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I am currently working as a teaching assistant for several courses in STEM in the US at the college level.

During the past two semesters since Covid19 started, I have noticed that whenever a deadline is approaching, on or close to the day of the deadline, a student will inevitably email the instructors (including the TAs) an email requesting deadline extension due to the loss of a relative, which in turn has affected their mental states ("feeling stressed or depressed").

Note that the death of a relative is a common but not the only scenario. We had another student who claimed to test positive for Covid on the due day, but curiously only requested a 48 hour extension to a deadline...While other students simply said something about being stressed out (by jobs, by other courses) and then immediately followed up with some suggested due dates which we should accommodate for the student (or the entire class).

In all these cases, the student has not obtained a doctor's note, which is the appropriate/standard way of requesting for extension. There has been no change to this policy since Covid.

Since we need to approve the extensions and quickly, these sorts of emails always put us in a very tricky situation:

  1. it seems inappropriate to question about whether if a death has actually occurred, how the person is related to the student, or when it has occurred. We just take these claims to be true despite the scant details.
  2. since the situation affects a relative, but not the student him/herself, therefore, this situation is often not distressful enough to have a formal doctor's note, i.e., serious depression or disability. So we would seem rude to send the student to go through this formal and often lengthy process, especially at a time where reaching a doctor is probably inconvenient for many.

I am not sure what is the most appropriate way of dealing with these situation. And I have to stress we have not had this issue before Covid (I've been doing this for years). But this year we're dealing with this on a biweekly basis.

Can experienced instructors chime in on how we can be considerate to the student's personal lives while also hold on to our standards and be vigilant with academic dishonesty?

Should we just let these things go?


Thanks all for the replies, here is a follow up:

  1. it is multiple students, at the beginning of the year it would be 3-4 students per course, but now I guess when the semesters are heating up, its up to 8 - 12 students (for the two courses combined).

  2. it is different students. With about 3 "recurring" students this semester. I haven't paid too much attention to their names.

  3. the problem here are not the medical concerns or emotional stress, but the lack of formal certificate or a proof. We have been giving these extensions like freebies throughout the semester(s) but the assignments now have more weights and we want to be vigilant.

  4. one of the course is my PI's course and I'm sort of the main contact person and we have been conducting this course for many years. The other course I'm the "lead" TA, so again I oversee a lot of these issues. The impact ultimately hits the TAs, as we need to account for all these asynchronous extensions/grading/accommodations.

  5. For one of the course, we have a "we will aggregate the skipped assignment in your exam" policy. Students know this. The reason why they are requesting extension is because they do not want it to be aggregated. The other course we have been giving them 1 time extensions (even though its not in the course policy) and at least one student is requesting extension after the 1 time extension has been used.

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14 Answers 14

77

Should we just let these things go?

Yes. Either the situation is real, in which you would be causing great harm in refusing and distressing the student further OR the student is lying and they get an extra 48 hours. Do you really care if the student is getting an extra 48 hours? Is the ability to complete work within a very specific time frame one of the key learning goals of the course?

