drop the course.

It’s pretty clear; SMH’s circumstances are not exceptional. What about the other two? How should exceptional circumstances be defined? We often face unique or challenging situations that hinder our personal and professional lives. What is exceptional?

Is the phrase “exceptional circumstances” too vague? Are there better ways to convey the point that makeup exams and deadline extensions should be rare? How might I phrase the policy more clearly?

Beyond the semantics is a more important issue raised by Grace’s request. What’s more important, teaching students a lesson about meeting deadlines or giving students every opportunity to demonstrate learning? If one student is given an extension, is that unfair to the rest of the class? What about students who would have benefited from additional time to prepare for the exam, but didn’t ask? Will the extra time make a real difference?  I wrestled with these issues as I responded to Grace’s email.

I continue to ponder these questions. I’ll share my response to Grace in a future post. In the meantime, I’m interested in discovering what your thoughts are on these issues. Please comment; it would be so helpful to dialogue about this here or on Twitter (@1313lolita).


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on October 27, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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