What’s your policy (or your institution’s policy) on requiring doctor’s notes or other documentation for missed coursework?

Yesterday afternoon, my university announced a change in its policy regarding the requirement of doctor’s notes for missed coursework. Previously, university policy was (roughly) to require a doctor’s note from students who missed major exams for medical reasons. And instructors were free to require a doctor’s note in support of medical reasons for missing other coursework.

Under the new policy, instructors can no longer require a doctor’s note for any purpose. We can, if we wish, request “some documentation” to verify a medical affliction or other reason for missed coursework. But it is up to the student to decide what documentation to provide, if any. It is up to the instructor’s discretion whether or not to excuse the student from the coursework, taking into consideration any documentation provided. See here, here and here for details.

The university also is providing a new, free statutory declaration service to students. Basically, students can declare under oath before a Commissioner of Oaths (several of whom are based in various offices on campus) that they missed coursework X for reason Y. This oath is a proper legal document; instructors have been informed by the university that lying under oath is a criminal offense in Canada. Lying under oath also is a potential violation of the university’s academic misconduct regulations. However, it is still up to the discretion of the instructor whether to accept sworn reason Y as a legitimate reason for missed coursework X.

Previously, I used to require a doctor’s note for any coursework missed for medical reasons. I confess I never really thought about whether my old policy was the best one. I just adopted it without much reflection when I was first hired and stuck with it (perhaps I should have reflected more 14 year ago…). And I support the general goals of the new rules: not burdening afflicted students or their doctors, or unnecessarily intruding on student privacy. So I have no objection to the new rules and I’m happy to follow them. But the new rules leave scope for instructors to impose a range of different policies, and I’m unsure what mine should be. I want to treat all students fairly and be seen to treat them all fairly, under a clear policy that I state up front. I want to minimize the number of ad hoc, case-by-case decisions I have to make, because I think they increase the risk of both actual and perceived unfairness.

Having spent 14 years requiring doctor’s notes for medical absences, I confess I’m instinctively uneasy about not requesting any documentation whatsoever for missed coursework. I worry that if I go with an honors system and don’t request any documentation, it’ll be abused by more students than I (or many of the other students) would be comfortable with. But maybe it’s just sheer force of habit that makes me uneasy about not requiring any documentation? Also, if I’m going to request documentation in cases of medical affliction (by far the most common reason for missed coursework), I want a clear policy as to what sort of documentation I’ll ordinarily accept. And I don’t want a policy that respects the letter of the law while disregarding its spirit (e.g., routinely using my “discretion” to deny any excuse not supported by a doctor’s note).

One policy would be to request either a doctor’s note or statutory declaration, at the discretion of the student, and say up front that in the absence of either I am unlikely to feel I have sufficient reason to excuse the missed coursework. An alternative would be to not require any documentation for any missed coursework. Instead, just have a blanket policy of redistributing the weight of any missed assignment onto the remaining similar assignments (e.g., if you miss a lab assignment for any reason, the weight is redistributed across the remaining labs). On the theory that any students who choose to skip coursework for frivolous reasons aren’t really gaining any advantage, they’re just “raising the stakes” for the remaining coursework. And there are other alternative policies. But I’m very unsure which policy would be best.

Oh, and my first class meeting is tomorrow, so I need to come up with a new policy ASAP! (Why yes, I do wish the university had given a bit more notice on this, why do you ask?)

So that’s where you come in. What’s your policy, or your institution’s policy on this? What would you recommend? I’m sure many of you have much more experience than I do with other policies. I look forward to learning from your experiences.

31 thoughts on “What’s your policy (or your institution’s policy) on requiring doctor’s notes or other documentation for missed coursework?

  1. I like the idea of not requiring a doctors note but allowing students to use the oath service. Doctors notes cost money, which is unfair to low income students (usually not that costly, but still). UManitoba requires doctors notes or other documentation for missed final exams.

    I have small classes so my policy has been that they just tell me why they missed a quiz, etc., and I will re-weight the other assignments or I give 10 quizzes and drop the lowest mark, etc..

    In terms of the bigger picture – I doubt a C student is getting an A in the course by lying about being sick or whatever. They might gain a couple of percentage points by being dishonest, but it’s worth it to me to have an open policy of assumed trust so that it doesn’t penalize the students who are actually sick or have family deaths, etc.