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  • 18
    While I agree in general with showing understanding towards students and issues they may facing, the way your last statements frame extensions as not mattering is frustrating to me as a grader. As a TA, I've had many students get generous extensions that delayed feedback enough that mistakes they made carried over to future assignments, causing other issues down the line for them and me. In the interest of giving timely feedback for late assignments, I also have sometimes had to make major inconvenient changes to my schedule, including sometimes canceling weekend plans.
    – anjama
    Apr 1 at 15:20
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    No one should be requiring feedback from you have means you work over the weekend, and students will have to understand that if they get an extension, then they won't get feedback in the same timely manner as people without an extension - the understanding towards each other must be mutual. So if the students get an extension from Wednesday to Friday, then they must understand they will get their feedback no by (say) monday, but perhaps by the following Friday. But then our departmental policy is that feedback always takes at least 2 weeks. Apr 1 at 15:29
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    The problem that this answer, same as many others here, seem to miss or ignore is the massive amount of cases, which indicates that (a) students are widely exploiting OP's goodwill and (b) it's leading to problems for the TAs. I don't have a great answer to what OP should do, but it looks like "just let it go" isn't working out too hot for them either.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 1 at 23:02
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    @xLeitix I guess in the end I'd just rather be taken advantage of than take the risk of harming someone. That is, of course, a personal decision. It also helps that we don't have such things as TAs and profs do all the marking, so would be only myself I was making the decision for. Apr 2 at 12:26
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    @IanSudbery As an instructor you're not making that decision for yourself, though - you're making it for everyone else in the class who would be disadvantaged by such a cheater. You'd rather that the rest of the students be taken advantage of, be clear here. In my mind, what you would rather carries rather less weight here - you have a responsibility to all of the students to provide a level playing field for all of them. Fine if you have no suspicions, but if you do and fail to act out of a lack of courage or a lack of caring (ie: "do you really care...") then that is a failing, imo,
    – J...
    Apr 2 at 18:27
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Demanding a bereaved student get a doctor's note isn't an appropriate strategy. (A death certificate or notification would be more suitable, but still inappropriate, in many instances.)

Can experienced instructors chime in on how we can be considerate to the student's personal lives while also hold on to our standards and be vigilant with academic dishonesty?

Follow university policy or defer students to administrators. This isn't your problem, it's your institute's.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about death certificates and French/German law has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Apr 2 at 16:34
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    -1 Re: "Follow university policy or defer students to administrators." These kinds of answers (under the "academia varies widely" principle) fail to cover the cases where the university and administrators have no policy, and put it entirely in the hands of the instructor. What's written here is part of an answer. But it's incomplete and fails to address the case that would drive someone like the OP to ask about it in the first place. Apr 2 at 23:01
  • @DanielR.Collins Do you seriously believe the university and administrators have no policy on deadline extensions?
    – user2768
    Apr 4 at 15:55
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    @user2768: I'm highly skeptical. But the burden of proof is on you to support your (extraordinary) positive claim, and you've not done so. Regardless, this question still fails to cover the case that would cause the OP to ask the question in the first place. Apr 6 at 12:04
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    You seem to make many universal claims with great certainty, and no evidence, and I would encourage other visitors to read them with some skepticism. Apr 6 at 17:10
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Ideally, students who are really in a serious predicament should be able to get an extension. To allow this, but to minimize lying, I suggest that if you're free to set course policy, you:

  1. Make one or two extensions available no questions asked. Specifically tell the students that the intent of the policy is to accommodate them in case of serious emergency, but that it's up to them to decide how to use it.
  2. Make sure that all the students know this information: that it is official policy, rather than simply the way you handle extensions in practice.

The first point ensures that dishonest students don't have an advantage over honest students. The second point ensures that students who are more comfortable "negotiating" don't have an advantage.

In general, if you claim to draw any kind of line in course policy, but actually you're flexible when students ask you about it, this is unfair to students who just take you at face value. I suspect that this specifically disadvantages first-generation college students who are less comfortable with how everything works. In any case, I wouldn't want to make wheedling the dominant strategy in my classes.

Similarly, if you're not free to set course policy, you should actually follow the policy as it is stated and not make exceptions.

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    I like this suggestion, but what if a student uses up the extensions on the first few assignments (maybe out of laziness), and then asks for another one as the OP described? They could claim that the reason for using the extensions before was because they thought they could no matter the reason, but now they have an actual reason for needing an extension. Apr 2 at 2:59
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    Yes, the drawback of treating your students as adults is that they have to be responsible for their decisions. (I do want to make it clear to students that this is the tradeoff here, but the decision should be up to them.) Apr 2 at 3:24
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If it's true and you are being difficult about it the effect is far greater on the student (and potentially on you if they then complain) than if it's false and they get some extra time does that really affect you?

