I have a student who failed an exam I gave three months ago and was supposed to show up for a remediation exam this week. The date was announced long in advance, and the student neither showed (all the others did show up) nor warned me. Now, she is asking for a new exam date, saying she was absent due to “medical reasons”. She produced a certificate that she was seeing a doctor at the time, but nothing indicates that it was an urgent need (rather than, say, a scheduled appointment).

How would you handle such a case? I asked the administrative staff at my institution, and they told me to proceed as I saw fit. Should I ask a more specific justification? In what form?

  • 38
    Just because the medical appointment was not urgent doesn't mean it could have easily been at a different date. Medical doctors can also be very busy, and if saying no to a proposed appointment time means postponing the appointment by a month or more, it might be medically sound to schedule it during an exam anyway. However, she could of course have informed you in advance if that's the case.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 15:12
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    Also, in your system, what are the consequences of failing her? Does it mean she has to quite her studies? Be delayed by a year? In The Netherlands students failing an exam can simply take the next regular exam. The consequences of failing are quite important for the decision on what to do.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 15:16
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    Why don't you just ask the student if the appointment was urgent or just scheduled? Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 17:02
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    @gerrit To be clear: if she tells me upfront that the appointment was scheduled, and she didn't care to ask me how to work around the issue beforehand (but only showed up after the fact), I will fail her for sure. I would consider it a completely inappropriate behavior.
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 17:26
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    I'll also go ahead and say it - in my mind, a professor has no business asking "why" behind someone's medical care. It has a very high chance of going rather badly, but you in the seat of deciding what's "sick enough", etc.
    – Fomite
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 21:49

12 Answers 12


It seems you have the answer with regard to procedure. The question now is what you should do in terms of "fairness" or ethics.

Educators and students should approach the work from the same perspective - for the student to learn. Academics should not be punitive, nor should they be a race to the bottom between the "good kids" who do everything right and hand their work in on time and the "slackers" or "hot messes" who can't seem to get anything in on time (flanked by the excuse-makers who suffer heavily from the Dunning-Kruger effect). The most pleasurable students to teach are those who truly care about the subject matter. Unfortunately, a lot of students forget this and are instead overwhelmed by the stress of grades, lack of structure, etc.

Your best bet is to have a frank discussion with the student. Is she currently in danger of failing the class? Is she a borderline case? Whatever you do, don't assume that she's being manipulative. Instead, tell her that you would like to reschedule, but you're concerned that this might happen again. Ask her how she thinks she's doing in the class and what she would like to have happen. From there, talk options. Does she have the option to just drop the class (at most places, faculty can get around deadlines rather easily)? What is her worst case scenario? Is she prepared for the final? She should have the option to take the exam, but it might be a good opportunity to talk about actions she can take to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. Talk about learning from failure and taking measures to prevent this in the future. It's possible she's a pathological liar, but it's also possible that she's a kid who needs more guidance navigating the adult world.

No matter what, you ought to give her a chance to take the exam again and open communication about her status in your class. Invite her to your office hours to talk and tell her to email you back if she can't make it. If she fails to respond, then you have to fail her, but making sure that it's an emotionally neutral experience is probably your best bet.

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    The student is a flake. It's absurd to take this kind of hand-holding approach with a student who has behaved in this way.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 21:14
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    @Ben It's absurd to decide what to do based on her behaviour before understanding what caused this behaviour. None of us are entirely responsible for what we do. Genes, culture and context all have a much greater influence on what we think and do than anything else. Furthermore, even if the student is indeed a flake (crazy or eccentric), that doesn't stop you from being her teacher and being responsible for her education inside your classroom.
    – Shawn
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 17:26
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    @Shawn And you extend that behaviour to all students who fail a class, I'm sure, not only to those who offer an inappropriate reason?
    – sgf
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 19:11
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    @sgf I'd say you extend this behaviour to everyone as much as possible, this line of reasoning applies pretty much everywhere in life
    – Shawn
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 12:42

In my experience dealing with these types of things correctly takes more time and effort then letting them slide. Continue scheduling exam times for her until she takes the exam or the incomplete automatically converts to a fail. I would even reuse the last remediation exam instead of making a new exam. I would only schedule the exam at times that are convenient for me.

