A student is asking for an alternative exam because he was "completely exhausted" due to overwork the last month or so of the semester, including the exam day.

He provided a doctor's notice validating the claim and explaining the physical symptoms. He also provided another notice proving he did actually took an excessive number of courses recently and did well.

Should I give him the opportunity to retake the exam?

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    Where is this taking place? How institutions handle "medical issues" can vary wildly between or even within countries. In the US the professor would basically neither want nor need anything at all to do with these notes from the doctor. The student would coordinate verification of the problem through a suitable university office. Too much of a legal minefield for the professor to get involved so directly. – zibadawa timmy Jan 22 '18 at 6:04

You should do whatever you or your institution would ordinarily do for a student who brought a doctor's note after missing an exam. You are not the student's doctor and the cause of the student's illness is completely irrelevant.

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    I'd like to add that the nature of the illness is not only to be disregarded, but that it's none of the professor's business in the first place. All the professor needs to know is that the student's physician deemed him unfit to take the exam. What consequences that will have is surely outlined in university policies or applicable law. – RQM Jan 23 '18 at 12:22
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    @RQM The OP hasn't released the contents of the physician's note. It may only say the student is exhausted, not that he cannot take an exam. Or suppose the note said the student is exhausted and cannot take the exam because he's been partying too much. Let's not make assumptions. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 23 '18 at 13:07
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    @NicoleHamilton This is a very slippery slope. There's already a tendency (in US culture, anyway) to blame people with disabilities or illness for their condition. And there's also a tendency to divide disabilities and illnesses into sympathy-inducing and non-sympathy-inducing. It's possible that there are students who would party themselves into exhaustion and then find an unscrupulous doctor who was willing to certify it as a medical condition, but this seems like an incredibly stupid way to get a few more days to study for an exam. Better to let the doctor make the decision and butt out. – Elizabeth Henning Jan 23 '18 at 17:24
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    I agree fully that if the doctor's note testifies that the student was medically unable to take the exam, that is all that the professor should be interested in (and should act accordingly to university policy for a one-time illness falling on exam date). Whether it was the students "fault" or not is irrelevant - he might have been jay walking and got hit by a car, hospitalized with a broken foot on the day of the exam. I would not consider this case any different from that of a student that got hit by a car and hospitalized while crossing at a zebra crossing, after duly checking for traffic. – penelope Jan 23 '18 at 17:35
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    @NicoleHamilton It's not at all clear to me why not making assumptions would lead down the road of speculation that your comment takes. If we aren't making assumptions, then all we know is that the student has a doctor's note validating the presence and physical symptoms of the disability he claims to have. The idea that this is just normal exhaustion faced by all students is an assumption. Even the belief that a typical student faces a healthy/safe level of exhaustion is an assumption. I've seen plenty of depts. where unhealthy/unethical levels of exhaustion among students were the norm. – nben Jan 23 '18 at 17:42

I don't think you should decide this alone, and here's why. If it's an unusual circumstance -- well, okay, we're all human. But if there's been a pattern -- that's disrespectful of the instructors' time. So check with the undergraduate program director. in the department


Many of the answers so far have focused on either the fact that the student did this to himself (by taking too hard of a classload) or that exhaustion is not a valid excuse because it is common at the end of the semester.

This answer does not focus on the medical issue per se or its validity, but I wanted to point out that there are valid opposite side to these two issues.

Point 1. The student failed to manage his own time by signing up for so many classes.

I agree that some students fail in this regard, but these failures, around exam time in particular, are not always the student's fault. Example: when I was an undergrad, I majored in both math and molecular biology. My university scheduled exams over a 6 day period with exams for classes not commonly taken together typically scheduled on the same day. This is designed to accommodate most students who have picked one major, but for those of us who had interdisciplinary interests, the result was that we often had as many as 3 or 4 difficult exams crammed into something like an 18 hour window. For a junior or senior taking advanced classes in which the professor believes they know what other classes their students are taking and how difficult they are (because most students follow their department's curriculum), these conflicts can potentially be devastating. Ultimately, It may not be fair to allow two students different timelines for an exam in the context of the class, but it is also quite unfair for the algorithm that schedules exams to systematically disadvantage students who have interdisciplinary interests.

Point 2. Exhaustion is not a valid excuse, particularly because everyone is exhausted at the end of the semester.

I feel that this sounds convincing on its face, but it makes me uncomfortable. This line of thinking may come from a desire not to give anyone preferential treatment, but the net effect of this as a policy is that students with more resources get preferential treatment on average. Those students whose tuition and living expenses are covered by wealthy parents or who have the option of painlessly extending their degree to 5 years will always benefit from this policy on average while students who must work/raise children during college or who can't afford to spend more than 4 years getting their degree will always be hurt on average by this policy. One can argue that this is the best bias we can extract from a general policy, but I don't think one can argue that this policy is universally fair.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that one should or should not follow such a policy universally; rather I'm arguing that the policy has a non-trivial bias. The OP should consider if the biases implied by such a policy are biases that they are okay with in the context of their class/grades or whether they would prefer the biases carried by other policies.