Don't waste your valuable time on such matters, I don't think we study to try and become very good researchers to end up checking doctor's notes...

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  • Arguably, advice to "Don't waste your valuable time on such matters" would most directly be satisfied by not entertaining any extensions at all (and not moving around one's work/grading schedule to accommodate such requests). Apr 2 at 23:04
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    But that will lead to dreadful student evaluations which will kill promotion chances:-)! Moreover you can always plan your work schedule keeping in mind that you may have to do this. Apr 3 at 1:37
  • Disagree on all points. My career path is a specific counterexample. If you have so many students with expiring family members that it biases end-of-term evaluations, then you have much bigger problems to worry about. Apr 3 at 18:08
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    You may well be a counterexample, but counterexamples do not equal generic phenomena. Moreover, my experience is that the number of students requesting such extensions is less than 5 out of over 200 for a typical course, also we are speaking about assignments which count for about 15-20% of the grade so I don't see how this biases end-of-term evaluations. I think we will have to agree to disagree. Apr 4 at 5:18
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I's suggest to handle this similar to how such things are handled with employees, and I'd distinguish two cases:

Where I am (Germany), employees get some accomodation when a close relative dies (typically would be 1 - 3 days paid leave when spouse, child or parent dies; usually needed to organize stuff plus the funeral day). We're talking here of a time frame rather directly after the death. These are by their very nature requests that would occur directly at/before the deadline ("my mum died yesterday, may I have an extension of the deadline?")
I'd consider it indecent as well as impractical to ask for documentary proof (I have not been asked by my employer for any proof - and the civil register excerpt anyways wouldn't have been available till much later; the death certificate that is available at least in preliminary form practially immediately contains information that is considered none of the employer's business).
However, see @WoJ's comment that documentary proof is routinely required e.g. in France, so better check with your local customs.

The second case is if they are later on unable to work (the "recurrent students"). For that, a medical note of not being able to work would be appropriate. I'm not talking of a full-blown diagnosis of depression or anything the like, here, btw. - just a doctor certifying that the student isn't able to work for n days, the same as they would for an infection or injury. If the situation isn't sufficiently distressful for this, the assumption is that they are sufficiently able to work to meet their deadline (or take an exam).

(I know of several students who were "rescued", i.e. got access to appropriate treatment/accomodation, by the public health officer they were sent to by the university exam office. This was between being sick affecting also one's mental capabilities and lack of knowledge about accomodations and who should get them.

I see this as a collateral benefit of telling students to bring appropriate medical notes.)

Right now the only complication with this is that access to the physician may be hampered by Covid. Other than that, there's nothing wrong with sending the student to the doctor.


it is multiple students, at the beginning of the year it would be 3-4 students per course, but now I guess when the semesters are heating up, its up to 8 - 12 students (for the two courses combined).

Difficult to say whether this is a lot or not, since it depends very much on course size (I've been in courses where we were 3, and I've been TAing in courses with 200+ students)

Still, I don't think it is easy to conclude much from the increase during the semester. Someone may be able to cope with the same amount of stress due to a death when there's only one deadline due early in the semester or the exam in question is only one minor one, but the generally higher stress at the end of the semester with many and more important exams and deadlines may genuinely be too much.

We have been giving these extensions like freebies throughout the semester(s) but the assignments now have more weights and we want to be vigilant.

Being more vigilant is likely a good idea. I'd recommend to take care that this vigilance stays proportionate and equal, i.e. affects all requests for deadlines equally.

For me, it would not be proportionate if students with an actual death conclude that they can save hassle in a stressful situation by getting the extension by any other excuse than getting the extension they're actually entitled to because it comes with a lot of burocratic hassle and prolonged uncertainty such as their passing/failing the course potentially being undecided for many weeks or even months because they do not yet have a civil register excerpt.