  • 14
    Excellent answer. People can and do have legitimate medical emergencies. Assume the medical need was both sensitive and an emergency (for example, emergency medical treatment for rape). Don't talk about it except a sympathetic I hope you are feeling better.
    – emory
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 11:29
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    The good thing about this answer is that if the student still fails the course, then it is entirely her fault. She can't blame you for not giving her another chance. However, she might have gotten some tips from those who did take the remediation exam, and giving the same exam to her would give her an unfair advantage.
    – JRN
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 12:50
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    @scaaahu yes she is potentially gaming the system and getting an unfair advantage. I just don't think it is worth the effort to prevent it.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 13:10
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    I'm not entirely in agreement with putting up a harder exam because you suspect the student is putting up a false excuse. The truly fair and ethical thing to do would be to denounce a doctor for providing a false statement and the student for breaching what's most likely a fault in the code of conduct. Giving her a harder exam, just because of a hunch is unfair if she truly had a medical condition. If the student was really sick, she probably wasn't able to prepare better and is physically/mentally at a disadvantage due to said illness. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 23:09
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    @EstebanBrenes: No, the truly fair thing to do is to fail the student. Giving one student extra time to take an exam, absent extreme circumstances, puts them at an unfair advantage over other students. ["Wait, why does she get to take the exam late? I could've gotten an A if I'd had another month to study. Uh... I was sick. I had lupus, yeah, lupus, that's the ticket (cough cough)."] Students have all the time on the world to learn the material; this student is asking for extra time to improve their grade. Not the same thing.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 21:50

I would allow rescheduling, but be sure to use a different exam.

As some other answers indicated, one probably does not want to get embroiled in the details of the student's medical situation, and it may be inappropriate, besides. (I think it would be illegal in the U.S. to ask for details beyond a general note from the doctor.) Thus, one simply cannot have the information to know whether missing the exam was frivolous or not.

With regard to communication, yes, in principle one imagines that the student would have been able to contact you in advance to explain that (s)he'd miss the exam. But, again, without prying, one cannot know.

Yes, the odds may be good that the situation is due to student negligence than medical emergencies... and we should hope so, in the larger scheme of things. But, since we cannot be sure, my choice would be to treat the situation as a medical emergency, whose details I will not know. And allow further exam retake.

As to whether allowing further exam retakes is fair to the students who've managed to do things on schedule... if there was a genuine medical emergency, we are attempting to compare incomparables. If not, my consolation is that, in my experience, students who miss exams due to their own negligence or disorganization similarly fail to "profit" by extra chances.

Thus, I take claims of medical/personal emergencies at face value, and do not restrict re-takes of exams.

  • 1
    +1. I would like to comment that when I was in school, retakes of exams were always more difficult under the assumption that at least some of the people getting a doctor's note for the sniffles just want more time to prepare, or maybe want to hear from their peers the sort of material presented. After the policy was implemented, there were remarkably fewer doctors' notes presented for excuse due to illness (and no related increase in illness outbreaks on campus.)
    – Roddy
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 19:46

At the university where I teach, a student who fails to show up for a registered exam will be given a failing grade unless he or she presents a medical excuse. I suspect it works similar where you are (given the system you're describing).

In this case, I think your best bet is to offer an additional remediation exam, but also indicate that there is a time limit to the extensions she can take—if she has not passed the exam by the end of the semester, a "did not take" or failing grade is to be submitted instead, as appropriate.


When I was in this situation, I just allowed the student to reschedule, but that the exam format would change to an oral exam.

I've found (after a bit of practice) that oral exams are a great way of deciding grades or making pass/fail decisions. I even started to use them in my regular assessments.

The content of the oral exam should be based on the remediation exam that the student missed, but can be more free-ranging in terms of what extra questions you can ask.

I also suggest allowing the student to have a companion present in the exam room. The companion can be there, but cannot speak (unless asked by you). Many students get freaked out by oral exams if they haven't done them before, so allowing a trusted companion to be there often (somewhat) alleviates their stress.

