What If the Students Just Can’t Be There?

The following question has recently appeared on College Misery:

What do I say when students ask me to loosen the attendance policy for them, their emergencies, the things that get in the way of their attending class? These range from “Baby Daddy is in jail and I had to bail him out,” to “My job with the transit authority changed hours on me for 2 weeks.” These are often good students, hard workers. Their excuses seem real. I tell them the policy and they stare at me with big eyes and say, “Well, how am I supposed to be in class when I have to pick up my kid?” “How could I make class at 9 when my shift changed?” “Did you want me to leave my brother in the emergency room so I could come here for a quiz?”

I know exactly what this prof is talking about. Most of my students don’t live on campus. All of them have at least one part-time job. Many work full-time. Quite a few are primary caregivers for ailing elderly relatives or small children.

Traditionally, campuses were structured around the lifestyles of students who lived in the dorms, maybe did a few hours of work in the cafeteria or the bookstore, and used the college years to slowly mature intellectually and personally. Today, with the advent of what we call non-traditional students (low-income, blue collar, black, Latino, etc.), we have to accept that students are often prevented from being on campus because of the pressing personal concerns and work obligations.

I know my students and I know how hard their lives are. This is why I never ask them, “Why did you miss the mini-quiz?” Instead, I ask, “When will you be able to come by the office for a make-up mini-quiz?” I now have make-ups for all of my exams and mini-quizzes because I know I will have to accommodate students who simply can’t be there. I also make sure that the grade distribution is designed in a way that a student who is forced to miss quite a few classes but is willing to do extra work outside of the classroom can get a good grade.

I don’t remember a single occasion when I didn’t let students take make-up quizzes or exams. If a student tells me that she couldn’t sleep all night long because the baby was sick and crying non-stop and this is why she didn’t do well on the exam, I always let her rewrite the exam. If a student says he will have to miss 3 last weeks of class because he needs to drive his father to chemotherapy, I deliver the material to him outside of class hours or online.

And I find that when you treat students like human beings and show that you understand their hardships, they never abuse your trust.

11 thoughts on “What If the Students Just Can’t Be There?

  1. That would be so nice, especially for students with disabilities. When I lived in Montana, I had peers who used wheelchairs, and if their ride didn’t show up (The buses were scheduled erratically and only a couple of them had reliable wheelchair ramps) they were stuck, especially in winter, because the sidewalks weren’t salted well enough, so it could be dangerous to navigate a wheelchair on them. There’s also the fact that during the winter months, if you have a physical disability which prevents you from shivering, the price you’d pay for being out in the cold too long is dear, so even if the sidewalks were salted properly…


  2. I work with kids and young adults who have a genetic disorder. When they are hospitalized (which is one or more times a year, usually during flu season), it is usually for 3 weeks.

    It is very, very hard to get through college that way if the profs aren’t understanding. Thank you — I have one guy who is slogging through a degree and is now 30 and still at it. He’s had to drop many classes when the profs wouldn’t work with him (he’s not the only one, but he’s the only one who’s refused to give up).

    When I was in nursing school, we could only miss 1 day of clinical and one day of class per semester. One of my classmates gave birth on a Friday night and was back at school the following Monday.


  3. I like the way you think. I’m not opposed to attendance policies – I see both sides of this one – but you’ve found a system that’s fair and functional.

    I think your last line tells it all. The problem with any policy or procedure that is cut in stone with no exceptions is that it doesn’t allow for any reasonable human judgment. Let professors and students both use their good judgment, and most of them will surprise you with just how reasonable they can be.


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