The most obvious and sure way for the student would be to obtain a medical note, and while that is good for you since you have a paper trail for your decision, and it will also put a certain hurdle to discourage fraud, an MD certifying that the student is not in a mental state to take the exam or deliver their project for another 2 days will typically not know nor probe more deeply into whether that death is fake or not, or whether the deceased was sufficiently close to warrant 1, 2, or 3 days off since that is not what the medical question is.

As a side note which may serve to decide what is proportionate: we do have lots of oral exams, and at least the more important ones are supposed to start by asking the student whether they feel sufficiently healthy to take the exam now. What exactly happens if they say "no" depends on the regulations for the particular exam, ranging from nothing other than that the exam does not take place now to sending the student to a doctor to obtain a medical certificate.

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  • I'd consider it indecent as well as impractical to ask for documentary proof We have the same in France and you have to provide the certificate (when it is available). There is no question of decency but of law.
    – WoJ
    Apr 1 at 20:17
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    This is the most practical answer, but someone (office staff) should keep a record. If a death affects a student so badly that they need lots of time and multiple extensions over a period of months, their university should at least notice, if not point them towards some mental health care if possible. They might be playing the system, or they might be genuinely struggling.
    – Pam
    Apr 2 at 9:36
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    @DanHenderson: two days before my Diplom defense, the head of the commission approached me saying that he had a funeral to attend that morning somewhere a few 100 km away and whether I'd agree to re-schedule the defense. He offered the same afternoon with a slight risk that he may not be back in time. In the end we agreed to have the defense one day earlier. I did not even think to ask him for any kind of proof. I'm saying this because we're talking about a situation where one adult asks accomodation due to a death from another adult, so IMHO my example applies directly. Apr 2 at 21:45
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    Presumably universities have rules about lying to acquire accommodations, like your degree can be cancelled, that sort of thing? That would seem to address the question of lying students; I guess then you need something in writing from the student as "proof", like an email, so it's not a case of you being accusable of lying if it turns out their grandma dies every time they need an extension of time.
    – pbhj
    Jul 24 at 20:28
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    @pbhj: The universities I'm familiar with also have a procedure for the more important exams (that you cannot retake ad libitum until you've finally acquired the required knowledge) where the exam office handles all such requests. This automatically means a) that all such requests end up at the same place, i.e. it will be obvious when someone claims a grandparent's death for the 9th time... and b) anyways a formal procedure requesting some kind of proof they can file. This also takes the responsibility off the instructor. Jul 25 at 20:34
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One extension with no questions ask is common and reasonable.

You should not demand a grieving student show proof of a relative's death. I also wouldn't demand a sick student provide a doctor's note.

Going forward, set a policy that any student who request an extension before an assignment or exam gets one extension, no questions asked. Treat your students like adults who have life emergencies. Don't make a difficult situation worse for the student by requiring documentation.

In general, I feel this is better as a soft policy that isn't announced in class, as some students with medical issues will need more accommodations, and students are less likely to use it up and then have an actual medical or family emergency.

EDIT

Some students have 2 or more genuine emergencies. One the second one look at past behavior. Did the student turn in good quality work on the first extension? Are they failing the rest of the class?

EDIT 2 - addressing comments

The reason I suggested not to make it an explicit policy is the extension should take into account the emergency situation. If a student is in a car accident and hospitalized for 3 days then it's reasonable to give a longer extension. Making it an explicit policy makes it more difficult to adapt it to the situation.

If you want to make it a policy then I prefer making a "drop 1 test or project grade" which lets students miss a single major grade without issue.

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    Re: "I feel this is better as a soft policy that isn't announced in class..." To me, this is always a red-flag for a bad policy, if you're unwilling to make it transparent or document it publicly. Apr 2 at 23:08
  • @DanielR.Collins it's not always a red flag. Only if there are foreseeable bad consequences, and if there are better alternatives. Can you elaborate on that?
    – toolforger
    Apr 4 at 6:39
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My policy in cases like that is "innocent until proved guilty". So, on principles, I tend to trust students and not question their motives. After all, they have a private life just as well as we do, and I'd certainly feel hurt if somebody asked me to justify me taking time off in such circumstances -- who am I to impose harsher policies on students ?

