I have taught an introductory statistics class at a local university for a number of years now, and have a policy of no late work/tests without prior approval. (Of course, emergencies are exempt) I have also told my class that illness is a valid reason for missing a test, and as I understand that not every illness requires a doctor's visit, I don't require a doctor's note - simply send me an email beforehand letting me know.

Now, I'm having problems with this policy. I have had students sleep through exams and be completely honest in why they missed the exam; they simply shut off their alarm. These students do not get to make up their exam.

While on the flip side, if a student simply wants to take an extra day to study, all they have to do is claim to be sick, email me in the morning before the test, and voila! Free day to study. (I have not had any students take advantage of this habitually; i.e. sick every test.)

This feels ridiculous to me; I feel like I'm punishing students for their honesty.

How can I have an attendance policy that holds students accountable for being in class, while allowing for illness that doesn't require a doctor's note?

Edit - additional info:

  • I don't have an attendance policy for general lectures - I figure if they want to come to class, they will. If they don't, that's their choice too. It's more that the exam is given and due during the class they are missing. I like having hard deadlines for homework/exams - I feel it's better to teach accountability and bonuses as making my life easier grading/keeping track of assignments.
  • I agree that it's not good to insist on doctor's notes, nor is it good to punish people for honest admission of a not-great reason for missing an exam. My own inclination (for not-so-big classes) is to accept slight postponements without any reason whatsoever. And, indeed, not so many people want to delay exams... Aug 21, 2021 at 18:19
  • Are these small quizzes that take place at the beginning or end of a class, with a small weightage, or major exams that count for a significant part of the grade?
    – GoodDeeds
    Aug 21, 2021 at 19:18
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    First, treat your students as adults and many of these dilemmas about what counts as a valid excuse will magically go away. Second, missing an exam is a serious thing, so it seems to me that you are too lenient in excusing absences without a doctor’s note or other documentation. Third, yes, it is ridiculous to have a policy that incentivizes lying. To me this is a sign that you are emphasizing the wrong things. The whole “accountability” thing seems like a pointless distraction to me, unless you teach at a military academy or similar.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 21, 2021 at 19:35
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    @DanRomik, I agree - I try to treat my students as much like adults as possible. Hence, why I don't have an attendance policy for general classes, and take their word for it if they say they're sick or not. But I'd rather not have students come into class to take an exam if they feel sick, but haven't seen a doctor. (COVID concerns aside; I had these concerns about my own policy before that)
    – Sam
    Aug 21, 2021 at 19:45
  • 4
    @Sam okay, but it’s just not logical to ask them to claim they were sick on the one hand but not doing anything to verify it on the other hand. Some adults are still dishonest, and it’s not fair to the honest students that you’re making it so easy to cheat. Instead, why not have a policy that the lowest X exam scores will be dropped in the final grade calculation? (This assumes you are giving at least 2-3 exams over the course of the semester.) This way missing an exam could happen for any reason, whether medical or otherwise, and the perverse incentive to lie would be eliminated.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 21, 2021 at 19:51

3 Answers 3


Follow university policy regarding testing rather than making up your own.

Your university should have standardised rules for tests across the board, in order to facilitate a standard experience for all students, maintain the integrity and fairness of the assessment process across the university, and to facilitate timetabling during the end of semester exam block. By allowing students to push their exams back a day on their own word that they were sick, you're not only rewarding liars and punishing honest students, you're also facilitating cheating (since the students who have taken the exam can tell the students who haven't about the questions) and disrupting the exam timetable for every other class on campus.

As such, I would recommend that you look up your university's examination policies and make sure that your own policies are in compliance with them.

  • 1
    Not all exams happen at the end of the semester. Aug 23, 2021 at 3:31
  • Yes, but if there are exams during the semester then the university policy covers those too.
    – kaya3
    Aug 23, 2021 at 10:30
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    Certainly, my experience in the UK has been that the evaluation of students' extenuating circumstances for missing summative assessments is handled centrally, by university administrators working according to a published, university-wide rulebook, not left to individual module leaders. But lurking on this site has led me to believe that things are very different in the US. Aug 23, 2021 at 15:43

You have identified that your mixture of policies creates perverse incentives and that the consequence is that honest students are punished relative to dishonest students. If it feels ridiculous to you, that is a sign that things are not working well and you need to reform the process somehow.

How can I have an attendance policy that holds students accountable for being in class, while allowing for illness that doesn't require a doctor's note?

In a certain strict sense, you probably can't. If you allow a reason for non-attendance that is judged purely by the say-so of the student (without requiring external evidence) then that is necessarily subject to fraud, and there will necessarily be more punishment for an honest student who misses a test than a dishonest student who misses the test but uses an accepted excuse. If you would like to proceed with something like your present policy, I recommend that you consider "blunting the perverse incentives" by lowering the penalty for non-attendance. One option you could consider is to make some/all the assessment "redeemable" in some way (e.g., counting best three out of four tests; all in-class tests redeemable in the final exam, etc.).

In my own teaching, I have often used an assessment structure where I break the work for the session down into (three) parts and give an in-class test for each part, which is redeemable against a section of the final exam. The final exam is then structured so that it is just like a set of (newly written) in-class tests put together. Students may attempt any or all of the parts of the final to redeem the corresponding in-class test. (They have a fixed allotment of time large enough to do all three parts of the final exam, but if they choose to only do one or two of the parts, they have the luxury of working more slowly.) This structure gives me the advantage of being able to be quite strict on the in-class tests without an excessive penalty to the student, since they know they can redeem a bad mark in the final exam. This assessment structure has been popular with students (not surprisingly) and I have found it really helpful for ensuring that there is a failsafe in the event of some problem in a test. It is also good from a pedagogical point of view, because it means that the student only needs to demonstrate competence on each part of the course once, but they get a couple of chances.

If you were to implement some kind of "blunting" of the penalty for non-attendance (e.g., some kind of redeemable assessment) then this might be sufficient to encourage students to be honest with you and take the penalty for sleeping in. A student is far more likely to confess to such a shortcoming if they know that they will still have a reasonable chance to pass your course.


There are a few options to incentivize people being honest:

(1) Give a leniency: everybody can, for whatever reason, re-take one of their exams at a given moment if they failed the first try or didn't attend due to whatever reason.

  • Pro: everybody has the same advantage.
  • Con: More work for you in lanning and correcting.

(2) The lowest exam is dropped for everybody. So if they didn't attend, either because they overslept, were sick or didn't study, the exam gets dropped and the remaining four exams count towards their final grade.

  • Pro: fair for everybody, no additional work for you except in final grade calculation.
  • Con: No full understanding for the course is required. If some students have a passing grade after four exams, they don't need to pay attention for the final part.

(3) If there are homework grades, you could see if there is a way to use those. If homework aligns (roughly) per exam, you can let the students pick one exam to swap the corresponding homework grade with the exam grade.

  • Pro: fair again, makes sure that they grasp the concept (assuming they make their own homework).
  • Con: More administration for you to ensure their final grade calculation is correct.

These assume that students are only sick once during the semester on an exam day. If it is something more permanent/serious, of course a doctor's note is required.

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