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This question bothers me a lot. We are wasting taxpayers money (or wasting scarce healthcare resources plus students' time if you want to look at it that way). I don't have a good answer.

I wonder if conscientious doctors hate us for doing this?

Something I experimented with previously was to give students four one-hour-long exams during the semester, and based their grade on the best 3 out of 4 (not including weight on the final). (I had graders to help me, however.) If they skipped an exam because they didn't feel well, no problem. I would just assign a 0, and the remaining three exams would count. But this didn't solve how to deal with the final exam.

Jack - that's a good idea. My classes are offered in 3 hour time slots, and I don't find that people concentrate well before or after exams, so it wouldn't work for me - but I could see it working well.

Nick - I suspect they figure it's not the best use of their time - and they're right.

I think academia takes itself too seriously, and that's why the situation is so difficult.

If "real" society did this, there would be chaos. What would happen if you had to renew your bus pass at a certain specific address between 2pm and 5pm on Wednesday, December 16, and if you didn't make it, you had to get a doctor's note, couldn't ride for a month, and had to pay anyway? That wouldn't make sense, would it?

An economics exam is not like a traffic accident, or a heart surgery, where it's now or never.

It can't be that hard to come up with a way of evaluating students that doesn't depend on everyone being at the same place at a single, specified time, can it? I mean, at the very least, two exams at two different sittings. I appreciate that the logistics of accommodating one hundred students can't be easy, but I always found this "be there or you fail and you have to sit through the same lectures again" rule to be very disrespectful of the students' time and dignity.

I agree with Nick that asking for doctors notes is a waste of healthcare resources.

Quite aside from that, I gave up long ago trying to screen student excuses. Why should I have to track how many grandmothers they have? So I don't even ask for excuses anymore. Anyone misses a test can arrange to rewrite in the next week, the caveat being the test will be harder (to reduce the abuse factor). Takes a bit of work to schedule, but less stress than trying to judge excuses. And the students appreciate it according to my evaluations.

Cynicism:) My goodness no.

From 1988 until 2000, I allowed the student - with a medical certificate - to ID the date they could write the deferred. By 2000, on average 10-12 students in EACH 40 student section of 4th year courses i.e. 25% to 30% were missing the scheduled exam and demanding customized make up exam dates.

Some of the students that did not game the system, started to complain - in my teaching evals no less!! - about how deeply unfair this was - and it was.

So, in 2000 I announced a new policy in my syllabus and reminded students each week in class of the new policy.

I stated that any student could miss the exam with a medical certificate and that the exam makeup period would be the university scheduled makeup period for exams missed due to medical certificates. The university schedules makeup exams in February for the fall term and in June for the winter term.

From 2000 to 2012, I have had EXACTLY ONE i.e. 1, student miss the exam with a med certificate - compared to 10-12 per section x 5 sections = 50-60 students PER YEAR previously.

This astonishing outbreak of healthiness occurred OVERNIGHT!!!

NOTE: In my 4th year courses, my one and only final exam is scheduled in week 7. So, it is a FINAL exam – albeit scheduled just past half-way point followed by seminar presentations for balance of course - as we cannot schedule an exam during the last 2 weeks of term.

However, with a real mid-term (as you schedule a second final exam), you could announce that the makeup exam period for deferred exams will be the FINAL WEEK of UNIVERSITY FORMAL EXAM SCHEDULE e.g. Dec. 17-22.

The critical behavioral empirical conclusion is that students have suddenly become vastly healthier since 2000 in my classes.

My students are remarkably healthy - although I have observed the odd student writing my exam with a sniffle.

Phil: "I always found this "be there or you fail and you have to sit through the same lectures again" rule to be very disrespectful of the students' time and dignity"

Interesting. On-line education is a really serious challenge to the traditional university model. This is one respect in which the on-line model beats the traditional model hands down - at least from the perspective of student convenience.

Jim, sounds eminently sensible.

And I saved the Cdn health care system thousands upon thousands of dollars.

And I installed some discipline into my students literally a few weeks before they graduate (as they take the capstone course in the final final term).

And for all the lefties, I introduced ""social justice"" to the course for the students not gaming the system.

And I unclogged university resources dedicated to the deferred exams i.e. exam rooms, support staff, proctoring costs.

And yes a student did complain to the AD. And I stated that if any AD wants to argue that the formal official university deferred exam makeup policy is somehow improper and inappropriate - go for it. (He did not).

I stopped asking for notes years ago. If they miss the midterm for whatever reason, or do better on the final than on the midterm, the midterm weight automatically shifts to the final.

