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I recently received a memo stating that I am not allowed to ask for doctor's notes when students are absent from class, as this is allegedly a violation of privacy rights.

If this is the case, then how can a faculty member legitimately verify that a student who claims to have missed an exam or other activity as a result of illness was, in fact, sick as claimed? Couldn't students abuse such a policy to postpone an assessment for which they feel unprepared?

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    Typically there is an "office of student affairs" or similarly named office that can verify student absences. – ff524 Jul 10 '16 at 21:29
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    I would think the issue at hand here is that you cannot ask for specifics about their medical absence, but you can get a note or something else that verifies the time of the appointment but not the reason. So you can't verify that they had acute appendicitis, just that some doctor says they had a medical appointment at an indicated time. Were you told that even that wasn't allowed, or was it just disallowed to get specifics? – zibadawa timmy Jul 10 '16 at 21:47
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    Although an information-controlled version of such excuses can often be arranged, I've just given up on it, and am willing, and tell the students up front, that if they think they have a good excuse for missing an exam/class/whatever, ... "fine". Sure, kids could use this to postpone things... but maybe that's not so terrible, if the real goal is to have them eventually know/understand/do some things. My term-long schedule is meant to be reasonable, practical, but is not sacred, after all. – paul garrett Jul 10 '16 at 21:54
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    @zibadawatimmy Students may wish to keep the identity of their medical provider private from their instructors. (If the note comes from a psychiatry practice, or an oncologist, that's kind of a giveaway.) At my university, student handbook specifically say that students should provide documentation only to the office of student affairs, and to refer faculty to that office. – ff524 Jul 10 '16 at 21:54
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    @ff524 That would seem to be a common policy, from what my googling reveals. You could probably make that into an answer. I'd up-vote it, at least. – zibadawa timmy Jul 10 '16 at 21:58
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Couldn't students abuse such a policy to postpone an assessment for which they feel unprepared?

Yes. My experience teaching the first semester at a community college is that granted an open-door absence policy, the majority of my students were skipping all the tests, circulating the real test among themselves, and then taking a makeup together on a later date. (Assuming I could get them all in one place.) This was more than double my scheduling/test-making/test-grading labor, and also delaying the assessment/feedback cycle by a week or more for each test.

In my second semester I ended that policy. The policy since has been: Nothing is excused for any reason. No excuses or notes need be given to me. One low test score is dropped (and likewise for any other assignments). This is an enormous time-saver (both in test-giving and excuse-verification), and allows me to immediately hand back corrections and feedback in the next class meeting.

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    Theoretically a student could have legitimate medical reasons for missing two exams. How would you handle that? – Nate Eldredge Apr 14 '18 at 4:42
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    @NateEldredge if he's like me, handle it on a case by case basis, for example, permitting the makeup (if it can be done before the test is handed back), increasing the weight of the other tests or final (easier if there are more tests so that a test doesn't end up worth more than the final), or offering a paper in lieu of the test (in classes where that makes sense). IME this happens more for university business (athletics, etc) than for medical, but since instituting this style of policy, I've magically gotten less double missed tests which makes accommodating them easier. – guifa Apr 14 '18 at 5:06
  • Yes, in principle I'd do the same as guifa above. In practice it's never been an issue; e.g., I can go so far as to give an incomplete, ask the student to contact me when available to make up the work, and then I'll never hear from them again, or they'll decide to file for a retroactive medical withdrawal instead. Obviously YMMV. – Daniel R. Collins Apr 14 '18 at 16:14
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I don't know about the US, but in the UK and Australia it is standard practice to request a doctor's certificate (same as for sick leave from employment, e.g., https://www.fairwork.gov.au/leave/sick-and-carers-leave/paid-sick-and-carers-leave/notice-and-medical-certificates). This is not the same as obtaining medical records. Typically these are checked by administrative staff to verify the doctor actually administered it, since students have been known to forge them.

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    can confirm this is usually the case in the UK, to the point where it is a nice little side business for GPs (a doctor note always cost £30 at my previous GP)... – la femme cosmique Jul 12 '16 at 10:53
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As stated in multiple comments, ask the Division of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, or similar organization, to verify the student absence for you.

Having this intermediate will save you from violating your student's privacy, and also relieve you from the burden of assessing whenever a medical certificate is genuine or not.

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You shouldn't. There are several reasons besides privacy why you should not ask for doctor's notes.

  • It implies you think students are dishonest. If you act as though you expect students to be honest, that teaches them that honest behavior is correct behavior.
  • It encourages students to come to class when sick, which makes more people get sick.
  • It wastes medical resources.
  • I have had students send me pictures of their injuries I would rather not have seen because they thought I wanted evidence.

Finally, I suspect students who feign illness to postpone an exam will not do well on the make-up exam either.

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    "It implies you think students are dishonest." - I'd say exactly that is the duty of whoever conducts the exam. Exams aren't about trust, or else the questions could just be handed out as homework problems. Likewise, I do not see how acting like expecting students to be honest would encourage honest behaviour. Personally, I always felt let down by lecturers who did not enforce the rules that were in place; from an honest student's point of view, it means that honesty is not honored and instead, the dishonest students get all the advantages and no sanctions from their cheating. ... – O. R. Mapper Jul 11 '16 at 18:23
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    ... Additionally, "I suspect students who feign illness to postpone an exam will not do well on the make-up exam either" is unfortunately not guaranteed to work out as expected. Like this, it carries the bad taste of thinking that "this student does not deserve the degree and should not pass, but I won't be the one to fail them, hopefully, someone else will take that upon themselves". – O. R. Mapper Jul 11 '16 at 18:29
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    Totally disagree with this answer, though I respect your good nature. It is 100% certain that some students are dishonest. I know of examples of fake sick notes from the past year. I think you owe it to your honest students to make some effort to keep things fair. – beldaz Jul 12 '16 at 10:49

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