On the other hand, if the student has an history of looking for loopholes, always having good excuses ("my dog ate my paper"), etc., surely I'd start to be a bit suspicious. Well, even cheater's relatives happen to die, of course, so I'd prefer to catch him/her on a less important issue (the car accident of last week perhaps, or the flu of the week before....).

On the third hand - does it actually matter ? A student engaging in that sort of petty fraud (if it is fraud) is unlikely to be a good student. So Ok, he may get 55% out of a paper (or a class) that may otherwise have earned him a 50. So what ? You're not talking of totally altering the results of the degree, are you ? On that note, I'd make a distinction between a competitive exam (only the first 10 of the class move to the next year) and a regular exam (whoever scores more than 50 % passes). In the second situation, no real harm is done to anybody.

So on balance, compare the pros and the cons:

  • accept the excuse at face value: con: may earn the student a few undeserved points in his yearly aggregate mark. pro: the only humane thing to do in this case, perhaps even with a few kind words of support.

  • challenge the excuse: pro: stern but fair. con: if he was honest with you, you really behaved like a prickly as*h**e and distressed further the poor fellow.

On balance, I'd say the benefits of challenging the excuse (except in special circumstances, known liar or competitive exam or something like that) do not counterweight the "cost" of the other options (I'm too lazy to formalize it in terms of "expected value", this is left as an exercise to the reader).

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Some courses have a policy where a certain number of lowest scores on weekly homework assignments and quizzes are dropped. Because of this, I'm fine with not granting any extensions. I also tell the student that even though the assignment will get a 0, they can still request feedback from me. This usually does not cause any issues. However, with COVID, I think that it is reasonable to extend the number of dropped assignments.

This is why it is important to have a course policy regarding late assignments before the class starts and put on the syllabus for all of the students to see. You should not deviate from the course policy.

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  • Yes. But the situation we are dealing with for a course is that we already allow student to skip 1 homework without penalty. We do not mention it in the course policy because students tend to abuse that from our past experiences. However, the student will use that up, and for another homework, they will say that their relative passed away. Do you deny them the second pass? How do you deal with that?
    – Procyonic
    Apr 2 at 2:31
  • Yes, I would deny them a second pass. For the first time, I would say, "I can grant you one extension for this homework assignment, but I can't give any more extensions." This way they know that they cannot expect any more extensions. If they do ask a second time, I would tell them that you unfortunately cannot give more extensions, but if the HWs are not worth much of the grade, I would remind them that one HW assignment is not likely to seriously affect their final grade. If they are still concerned, you could advise the student to discuss with the course instructor.
    – Mehta
    Apr 2 at 3:06
  • Also, I understand that you might not have a say in this, and that instructors might want to hide the course policy to prevent students from abusing it, but I think even that would be preferable to a situation where lots of students ask for multiple extensions. The scenario you're describing would not be happening if the policy was made clear on day one.
    – Mehta
    Apr 2 at 3:16
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    +1 This is essentially what I do. It's solved a lot of problems, compared to my disastrous first semester teaching where I was giving extensions/makeups for everything without question, and quickly the majority of students were skipping all my tests. Apr 2 at 23:06
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Should we just let these things go?

Yes.

hold on to our standards and be vigilant with academic dishonesty

Consider a typical undergrad student. In-person learning shut down in March 2020, and classes have been online since. This means that after the immediate shutdown in March 2020, student had a couple weeks of remote learning and had to do their exams online. Assuming a summer break, they had two semesters fully online since then and it's looking like a lot of places will try to reopen schools for in-person learning in September 2021.