Conclusion. I don't have a direct answer to the question, but I wanted to point out that rigid adherence to a policy position is not more fair just because it is more rigid. In particular, if the OP's goal, in teaching the class, is for the students' grades to best reflect their level of understanding of the topic (rather than to best reflect a standardized test on the topic) independent of other students, then adherence to a rigid attendance policy is probably antithetical to fairness. If the OP's goal is to have a clear paper-trail that shows they did nothing amiss, then the best thing is always to route things through the proper administrative channels. If the OP's goal is to prevent a situation where any other student might feel cheated, then obviously they should disallow the makeup exam. But if the OP's goal is to be as fair as possible to the student in question, then the answer isn't going to be found verbatim in a policy document.


Probably not; it would be unfair to the rest of the students, who managed their time and took the final when scheduled. A more likely alternative is a hardship or medical withdrawal. Check with your department chair about policies at your own institution.

Edit: I've reconsidered. You should record the grade the student earned, without the final exam, or with the grade earned if the student took the final, and let the institution's policies take things from there.

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    But if the student has medical verification, the issue becomes a lot thornier. – aeismail Jan 22 '18 at 3:19
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    @aeismail Not at all. That's what the medical withdrawal is for. – Bob Brown Jan 22 '18 at 3:20
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    @NateEldredge Yes, I had in mind that the student re-take the course, potentially delaying graduation. The difference is the difference between a sudden onset of injury or illness and a continuing problem, in this case self-inflicted. During my time as a college teacher, I tried very hard to distinguish between helping those who had run into bad luck and rewarding bad behavior. Taking a double overload is bad behavior. – Bob Brown Jan 22 '18 at 3:36
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    @MaireZer If I had a nickel for every minute I spent in curriculum meetings deciding how much education an undergraduate could absorb in a semester, I'd be rich. In the case about which you have asked, the student's reasons did not match the student's capabilities. I think we will ultimately disagree, but I do not see the complexity. The student bit off more than he could chew. – Bob Brown Jan 22 '18 at 3:45
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    @BobBrown I have seen students take course-loads there were perfectly reasonable for them only to be heavily disadvantaged at exam time or at a particular moment in the semester due to assumptions made by professors about what classes their students are taking and/or by bad exam scheduling by the university. These are often not the student's fault unless you believe that students should not deviating from department-recommended curricula (e.g. by double-majoring or by pursuing an interest in ethics during a biology major). See my answer for more explanation. – nben Jan 23 '18 at 17:52

Ultimately you will need to consult university policies and applicable local laws.

I think your best option here is to grant the request. In the US at least, this would normally consist of giving the student a grade of Incomplete. Exactly what warrants an incomplete can vary from institution to institution, but these guidelines given by the University of Wisconsin are fairly typical in my experience (emphasis mine):

College policy states that Incompletes should only be given in situations where students are receiving a passing grade in the course, have completed most of the course assignments, and are not able to complete their coursework due to unforeseeable circumstances.

Incompletes should only be given when there is a reasonable expectation that a student can and will complete the work in a timely fashion.

Now my initial reaction to all of that is that your student does not qualify for an Incomplete: exhaustion is a completely normal and foreseeable circumstance of overloading and overworking yourself. Any college age student will be familiar with this concept. However, I think there are enough possibilities where this could still be "beyond their control" enough that you should give them the benefit of the doubt. They may, for example, have a mental disorder which drives them to compulsively engage in such behaviors, regardless of their knowledge of its negative impact.

Such things would all be beyond what you should inquire about. You should either give the student the benefit of the doubt that one or more such things apply, or if you fail at that then ask the relevant university office for guidance and if they can independently verify the matter. You probably want to—and in some jurisdictions may be basically legally required—to distance yourself from the medical particulars and let the University handle verification of these things on their own, and have them pass onto you their evaluation of the situation. This keeps the private information of the student out of your hands and helps ensure no one engages in discriminatory behavior towards protected classes.


From him providing a notice which showed that he took an excessive number of courses and did well suggests to me that it was intended to show that he is otherwise a "good student" and should be allowed to take a substitute exam on that basis, but it also suggests that his exhaustion was self-inflicted and thus he did not manage his time - he bit off more than he could chew.

Perhaps it is normal where-ever you are that a doctor's note which validates a claim of illness or unfitness for work/duty also explains the physical symptoms, and if it is a medical certificate such as someone would provide to an employer to explain an absence then I see no problem with allowing a substitute exam on that basis - unfit for work or unfit for an exam can be taken as the same thing.

Here, and in many other places, a medical certificate to explain an absence says little more than that a suitably qualified medical practitioner has certified that the person was unable to attend work due to a valid (medical) reason, and the specifics are confidential between doctor and patient. The details are covered by privacy, an employer does not need to know and are not entitled to that information.