From the on-line calendar:

December 6-19, 2012

Final examinations in fall term courses and mid-term examinations in fall/winter courses may be held. Examinations are normally held in the day and evening during the Monday to Saturday period. In exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to schedule an examination on a Sunday.

February 15-23, 2013

Fall-term deferred examinations will be written. Examinations are normally held in the day and evening during the Monday to Saturday period. In exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to schedule an examination on a Sunday.

When I was a student I criticized the whole final exam idea based upon reading Peter Drucker, who said that recurrent, predictable crises are a problem.

BSF - so I'm not the only one.

Ian - interesting. I'm amazed you carried on with the customized deferred exams for so long.

Min ;-). Though I suspect that, in some students' eyes, much of post-secondary education is just a string of recurrent, predictable crises. (In other words, any substitute for final exams will be equally stressful i.e. term papers, presentations, etc).

Part of the University of Alberta's pandemic (H1N1) response plan was eliminating the requirement for a doctor's note. They've never gone back. If a student wants to declare they're unable to write the exam, then alternate arrangements are made - either a deferral to another time, or, in the case of midterms, some profs prefer to move more weight onto the final.

Ultimately, there's little incentive to game this system. You can't get course credit without demonstrating you know the material; an 80% final is not going to be less stressful than a 30% midterm; and if the prof has had to put in additional work to allow you to write, they're probably not going to be disposed to generous marking standards. Deferring finals also has significant downside - for most students, remembering material exactly long enough to write the final is an artform. Having to come back to material a month or so after last attending the class is not a desireable outcome.

And reading Ian's comment, I suspect that the U of A system works reasonably well because they're quite strict about when makeup finals will be schedules (less so about midterms, but I think most profs opt to increase the final's weight anyway.)

Neil - thanks, that's interesting - might be worth checking out further.

Frances Woolley: "Though I suspect that, in some students' eyes, much of post-secondary education is just a string of recurrent, predictable crises."

Indeed. ;)

Neil - Carleton - like all universities - is very strict concerning the formal scheduling of deferred final exams due to illness. The Deferred Exam makeup period is spelled out in the Calendar a year in advance at every Cdn universitiy that I examined.

The more grey or ambiguous area for universities - is the issue of mid-terms - as they are scheduled "inside the course term".

Some students perceive it is worth it to defer an exam with a med certificate - IF as a consequence - the student has influence over the scheduling-timing of the make-up exam. Remove that influence and you remove the sought benefit or value.

What I did was to increase the "cost" to the deferring student - which is to simultaneously reduce the benefit of deferring the exam - by "piggy backing" on the university formal official policy concerning deferred exams (which was 3 months later halfway through the next term). Students instinctively understand that is a very bad deal for them.

But it must be announced well in advance - in the syllabus – or the student can appeal.

Having sat for 3 years on the Graduate Appeal Committee, I learned that we have become very juridical concerning student appeals with heavy emphasis on due process including full disclosure of all info to appellant, right to challenge the evidence, repudiate the allegations, make fresh representations, fresh arguments, fresh excuses etc.

Frances – the practice of exam deferrals did not start with large numbers in my case. The number of student deferrals started slowly and accelerated dramatically in the 2 or 3 years before I ended it. In addition, I was much more tolerant as I was younger and more naïve.

Ian "with heavy emphasis on due process including full disclosure of all info to appellant, right to challenge the evidence, repudiate the allegations"

You say that as if it's a bad thing...

In reply to Nick Rowe,


An academic Family Doctor

Frances - you may recall when the university was "regulated" more informally. However, in my judgment, we became far more formally, procedurally juridical or what Weber would characterize as legal-rational, since the mid 1990s.

This is not a bad thing as it prevents abuses and "wink-wink, nudge-nudge".

However, the price paid is that the role of judgment is reduced or displaced by a more juridical reliance on formal documentary evidence that is seen as more reliable not because of its intrinsic intellectual cogency or worthiness but simply because the evidence exists in written format while there is no tangible evidence that supports tacit knowledge and judgment.

This denigrates the role of judgment and tacit knowledge while elevating process and procedural knowledge. e.g. was the student advised in writing and x days in advance.

My first syllabus was 5 pages long. Now with all the required insertions and disclosures concerning right of appeal etc, the same syllabus is approximately 15 pages.

I've pretty much given up on filtering in-class exams, for three reasons.

1.Time with students is really too precious. So, for them to verify their learning of the material, lengthy online multiple choice tests, retakes allowed to perfection. Its abut learning the tricks to raise IQ scores. At present, I don't even post a penalty for retakes - only the best students persevere. Also, pretty much, in Blackboard cheating is difficult. It reports the trace of retakes; and one can pretty much tell when people suddenly jump from 75 to 300 in succession that something has happened and who was involved. The interactive essay writing can be done in forums.