So, in the grand scheme of things, 2 full semesters online during the course of their degree. In my opinion, that leaves plenty of time for the University to weed out the students who don't meet their standards.

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One important point in your question is unclear. Where you write: “whenever a deadline is approaching […] a student will inevitably email the instructors […] requesting deadline extension due to the loss of a relative”, do you mean different students each time, or do you mean there are one or more students who have made this request multiple times?

If it’s different students each time, then there’s no reason to press for proof, as other answers already say. It’s a comparatively common circumstance, so more likely to be genuine than not, and if the occasional liar gets one or two extra deadline extensions, that’s not a significant unfair advantage.

On the other hand, if a single student is repeatedly asking for extensions due to bereavements, that is a legitimate cause for concern. Repeated bereavements coinciding with course deadlines seems unlikely — Occam’s razor suggests it may well be a serial liar exploiting the instructors’ compassion. So in this case, it would be good to verify the situation. However, tread very carefully and tactfully! If their story is true, they’ll be having a really distressing time already, and the last thing you should be doing is aggravating that.

In your position as a TA, all I would suggest is notifying the main course instructor of the issue; it’s their responsibility to decide whether and how to investigate. As an instructor, I would do several things before talking to the student at all:

  • Look for any other red flags in the student’s work/behaviour/grades.

  • Talk to instructors from their other courses (current and previous), to hear what they’d seen from this student. Further similar claims of bereavement in previous years would make their story less plausible. On the other hand, if they’ve made no previous such requests but given the same story in other current classes, that would support their veracity.

  • Talk to the department’s head of teaching (or someone similarly responsible) for advice on the department’s policy/practice in such situations.

If all of these support doing so, then (and only then) I would approach the student (still tactfully and cautiously) to try to verify the claims.

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    "it may well be a serial liar exploiting the instructors’ compassion" You should hope it's just a serial liar. I'd be a lot more concerned if all those conveniently-timed deaths turned out to be genuine. :-)
    – Ray
    Apr 1 at 19:46
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I disagree with the answer by user2768 because "This isn't your problem, it's your institute's." is not a solution at all. Yes, you do have to follow official policies, but that does not mean you should not try to solve the problem within the bounds of official policies, instead of just chucking it off to the university administration, who might attempt to solve the problem very sub-optimally!

I also disagree with Ian Sudbery's answer for the very simple reason that it is unfair to other students, and I don't understand how it got so many upvotes. If you want to extend the deadline, you will at least have to do it for every student, but even doing that fails to solve the unfairness because other students would have put extra effort into meeting the original deadline, which may have an effect on their other courses.

So what do I think is a solution? Well, you can make it your policy (stated in black and white right at the beginning of the course and announced in class) that late submissions would not be accepted for any reason but give a few more assignments than are needed to obtain maximum possible credit, with the final grade being computed based on ignoring the bottom few assignment scores. For example, if you have a maximum total assignment score of 60, you can give 5 assignments each worth 20 points, and drop the worst two scores before adding the rest.

This solves the problem because good students simply don't have to do so many assignments, and students with legitimate reason for missing one or two assignments would face no real penalty. You should also announce to students that if they have any legitimate reason that even your assignment grading scheme is insufficient to cater for them, then they must go through the official administrative processes. This prevents deliberate dishonesty, and yet you do not have to deal with cases that are really beyond your capacity to handle.