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    I'm completely puzzled by the “companion” suggestion. I mean, my 3-year old still goes to school with his teddy bear, but I don't suppose I have to accommodate a 20+-year old student for their fear of oral interrogation. In two years, she will have to find a job, and I don't suppose she can ask friends to sit in her job interviews :)
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 17:25
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    @F'x - To many people, oral exams and job interviews are two completely different things (for one, job interview questions are more often subjective rather than objective, like exam questions usually are), and trigger two completely different emotional responses. For example, I can do a job interview just fine, and be relaxed the whole time, but I'm often shaking from nerves by the end of an oral exam and far more nervous going into it.
    – Shauna
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 17:36
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    @F'x: It's a completely cover-your-ass issue: particularly if the student is a different gender from the examiner, you want a witness to see that things are above-board. I stated it from the student's perspective, because I really have seen grown men (college students) cry when trying to answer relatively basic questions in front of a whiteboard.
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 19:28
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    @PeterK. it's really sad. I do hold one-on-one oral exams now and then with students, and if the venue is relatively quiet, I will leave the door open for this very purpose… but only if that's reasonably possible
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 20:18
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    @F'x - What you believe and how a person actually reacts are two totally different things. And they may exercise the exact same skills, but the environment and circumstances are different, and can be different enough to cause a different stress response. Pavlovian-like responses have nothing to do with logic and intellect.
    – Shauna
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 16:45

This student has already had three opportunities to get a better outcome:

  1. She could have learned the material and passed the original exam.

  2. She could have shown up for the remediation exam.

  3. She could have contacted the instructor in a timely manner about the doctor's appointment.

She blew all three opportunities. There is no need for further hand-holding. The appropriate response is to let her grade on the original exam stand. Any other response is unfair to the other students, who played by the rules.

Speculation about the difficulty of scheduling a doctor's appointment at a particular time is beside the point. She still could have contacted the instructor in a timely manner.

Speculation that it could have been an emergency is beside the point. She hasn't asserted that it was an emergency.

Concerns about her medical privacy are beside the point. For example, if it was a life-threatening situation or an unforseeable situation, then she could have asserted that without volunteering the details. She didn't.

  • 1
    I once was unexpectedly hospitalized for 9 days, and was only able to contact my professors about 3 days into it. When I got out, I asked for a medical excuse for school. The note only said "Jon Doe was here in the hospital." They wouldn't give me anything different. I'm glad my professors did not take this advice and let me make up my work even without proof of emergency. -1
    – SH7890
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 2:59
  • @SH7890: I don't see why your example contradicts anything Ben Crowell said. Any unexpected illness requiring a week of hospitalization can be (and medically is) considered an emergency! And I'm not saying that I think Ben's approach is the best, but that you haven't given sufficient reason for rejecting it.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 17:30

If I understand correctly, your student had previous knowledge of her appointment, and I do agree that perhaps it was an appointment that was hard to get (some doctors or conditions may justify it).

I agree that you should not pry, and respect her privacy, and she is entitled not to tell you.

Now, that said, it seems as it was not a medical emergency, so she had full knowledge at least a day ahead of said appointment. If we were living in 1970/80s with no cellphones/email/sms, etc, she might have some justification on not notifying you. But we are not, she should have sent an email (out of sole courtesy for the time you already set apart so she does not fail).

If it were me, I would fail her, it gives 2 messages, you should do well on your first try and, if given a second chance, you cannot get really picky, it also teaches to respect other people's times. (Oh my, three lessons in one go, that is more of what she gets if you keep giving her chances)

  • 2
    "it seems as it was not a medical emergency" but we can't be sure.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 15:34

To answer your last question, Should I ask a more specific justification?, I think not.

If you do so, it may constitute a case of intrusion of privacy. She has the right to not tell you any details. And it does not matter what form the justification is. Besides, you might not be able to verify it.

If I were you, I would fail her. You did everything you could including announcement in advance and the administration allows to do so.

Also, you need to look at this issue from other student's perspective. It's not fair to them if you allow her more chances because she would have more time to prepare for the remediation exam than other students who already took it.


Everybody deserves a second chance. The first line of this question, I have a student who failed at my exam three months ago. I suspect that's why the remediation exam was there for.

In the OP's question, the student missed it without prior warning. She wants it back. It's her responsibility to convince the prof that she has good execuse for missing it. However, nothing indicates that it was an urgent need on her document. The prof wasn't convinced that she had a good reason. So, he asked the question, can he request for more info? He really shouldn't because of privacy concern. The burden is on the student's shoulder, not the prof's.

I would agree that in the general cases, the prof should not fail the student just because of his/her medical conditions. However, in the OP's question, it was a remediation exam already. IMO, one is enough. You missed it. Do you have a good reason? No?

