I am the professor in charge of a first-year course for undergraduates. Recently, I received an e-mail from a student, the general meaning of which is the following:

Dear professor,

I am sorry for missing the last few lectures and assignments. During the last few weeks, I was really sick with the flu. Could you please help me to get right on track with the class?

How should I respond to this e-mail? Should I give the student an opportunity to "make up" the missed assignments, or should I give the student zeros for the missed assignments?

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    Check your school's policy. (For example: mine asks students who miss class due to illness to get medical documentation and share it with an office that will then coordinate with their professors to help them get makeup work while protecting the student's privacy.)
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 2:31
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    @ff524♦: How/why would a student have medical documentation for something like the flu, for which going to a doctor wastes both the student's and doctor's time (since there's nothing to be done), and risks spreading the infection to everyone in the office?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 17:55
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    @jamesqf I don't work in that office, so I don't know what they ask for. I just like that as an instructor, my students don't have to share any medical information with me.
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 18:25
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    I try to build a flakiness buffer into the course so that a certain amount of garden-variety screwing up and/or illness doesn't materially affect the final grade. I do it mostly because I don't want to have to decide which excuses merit special treatment (or whether the student is lying). Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 19:58
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    @neuronet I don't know about no excuses - I've woken up suddenly very ill and it's plausible someone could be sick enough not to let you know at 7 a.m. they're going to miss your 7:30 lecture and not feel well enough to do so until later in the day. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 3:10

6 Answers 6


First, there may very well be policies in place to handle this, so I would check those first, in case your hands are tied in some way.

Generally speaking however, I'm fairly permissive with medical absences and helping students catch up, if (as it seems from your email) the desire is actually for them to catch up. In your case, for example, I'd schedule a meeting for the student to try and figure out a path forward.

I'm aware that this leaves me open to being exploited by the occasional student who has decided to fake an illness, but I'm far more concerned with make sure those students who do have major medical or life-related issues have the chance to do well in my classes, and I'd rather the occasional student get away with an undeserved extension than have someone who genuinely needed my help not get it.

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    I'll say that the effect of being permissive like this depends on the environment. The first year I taught at a community college, and was permissive with makeups like this, fully half of my classes were skipping the tests and taking it on the later makeup date (which thus threw off the whole course schedule for feedback and answers by at least a week, etc.). Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 5:40
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    Good policy but better to refresh on unconscious bias training before employing it.
    – user18072
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 18:31
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    @djechlin One of the reasons for it is unconscious bias - I don't want to be in the position of judging what a "real" illness is.
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 20:03
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    @djechlin This is exactly why my make-up policy is not dependent upon the reason for an absence. I make no distinction between various excuses for missed class because I don't want to be responsible for adjudicating "excused" and "unexcused" absences.
    – user79517
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 21:48
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    @Mehrdad Several friends and colleagues with mental illnesses have told me a doctor's note is especially burdensome for those having mental health crises. I'd rather take a student's word for it.
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 22:25

Check with your schools policy

Usually, such things are in general handled on a different and official level, like: bring a doctors certificate or similar. So in your response, politely point him to your schools policy.

Official repetition exams

Sometimes, policies allow for repetition exams for the ones who failed/were sick. This is like a second try, as if you booked the course again. Whether this is available depends on your school and usually on your willingness to prepare such an exam. This is although a more fundamental decision about how should students get a second chance? Repeat the whole course? Get a second exam?

Exceptional cases

Last, there can of course be exceptions from the policy under some circumstances. Test whether this is the case here (say, is there an extraordinary thing which makes it reasonable to apply special rules to this student?), but for me this does not seem to be. Also think of what the alternative for the student then may be (he has to repeat a whole year because of this but would have finished otherwise). Be careful with exceptions tough as they can create precedence cases! So choose them carefully, if at all.