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  • By the way, there is some mathematical basis for such schemes, because they are more robust statistical measures.
    – user21820
    Apr 2 at 5:27
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    I agree with your proposal but I don't agree that these being "more robust statistical measures" is any valid mathematical basis. Deleting outliers in statistics is only a good thing is these outliers are invalid or uninformative. This often happens, hence the need for robust statistics. However if there are let's say six assignments with different topics and the student genuinely cannot do one of them properly (or misses the deadline without good reason), "robust statistics" is surely not a justification to ignore that in the overall assessment. Apr 2 at 12:14
  • @Lewian: I agree with your comment, which is why I only gave it as an informal comment and with the qualifier "some basis". Obviously, if you have different topics, you need to some how ensure that each topic is related to multiple assignments if you want to ensure that the assignment total score reflects understanding across all the topics. However, I think it is best to have that assignments are not a big part of the overall grade, and exams can cover all topics properly. In this way, it matters much less whether students miss an assignment or two even if it drops a topic.
    – user21820
    Apr 2 at 15:12
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Is there an institutional committee/policy for handling these requests?

First, it depends on your institution's policy. Many universities have a formal procedure for considering such requests, which may well involve a dedicated committee independent of the course convenor (this independence is a good thing not only for ensuring consistency but also because it means that the course convenor need not actually know why an extension has been granted or refused -- this means a student can keep the details of his/her adverse circumstances confidential from all but the committee members themselves). If that is the case, you should refer students to the relevant procedure.

If not, then you must always require some form of proof at some point (may be retrospective)

However, it is possible that, for relatively small extensions, the institutional policy may permit or require the course convenor to make decisions individually (but here in the UK, it is unthinkable for one individual academic staff-member to have absolute discretion over the granting of extensions of more than a few days for formal assessment deadlines). If you are required to take these decisions individually, whether due to it being a small request or due to lack of a policy, then I would advise:

  • be flexible as to how the student proves the adverse event he/she cites as grounds for wanting an extension;
  • be flexible as to when the student produces proof of said adverse event (i.e.: permit it to be retrospective); but
  • be absolutely consistent about always requiring some form of proof at some point, as a matter of due diligence (in the same way that just about any reputable employer will demand to see certificates proving credentials stated on the CV, and also do some sort of criminal-record check or background check when hiring someone) -- make it clear that any student requesting an extension will always be required to substantiate his/her claims, no matter how convincing/sensitive they are (the consistency is very important here, because it reassures students that the demand for proof is nothing personal -- failure to be absolutely consistent about this could lead to accusations of racism/sexism/ableism/religious prejudice/homophobia/victimisation/discrimination on a protected characteristic);
  • in the event that the student is unable to substantiate his/her claims after having made exhaustive attempts to request some sort of evidence and having given plenty of time for the student to produce it, you should apply any penalties for late submission that you would have applied in the absence of an extension.

Possible forms of proof

For a bereavement, one or more of the following forms of evidence strike me as appropriate:

  • a note from a medical professional (as you suggested);
  • a death certificate accompanied by evidence that the student is related (e.g.: in the case of a parent, the student's birth certificate);
  • a public obituary which mentions the student as a "survivor" (usually at the end -- something like "Josephine Bloggs is survived by her three sons, Adam, Cain, and Dorian, and her two daughters, Beatrice and Eve");
  • an affidavit attesting the death and the relationship from a notary, solicitor, funeral director, or public official who knew the family and was involved in administering the affairs of the deceased in some way;
  • the Will of the deceased, if it mentions the student;
  • the life insurance policy of the deceased, if it mentions the student;
  • where the student is involved as an executor/executrix of the estate of the deceased, legal paperwork demonstrating that;
  • where the student was asked to identify the body by the police, a letter from the relevant police force confirming that;
  • where the deceased died in hospital or a care home, a letter from the relevant hospital or care home;
  • where the student was officially listed as the deceased's next of kin, confirmation thereof (whether from the deceased's legal, medical, or employment records);
  • a programme for or documentation of the funeral (especially if the student was Chief Mourner or involved heavily in arranging the funeral).

(this is not intended to be an exhaustive list -- there are probably many more ways that the circumstances can be proven to a satisfactory level of certainty)

Showing proof to a trustworthy third party instead of you

If the student is uncomfortable showing evidence of this sort to you, you could ask him/her to show it to an official at the university (appropriate officials may be a departmental secretary, a counsellor, a pastoral/welfare tutor, a chaplin, or somebody else in a more 'neutral' position within the university). You then ask the official to sign a declaration that he/she has seen documentation proving to his/her satisfaction that the bereavement took place, and keep the declaration on file.