However, if the note from the doctor is something other than a medical certificate stating that he was unfit to attend on that day, then I would say that his exhaustion was self-inflicted, he didn't manage his time and/or workload with his courses and should not be given special consideration as a consequence.

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    Mick, please check my edit and roll back if I got it wrong. I added the word "if." – aparente001 Jan 22 '18 at 5:12

For me, it comes down to the students overall performance/engagement during the entirety of the course. If the student was generally good, but bombed one test (obvious outlier score) I'm usually willing to give another shot, albeit the test will be harder (which is hard on me, too). If it's too soon to tell, I might say to him/her to prove their resolve through the rest of the course, and if that one test was indeed aberrant, we could work out something towards the end of the semester. But, you have no obligation to do any of this.


In my opinion, exhaustion is not a valid excuse for not taking an exam, even with a doctor certifying that you are indeed exhausted. By the end of a term, everyone is exhausted! I'm especially unsympathetic to a student who admits the problem is entirely of his own making, that he's exhausted because he took too many heavy classes.

Here in the US, most institutions have a student disabilities office that decides what accommodations a student should get based on their needs and the law. Professionals in that disability office review any medical information and may discuss possible accommodations with the student and the instructor, but ultimately, they decide. As an instructor, you follow their instructions. Until you have instructions from the disability office, you should not offer accommodations due to disability because you're not qualified and it's not your job to make that decision and it's not fair to the other students.

What I would do is tell the student that all requests for accommodations based on disability or medical conditions beyond the obvious (e.g., you're in the hospital) must be decided by the disability office. I would tell the student I could make certain accommodations on my own, e.g., rescheduling an exam for a student with another exam in the same time slot upon verification, but that I am not qualified nor is it within my authority to review medical claims. If the student wants an accommodation based on exhaustion, they will need to present approved instructions from the disability office stating what accommodations are to be provided.

Offhand, I don't think a disability office will accept this excuse either, especially retroactively, but I also don't know that it will get that far. Once you tell the student you need an approved disability form, I think there's a good chance they give up and the problem goes away. Otoh, if the student does take it to the disability office and they say the student should get a make-up exam, no problem, you just do it. But now you've followed the rules and let the professionals own the problem.

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    This answer is rather judgmental from someone who wrote in another comment " Let's not make assumptions". – user9646 Jan 23 '18 at 15:13
  • @NajibIdrissi What's judgmental? I don't think being exhausted because you took too heavy a load is a valid medical excuse. That's just my opinion. But I also don't think I'm qualified or authorized to decide whether to offer a disability accommodation, either medically or under the law. Fortunately, most US institutions have offices with professionals who are qualified and authorized to do that and I would do what they say. Tell me again how that's judgmental? – Nicole Hamilton Jan 23 '18 at 16:18
  • @NicoleHamilton while I appreciate the desire to be fair to the other students, I would point out that these kinds of scenarios are often created by the university accidentally. E.g., exams are usually crammed into a 6 day period with exams for classes not usually taken together crammed into one day. An excellent student who is double-majoring in areas that don't usually go together (say, pure math and molecular biology) may find all their difficult exams scheduled on the same 2 days. That's a pretty unfair situation for an otherwise capable student with interdisciplinary interests. – nben Jan 23 '18 at 16:25
  • @user16054 The universities I've been to all specifically spell out to students that if they have multiple exams (sometimes two suffices, sometimes it needs to be three) on a day then they may request an alternative date from one of the classes. As with most things, whether they get this or not is up to the professors in question, but odds are good at least one of them will comply. – zibadawa timmy Jan 23 '18 at 21:21
  • @zibadawatimmy Yes, same at UMich, where I teach now. Too many exams on one day is cause to ask for rescheduling. Just being exhausted because you took too heavy a load is not. – Nicole Hamilton Jan 24 '18 at 1:24

I come from a background where it is totally acceptable and common to not attend the regular exam just because you want some extra time to study. Any students who missed the first exam or failed it are automatically registered for the make-up exam, no justification needed. So, leaving out the "moral indignation" aspect, unless you have strong practical reasons not to organize a make-up exam, let them take it.

  • This isn't an answer. – user9646 Jan 23 '18 at 10:35
  • It strongly implied one, but edited to make that explicit. – nengel Jan 23 '18 at 12:40
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    -1 Not applicable in the majority of contexts; most institutions do not have a mechanism giving arbitrary automatic makeup finals to everyone (I hope). – Daniel R. Collins Jan 23 '18 at 14:06
  • @nengel: The US system does not normally feature make-up final exams, nor can one register for a final exam without registering for the course as well (so one has to repeat all the work as well). – aeismail Jan 23 '18 at 14:07
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    But this student did have a doctor's note, which is a case that I assume US universities do allow make-ups for? So there wouldn't be a need to "import the practice wholesale". I was merely trying to say that the world does not end if you do not go into the business of second-guessing your student's doctor on if he was "ill enough" or "ill for the right reasons" or whatever, as well as explaining why my background would bias me in favor of leniency. – nengel Jan 24 '18 at 4:43

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