  • As well as providing guidance to the student, the policy would also provide teaching staff guidance on how to proceed once the student has met requirements. For example, by clarifying how much help catching up is reasonable (there's a difference between helping catch up for a couple of exercises due to a week or two absence and helping to catch up for ALL exercises in a semester).
    – Peter
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 11:50

We have a nasty flu going around that has left people being very sick for weeks. They would love to have had the limited version described by another person in this thread.

Why are people so quick to judge on these things?

to answer the question: give the opportunity to make up the work, but perhaps give a 5% penalty for failure to email you earlier if there's no third-party evidence coming along.

  1. Requirement: Your duty as human is to provide help for that in need (all humans next to you).
  2. Requirement: Your duty as teacher is to provide information for that in need (students).
  3. Requirement: Your duty as employee is to validate (check) the knowledge of the students.

Based on these requirements the solution of this is basically, that you help him out by providing him a path to reintregrate in class, because his illness could be serious. But, do not hessitate to give him small validation exams, in order to keep record of his progress. You should give him time to regenerate from illness and compensate his knowledge lack.


This answer focuses more on addressing the issue in future semesters. If you have room to innovate, it may help to focus on your desired course outcomes and let assignment policy (and even the assignments) flow from them.

With a set of outcomes in mind, and a sequence of major assignments that (I hope) all play a role in reaching them, I knew I wanted to orient all of my policy around getting students to work hard, complete the full assignment track, and learn from their mistakes (both in coursework, and time-management/responsibility).

This orientation led me to a few specific conclusions:

  • Getting students to learn from mistakes means: making sure they have room to make them, providing clear feedback that they messed up, and expecting them to rectify it.
  • Unless I receive notice of a university-verified excused absence, I apply a diminishing daily late-work penalty that ensures it's worthwhile to turn assignments in on the due date, but leaves enough points on the table that it's always still worth completing late assignments.
  • Break major assignments down into a few parts to dilute the impact of an occasional discretionary absence or missed due date.
  • Require corrections on all major assignments.
  • Aim for a well-distributed workload with weekly deadlines and steadily-increasing assignment weights. This communicates my expectations (and puts procrastinators on notice) with clear grade feedback while the stakes are low.

A relaxed attendance or late-work policy isn't directly compatible with some kinds of work, but I think it's a good nudge to re-examine assumptions. As long as you still make appropriate full-credit accommodations for people with officially-documented excused absences, I think it's fine to have an office-hours make-up option (i.e., same exam for half credit, much harder essay exam, etc.)


We all know the student is telling a white lie here. I think that is a decent choice of action. One thing that really matters is that the student learns. Secondly, its important to uphold timelines in order for the school to be efficient. As long as no one perceives this student to be blatantly disrespecting the timeline given, there'll be little or no damage to the integrity of the rule, making the greatest good being achieved by bowing to their request.

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    I don't konw how you can "know the student is telling a white lie here". I thought academics were data driven. Where is the data?
    – Floris
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 21:25
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    @Floris If you are debilitated by the flu for weeks, your problem isn't the flu. It's the AIDS or cancer (treatment) or whatever that has destroyed your immune system, or that you otherwise have something worse than the flu. Severe flu symptoms, including fever, subside in a few days on average; minor symptoms can last a week or two, but the CDC only recommends you wait until 24 hours after the fever subsides to return to work/school. Not to say the student can't suffer from such a problem. Only reason otherwise to stay out for weeks is if the university insists on it (outbreak concerns). Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 21:48
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    Maybe the white lie is that the student had some disease they would rather keep private? Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 22:12
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    I had a bad case of the flu the year the vaccine missed it's target with one strain, and it knocked me on my ass for the better part of a week and a half. The idea that illness has two settings, a day or two and "AIDS or cancer" is absurd.
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 2:31
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    @zibadawatimmy You are aware that multiple flu epidemics in the 1900s killed hundreds of millions of people, right? You are also aware that many countries with national health systems (including the UK where I live) issue flu vaccines to at-risk people, not just to reduce the cost from complications due to flu, but also to cut the avoidable deaths?
    – Graham
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 10:22

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