In his 45 years of teaching college psychology, Lee McCann, PhD, has heard just about every excuse from students who missed a scheduled exam.
"Oh, typically, it's that the car broke down, I got sick, or somebody in the family is ill or has died," says McCann, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
In his experience, as many as 10 percent of students miss a scheduled exam, so teachers need to have procedures for make-ups, he says.
Working with Wisconsin-Oshkosh colleague Baron Perlman, PhD, McCann surveyed psychology instructors on the best strategies for make-up exams. Some recommendations from McCann and other veteran teachers include:
Allow anyone make-ups. In McCann's experience, it's best not to require students to document why they miss an exam for the first time. In his view, requiring proof just gives a student who's so inclined an opportunity to "game the system" and generate a phony excuse. McCann's leniency extends to one missed exam per student per semester — anything more, and he requires a valid reason from the student. "If you want to know why a student missed a test, you're adding a lot of grief to your life," he says. Similarly, Ball State University psychology professor Mary Kite, PhD, allows each student one "do-over" per semester, such that a student who failed an exam can ask to take a second, alternate version of the exam, and a student who missed an exam can take the retest, too. In both situations, a student has to take the alternate test within a week's time.
Unlike McCann, Carlson requires her students to list a reason for why they missed a test, and explain what steps they've taken to make sure it doesn't happen again. And at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Janet Carlson, PhD, requires exam-missers to sign a statement acknowledging that a special accommodation is being made for them. The statement includes a pledge that if they're taking an exam late, they haven't asked their classmates about material on the missed test.
Discuss make-ups from day one, and list exam dates. Include your exam make-up procedures in the course syllabus, and talk about the procedures during the first class, says McCann. Also, let your students know ahead of time when they'll be facing exams, so that if they have an unavoidable scheduling conflict, they can discuss it with you, he notes.
Be fair. Design a make-up exam that's comparable in format and difficulty to the one a student missed, and hold the make-ups at regularly scheduled times during the semester, says McCann. To avoid being punitive, don't schedule the make-up exams at inconvenient times, such as early Saturday morning. Carlson, president of Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), agrees that a student with a valid excuse shouldn't be penalized with a purposefully more difficult exam. "If the reason for needing the make-up is legitimate, why should a person be punished?" she says.
Use a testing center if one is available, and give directions. Make sure students know how to find the site where the make-up exam is being held, and if necessary, include a map, McCann notes. Many programs have testing centers where students can take make-up exams, which should make scheduling the make-up convenient for professor and student.
For all the times students miss exams during a course, McCann's noticed that they rarely fail to show up for final exams at semester's end.
"Nobody dies, nobody gets sick. It's a cure-all," he says, laughing.