Again, you should check whether there is already a dedicated committee for this purpose (validating/assessing claims of personal adverse circumstances). As I said earlier, universities usually make some sort of formal provision for handling such matters in a reasonably confidential manner.

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  • This is totally in line with what would be normal for a major extenuating circumstance at the UK universities I've been involved with - where major extenuating circumstance generally applies to things that would prevent a student from participating in a formal university exam or major piece of course work (say a dissertation making up 25% all credit across the whole degree), or an event that affected many smaller pieces of work. But this question appears to be more about a couple of days for a weekly homework. At my uni this is down to the indeviduals discretion (in practice or not in theory) Apr 4 at 23:41
  • I'll also note that this year the university has a policy that students may self-certify for any pandemic-related extenuating circumstances. This is partly to reduce stress on students, but also to reduce the workload on the departmental extenuating circumstances committee in a year when our students were struggling with poor internet, sometimes in country's that limit internet access and at times 20% of the student body had the virus, and a negligible % of the country's older population (i.e. parents/grandparents/uncles/aunts etc) were seriously ill/died. Apr 4 at 23:47
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Do not give extensions, just average grades if the reason is valid

Extensions are always problematic. They create extra work for the instructors, and they may cause a structural unfairness in the course if some students are felt to be getting "extra time". And from the other side, if someone is genuinely suffering, for example with a death in the family or with personal medical issues, there is no guarantee that simply giving them more time will let them complete that course work in a way which reflects their ability. Either way, simply allowing an extra 48 hours to complete the work is not a constructive solution.

The simplest answer is to say that extensions simply will not happen. Any student can submit a reason why they could not complete the work on time though. For almost all cases (except final year projects, perhaps) it should be possible to look at past assignments and work out an average grade based on those. If there is some major trauma going on in the student's life, this lets them focus on healing themselves without also feeling under pressure to complete work which realistically they are never going to be able to put their best efforts into. This is fair and compassionate.

Conversely, if a student does not have a valid reason why they could not complete the work on time (and "my job is distracting me" is certainly not a valid reason) then they get zero. That's fair too, on the student affected and on the other students.

And the instructors then know exactly what work they have ahead of them for marking submissions, and aren't going to have random late hand-ins to deal with. Which is fair on your staff too.

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  • I dislike grades, and the rationale for asking for an extension often has nothing to do with getting a better grade.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 2 at 19:48
  • This is creative idea, but also fails to address the issue in the OP's question. How do you know if they have a valid reason? How do you verify that, and to what extent?
    – jpaugh
    Apr 2 at 20:39
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I'll keep it short. The classic answer is students need to show all the evidence needed to the department and not the TA or the professor. Department is the only capable body to trace this being a pattern or a real incident. And Departments can have their own policies to help students by helping them cancel a course or semester past deadline or etc due to tragic events.

That being said, I think maybe you need to frame the situation a bit differently.

Rather than making it about the individual students and trust, let's revisit why they have to be worried about something like this enough after a potential death of a relative to contact a TA and create a chain reaction of stress and guilt. Even if 30% of the time they tell the truth, I would hate for them to be worried about this kind of matter and its impact on their long-term view of academia and the education system.

Here is my suggestion:

Please do the student's mental health over their lifetime a big favor and give bonus points if they submit things early, fully symmetric to the penalty if they submit late. And they can always (pre/post) compensate for being late, themselves by being early in other times. Also, psychologically they are not going to submit early when there is no incentive, and procrastination is only natural in this kind of setup. I suspect if academia moves to this new paradigm, even industry, governments, and other venues will follow and we all have a more manageable world. And as I said before, looking back don't hate academia or the education system.

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