Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dealing with excuses

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

“Two university students had a week of exams coming up. However, they decided to party instead. So, when they went to the exam, they decided to tell the professor that their car had broken down the night before due to a very flat tire and they needed a bit more time to study.
“The professor told them that they could have another day to study. That evening, both of the boys crammed all night until they were sure that they knew just about everything.
“Arriving to class the next morning, each boy was told to go to separate classrooms to take the exam. Each shrugged and went to two different parts of the building. As each sat down, they read the first question.
"’For 5 points, explain the contents of an atom.’
At this point, they both thought that this was going to be a piece of cake, and answered the question with ease.
Then, the test continued . . . ‘For 95 points, tell me which tire it was.’”
When I first read this joke I identified with it immediately.  What a terrific joke!  As a college professor for 30 years, I heard many excuses; however, I found a number of successful ways to deal with them.
I have a perspective on all of this, and it certainly colors my overall point of view.  In all of the classes I took as a student (about 20 years of classes), and in all of the classes I taught as an instructor or professor (close to 30 years of teaching) — even my time as a “practice teacher” in high school — I never missed a single class; thus, I have never used nor had to use an excuse.  Now, I have to admit that I loved being a student, and I had the same identification with being a teacher and large-group lecturer.  I always did my homework, submitted my papers and reports on time, and appeared on time for all examinations.  (In all of the college textbooks I have written and in all of the additional textbooks editions as well (well over 30), I have never missed a deadline.  I consider deadlines just as sacred or inviolable now as I considered class and lecture meetings when I was a student.)
I learned early in my teaching that one of the ways I had to try to avoid having to listen to student excuses was simply to make all of my classroom policies clear at the outset in my syllabus and attached handouts.  Depending on how often during a week my class met, I would make that number (usually one or two) the number of excused absences permitted during a term.  After that, I would simply lower a student’s grade by one-third for each additional absence beyond that.  This policy was a powerful one, and it severely limited having to deal with student excuses.
Regarding missed papers, I stated at the outset of the course that the grade on any late paper — no matter the excuse — would lose one full grade for every day it was late.  No matter how late, however, it was still a required part of the course.   I seldom had to use this policy.  I found that if students knew the policy up front, they found ways to deal with it.
In one class where the final paper for the class counted for much of a student’s final grade in the course, I structured the paper in such a way that students had to begin work on it early — like choosing their topic, doing their research, outlining their approach — and in this way, I helped students organize their time.  Every student had the paper submitted on time.
To help students in the basic course which enrolled a thousand students per term, I had students choose their speech topics early.  They selected three topics, their graduate assistants would number them in the order they thought best for class presentation, and students would have to stick to these choices as they prepared their final speech.  This was a technique for helping to limit the amount of plagiarism as well.
Just as an aside here, I taught an interpersonal-communication class of over 300 students per term.  I created a seating chart so I could call on students by name, and I used a daily half-sheet response that allowed me to take roll, receive feedback, and quiz my students at every class meeting.  I remember the attrition that occurred between the first class meeting when I would hand out the syllabus and all of my expectations and the second class meeting when those students who wanted a “freebie” lecture course that they did not have to attend, left the course.  Amazing!
I had a teaching philosophy that may appear a bit egocentric; however, I can’t deny its existence.  If I was going to be paid to teach a course, and if I was going to prepare in the best way I could to teach it, I had no intention of allowing my students — the students who chose to take the course from me — to wander in and out of class, decide when to come to class and when not to, and to make their own decisions (during the duration of the class) as to whether they thought the material was important or relevant or meaningful.   If you (talking to the student) choose me as your instructor, you must make the same commitment to this class as I will — no exceptions and no excuses.
One of my goals throughout my teaching career was to appear to be a fair, flexible, and tolerant teacher.  At times, I found, some students loved to push the limits to determine just how far a person (me!) was willing to go.  Most of the time this occurred early in the course, and when a student discovered I had very clear and well articulated expectations and regulations, often they would either drop out or tow the line.  I found, too, that it was always  better to accept an untrue excuse than reject a legitimate one and be seen as unfair.  In a couple of cases, but few more than that, I would check my record-keeping book on the student’s performance in the course thus far, and if I could tell that the goals of the course were being met, I tried in the best way I could, to help students deal with their emergencies and complete class assignments as well.
You may wonder why the issue of dealing with excuses is even a concern for teachers.  I agree with Sandra Goss Lucas and Douglas A. Bernstein, in their book, Teaching Psychology: A Step by Step Guide (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005) when they talk about dealing with excuses.  They point out: “The way you handle excuses conveys a message to your students about your teaching philosophy, and most particularly about whether you view students as partners or adversaries, the degree to which you trust them, and how you care about them” (p. 137).  It can set the tone for an entire term, determine how effective you will be, and, most important of all, govern (or at least influence) how much students are likely to learn.
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On the web site Faculty Focus, there is a short essay by Maryellen Weimer, “A Smart Way to Handle Student Excuses” (October 2009), excerpted from the book Effective Classroom Management, where a “stuff happens” card is discussed: “Professor Daniela A. Feenstra, who teaches a variety of business classes at Central Pennsylvania College, has developed an interesting way through this dilemma. On the first day of class she gives each student a ‘Stuff Happens’ card. It’s about the size of a business card and also includes the semester date and a place for the student’s name. In the syllabus (and in class) she explains that this is a student’s ‘one time only’ forgiveness card.
 “If a student is late for class or might need a one-day extension on a paper, the student may trade the “Stuff Happens” card for this exception. Students don’t have to get her approval or permission to use the card. Use of it is entirely at their discretion. However, each student gets only one card, which is not transferable and won’t be replaced if lost.
“If no “stuff happens” during a given a semester and a student follows all classroom policies and procedures, the “Stuff Happens” card may be traded in the last week of class for 20 bonus points.”

At, there is a great little essay at the College and University blog, “The Cultural Phenomenon of the Lying College Student” by Tara, where she begins her essay saying: “It is easy for me to believe that college and all it entails can cultivate an unwitting liar. I can understand how the pressures of deadlines, parents, activities, etc., can instigate scads of little fabrications to ease the load of college life. However, I have seen time and time again how those little white lies become habit, and habits are very hard to break.”  The useful part of the essay is where she cites “many studies [that] have been done on what psychologists call ‘the use of fraudulent excuses.’”
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Copyright January, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.

Read more: The Cultural Phenomenon of the Lying College Student - Blog


  1. Maximillion Ryan IIIJanuary 19, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    One way Dr. Weaver tested for attendance at his lectures was to place one question on each test related to "incidents" that happened in the classroom. One in particular was when a student celebrated a birthday (with cakes and balloons) during a lecture. That incident appeared as a test question on the next exam. If you were there, you knew (and so did he)!

  2. Excuses are Excuses...


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