2: Students deserve a voice, so I incorporate the old-style European oral final with paper prep. Drafts I can correct and teach on; but students find it very motivating to be told, "This is not really for your teacher. What will really matter to you in future is how what you have had to say is received by your fellow students. You will want to tell them more than they already know." I sit in the audience and make everybody address questions, though usually having to carry the ball. But, usually a lot of good paper/powerpoints, hearty applause for the presenters. This is hugely important to the spirits of urban and minority students and, easily trimmed, works really even better with the already cultivated self-esteems of Europeans.

3: Neuroeconomics. There are manifold influences on test performance, including psychological and social. One is as likely to lead students into their grade positions based on first impressions as on their intellectual capacities. Back of the room, income, etc., etc. Some papers say give students a drink of water, others a cookie. The literature is divided. However, there is one important trick all economists can use. After reading,

Mathias Pessiglione, et al. "How the Brain Translates Money into Force: A Neuroimaging Study of Subliminal Motivation" Science 316, 904 (2007),

I experimented on some class sections. In the first, I handed out the test and wished them well. In the second section (this was back in the old days) I handed out the test, then held up a $50 bill for a few seconds before letting them begin. Average scores were 10 points higher. Too bad for adjuncts, since this usually works with #20s, rather less with $10s or $5s, and for $1s is almost but not quite, imperceptible.

In my school there was no such thing as you describe. Especially first and second year there were subjects taken where hundreds of students took an exam at any given date (midterm or final). The general rules were as follows: the university guarantees that there will be at least two terms per subject with reasonable delay for that students can use. This means that they will have at least two opportunities to take an exam. If they will not take it (or they will not pass), then they can repeat the given subject next year where they will again be given two attempts. If they will not pass the exam even this time (4 attempts in total), then their study ends.

If student has serious issues (medical ones notwithstanding), there are always possibilities to build individual study plan or even to to interrupt the study for some time. There are other rules regarding how long the whole study can take, but there is a lot if room to be used by students who have serious problems. I admit that this system looks harsh and it tended to punish you from time to time. But overall I think it was fair and balanced. With 50 subjects during 5 years each with midterm and final exams it is quite likely that you will not feel at your best here and there. But other students follow the same rules. And in the end it increases signalization value of the school to potential employers. The less room there is for students to game the system, the more value your marks and diploma have for them.

Has any one been teaching long enough to know if students skipping - I mean becoming ill and deferring - exams has increased in the last 20 years? I don't recall any of my classmates missing an exam. But then I don't recall my classmates tolerating plagiarism either. It happened but we all looked down on the idiot who thought cheating would maximize his long-term university education. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize "education" is secondary to "transcript grades" for many (most?) people.

I know I'm getting old because I make comments like the following: We seem to be training people that the "rational" (and therefore "correct") way to behave is to cheat (legally) as much as possible, because that is the way to profit-maximize. And as the song goes "In Jersey anything is legal as long as you don't get caught."

Back in my time, more than a quarter century ago,

at a hard university, TU Munich (with more nobel prizes than all of Canada)
we were greeted in the very first lecture with

"take a look to the left, take a look to the right, after Vordiplom (2 year exams) only one of you will still be here, who will it be?"

Doctor notes? We had 2 chances, in special cases 3. The very most folks did not get formally purged, but realized, that they just dont belong here

Peter: I am in my 31st year of teaching (34th if you count the courses I taught while a grad student). I don't notice any changes in the number of students missing exams for illness.

Peter - I suspect there may be a positive correlation between the amount that students pay for university and their sense that they are entitled to be treated as paying customers - and tuition fees have risen a fair bit in the Canada in the last 30 years.

Frances: that's exactly the attitudes of rich kids towards the teachers in private colleges.
One of my brother studied and one of my colleague taught ( at about the same time) at a very exclusive private cegep in QC City. There were two parkings : one in the front for students, one in the back for teachers. The college was probably ashamed of the staff's cars as compared to the students'. I remember the Jag one girl used to drive the 1000 feet from her home ( dad a prominent businessman) to the nearby college. And the beater my friend used.

Jacques: this reminds me one joke: child comes home from school and tells to his dad "We have somebody from poor family in our class. But don't worry I didn't mock him. He is our teacher after all."

An issue I didn't see raised above is whether long exams are necessary at all. If we are going to stick with in-class lectures, why not have short quizzes every time, and skip altogether the long exam? Given the evidence that students don't retain much anyway, do we think students will learn better if they have to cram before midterms and finals (let's face it, most students cram, even though we warn them against doing so).