  • 7
    I don't see how it is not fair to the other students. They earned the grades they earned. Even if this extra time means the student goes from an F to an A, the devaluation of the other students marks is trivial. If the student only goes from an F to a C, which seems much more likely, the devaluation is even less.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 13:28
  • @DanielE.Shub The exam was already a remediation. If it were a regular exam, I would consider a remediation exam for her and other students who had failed.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 13:39
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    I quite disagree with failing her. For all we know the doctor's appointment couldn't be moved. Appointments may involve meeting several specialists in one go and moving those could mean moving it for months — which may be a bad idea if a medical situation progresses negatively.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 15:15
  • Students who wish to use their medical conditions as justification for failing to meet the standard terms of assessment have no right of privacy. This should not be a concern. Commented May 22, 2014 at 14:32
  • @JackAidley That is an absurd statement. Commented May 20, 2019 at 17:15

I've had friends in this situation -- the thing about medical problems is that some of them are quite chronic (and thus, what happened before could happen again), as opposed to the one-time medical emergency that the system seems designed for.

Compound this with the hardness of getting THAT doctor for THAT date to prevent medications from running out or to avoid being dropped by that doctor, and even a prescheduled appointment becomes a non-neogitable enterprise (although if that were the case, I'd think she could have warned you!)

Let her retest, but I see no need to redo the exam unless you have reason to believe she is using this as a way to cheat or otherwise buy time.

If she does it again, well... you can keep retesting, but I've known professors that failed someone for less. At that point I think it's more a case of whether you like this student enough not to autofail her for something unrelated to the actual material.


While the involved doctor most certainly is not allowed to tell you why she was there, I wouldn't be too surprised if they (or their receptionist) might confirm if the appointment was made long ago or not. That will of course not protect you from them being somehow related to your student and lie, but it's hopefully unlikely.

edit As mentioned in the comments, the doctor/receptionist is not obliged to provide any information and may refuse to do so for their own sake. You could ask your student for a prove if she claims it was not planned long ago, but then again, in dubio pro reo.

You could ask her to either wait until the next year's exam (if possible), or invite her to an oral exam quite soon - after all, the visit to the doctor is supposed to have been spontaneous, so she should be prepared enough to manage that while you can infer whether the student was trying to gain time or not.

And while it would suck to later learn she lied, it would suck even more if you turned out to be wrong. She'll have enough other exams to prove her honesty, I suspect.

  • 3
    If I were the involved medical doctor, I would not release any information pertaining to my patients unless my patient asks me to do so. I would argue that the student should ask the doctor to call the prof. See my updated answer.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 9:09
  • @scaaahu That's a good alternative. I'll edit that in, too Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 10:44

She's had plenty of opportunities to study and prepare for the exam. My response would be something like "Have a seat and take the exam now." There's no reason for you to be at all flexible about rescheduling and no excuse that the student can have for not immediately taking the exam. Having the student take (and most likely fail) the exam would settle the issue once and for all.

  • Wow! That's really a bad answer. A student who has medical reasons will "most likely fail"??? There are many things (including emergencies) which can not be rescheduled and are much, much more important than an exam...
    – user96501
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 20:16
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    The student in question had already failed the exam once, (and would thus most likely fail on a second attempt.) The "medical issue" wasn't an excuse for the original exam that the student failed, but rather an excuse for missing the scheduled second attempt. My suggestion was that rather than refusing the student another chance to retake the exam, the student should be given one last chance to retake the exam immediately- there's no reason to draw this out further. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 20:48
  • Why do you assume that the student fails the exam most likely only because she failed once before? By this reasoning, why does your institution allow to take an exam twice? Moreover, the student could have something different to do in the next hour (and you also) - only because she once had a medical problem she does not lose all her rights immediately. I do think that under some circumstances, for example if the student got raped, and you force her to sit still and take an exam, you could end up in the newspaper as very inhumane professor, so be careful!
    – Haque
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 23:26

In my school, redo exams have a maximum grade of the minimum grade to pass. The idea is that if a student can't pass the first time, they best they can do is 'just pass' and not more. For medical reasons, maybe consider the first redo an actual first attempt. However, the latest seems like a bit more than reasonable (someone that sick should stop attending classes and focus on her health).

So, I would give her another exam but her maximum grade would be the minimum passing grade.

  • I grew up from the same system as your school. I wonder if the OP's location allows such rule redo exams have a maximum grade of the minimum grade to pass.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 9:52
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    In case anybody wonders what system I had been in. Those students who's got 60 points or more out of 100 are considered pass. Those who's got 50-59 will be given a redo exam (only once). Those who pass the redo exam will get 60. Those who fail or miss the redo exam will fail. Those who fail the redo exam or got <50 in the first place will have to retake the class. A very fair deal to me.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 10:50

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