Jack - when in a 3 hour lecture slot do you give the quiz? If you give the quiz at the start, are you prepared to deal with the crushing ego blow of having students take the quiz and then walk out rather than listen to your lecture? If you give the quiz at the end, are you prepared to deal with the irritation of people wandering in during the class? If you give the quiz at some random unannounced time during the class, are you prepared to deal with the "sorry the bus was late" and other excuses, as well as the dozens of requests for information about when the quiz will actually be held?

@Prof. Woolley, you`re right, I suppose I was naïve and expected students to behave like my cohort did way back when. Students arrived and left on time, and daily quizzes were not a problem. Times have changed, I guess.

One of my upper level undergrad class had a bi-weekly quiz. It wasn't worth much (~15% in total) and was given at the beginning of the lecture based on material we were supposed to have read in preparation for the class. We would get the quiz back the following week and that day's lecture focussed on the points that the majority of students had trouble with. We then had the opportunity to resubmit and bring the grade up to 100%.

Some students took the time to resubmit, but I think the majority made sure they correctly understood what they got wrong and moved on. A bit of a tangent, but I'm always surprised at students going to great lengths to get an A+ in economics. The amount of time required to go from A to A+ (at least in my case) was never the optimal use of time. The marginal utility was far less than going out for the evening.

Jack, Peter - With 60 or 70 students the marking would be impossible, unless one gives multiple choice quizzes, or had the quizzes substitute for midterm exams. Which would be possible, certainly. Perhaps I should try it and revel in small class sizes...

In MAthematical Physics long ago (1974), we had to cover the first 12 chpters of Kreyszig's Advanced Engineering Mathematics. We woulfd work on each chapter and we could take a short test ( about 20 minutes duration.) We needed a 90% mark to be considered successful and move on the next chapter. We had five chances for each chapter, with different test each time. If failed five times, you moved to the next chapter. If passed 8 chapters you got a D. 9 got a C,10 a B and 12 an A.
By Thanksgiving, many of us had already passed the course and the prof had exhausted his supply of tests. He had never anticipated that we reacted in such "economics" manner: work hard with certainty of payoff. Unlike the usual three hour-long exams that so frightened the us in other subjects. Quantum Physics 1 in second year was also offered on this model but the second-year students had already been so scarred by standard exams that they didNt even try the tests, unlike us who devised a simple strastegy of try the first one, see how it works the study to the then-known requirements.
It worked weel , though the prof, in its next course on Vibrations and Waves modified the reward system. We would cover 10 chapters of Berkely's Waves. Each failed test would cost us 2 points out of ten, with an A at 95 points.
Had the method been extended to the whole durriculum, we would probably have worked to our relative strenghts.
But the experience was stopped by the other profs who saw that, in their course, we worked to the curve and collectively diminished our effort, knowing the curve would go down for everyone with essentially no consequences.

I have taught in a few different universities and I find there are vast differences between universities. When I was in Ontario, up to 10% of the class would provide doctors’ notes for missed examinations. Where I am now, I have only had 1 student in over two years claim to be sick for a final exam and a small number claim to be sick for midterms.

Why not just charge $100 (or $200 or whatever to cover costs) and let anyone take a deferred exam? Some unfortunate people will get sick or injured on the day of the exam, miss it, and have to pay the hundo. It sucks, sorry you got sick, but sometimes people get sick and sometimes it costs them money. At the same time, if you just wanted to go skiing, or go on Christmas vacation or wanted to catch up on Boardwalk Empire, you lay down the c-note and defer your test for a week. It seems the point of the test is to see how well you know the material, not to see how well you know the material on December 12, 2012. Also, I'm very lazy and I like it when society accommodates me.

Jacques: one of our analytic courses revealed that students who majored in religious studies had statistically higher grade points. Concluding that it must be due to the gracious curve grading of those professors, I took a Religion elective the following year presuming it would pull up my GPA. Alas, it was one of the most strictly graded classes I ever took. (And I don't think it did much for my GPA either.)

Peter: and they probably were those who cheated the least...
Our Calculus III prof ( a compulsory course for everyone in physics and engineering)always handed out a graph showing how each group fared : beat results for Physics, then Physical Engineering, then Electrical, Mechanical and Civil.

At my university in France, attendance at tutorial sessions is mandatory and more than three "unjustified" misses results in a zero on the two midterms. Misses, and justifications, are rare, at least among students who intend to pass the year. However, in my two years leading tutorials, about half of the doctors' notes I have collected are issued by doctors who share a last name with afflicted the student. The policy itself is silly, but that just makes it a little worse.

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