    NB: My classes are primarily Indigenous students and there is research in the US that shows Native American students are 7x more likely to have a family funeral during the academic year compared with non-Native Americans… I will find the study and link to it but there’s one example of a case that academics often sneer at (‘grandma died… again??!’) for missing class but that hard data shows legitimately affects under-represented minorities… So by having overly strict policies we may be enforcing the privilege that’s inherent in academia – penalizing the students who need the most support.

    • Good point re: the appropriate policy maybe varying with class size. The first class I’m teaching under my uni’s new rules has 144 students. I’m not going to be able to learn all their names, much less get to know them all well.

      In general, it is important to me that students not gain even a few percentage points through dishonesty. For instance, I’m quite careful about checking for plagiarism even on assignments that comprise only a couple percent of the final course mark. But in the context of missed coursework, the desire to enforce honesty (and be seen by all to do so) needs to be balanced against other considerations. As opposed to the case of plagiarism, where there’s no other competing value that would make me want to ignore any cases of plagiarism.

      In the past, in courses that have many quizzes, I’ve occasionally tried the “there are N quizzes, lowest quiz mark gets dropped” policy as a way to avoid having to ask students to justify missing quizzes. You missed a quiz because you were sick, or your car broke down, or you just decided to skip class that day, or whatever? That’s fine, we’ll just drop that mark. Doctor’s notes or other documentation only come into play if you miss a second quiz. But the problem I ran into was that students who missed a quiz due to illness or other legitimate reason didn’t like “using up” their lowest mark that way. Students kept bringing me documentation and asking to be excused from the first missed quiz, so that they could drop the lowest mark on a quiz they’d taken. I of course declined those requests, but it was annoying to have to deal with them. “Which policy will minimize the number of annoying requests for exceptions to the policy?” is definitely a consideration for me! (though not the most important consideration, obviously)

      • On reflection, I wonder if the reason why past students have annoyed me by trying to get excused from quizzes despite a “drop the lowest mark” policy is that I and many other profs required doctor’s notes for missing other coursework, and excused students with appropriate documentation from coursework. So students were used to the idea that, if you get sick, you get a doctor’s note and get excused from coursework. Maybe under my uni’s new rules, students will no longer get used to the idea, and so won’t make annoying requests to be excused from work rather than being obliged to drop their lowest mark.

  2. I’m new at teaching, but I never felt I needed to request any sort of doctor’s note or anything of the type – I just trust students on their word. Of course I don’t know how things work in Canada; here one is likely to spend three hours in line waiting for a consultation, in an environment that’s not really healthy. Often the best way to get better is to stay home and rest, and going to the doctor will just make you more sick – because of the long waiting in the environment with air conditioning that often has not been cleaned in a while and other sick people around.

    However, I do think that things declared under oath are a good idea. Trusting people is important, but perhaps not too much, and people are less likely to take advantage if they are under oath.

    • Re: how much to trust students, I can tell you that in some classes I’ve taught in the past, 10% of students committed plagiarism at some point during the semester. So not a huge percentage, but not what I would call trivially small either.

      I wouldn’t venture to guess how many students would lie about their reasons for missing class if they weren’t required to provide any documentation or take an oath. Maybe hardly any would! But based on my experience with plagiarism, it seems possible that more than one or two students might lie about their reasons for missing class.

      Re: the oath, yes, I agree–presumably students aren’t as likely to just casually lie if they have to take an oath.

      • About plagiarism: Once (or maybe twice) someone commented that yes, she copy-pasted stuff from the internet, because she thought that having the correct response was the most important thing and was unaware that doing this is wrong or considered plagiarism. So I’m inclined to think it can be an honest mistake in some cases… not all of them. In the few clases I taught, the plagiarism I detected was way over 10% – perhaps as high as 50%, which is scary. But I can’t tell which part of it were honest mistakes. I now include a statement at all the exercices I hand out that plagiarism is not tolerated.

      • At the start of term, I go over detailed examples with students as to what constitutes plagiarism, why it’s wrong, and why I take it seriously. So in my classes, students have no excuse for not knowing what constitutes plagiarism.

  3. Jeremy. What are you required to do if you, yourself, need to miss a week of work related to a medical issue? Do you have to give a note to your Dept Chair or HR rep?

    I think if you are getting 10% plagiarism, you are likely to get 20% phony notes/excuses. Plagiarism is easier to catch and takes more effort so I think that makes it less common. I’ve caught many students telling me they were sick, when I saw them hanging at the student center.

    That said, I don’t really want to know everyone’s medical history, so I prefer a generically-worded doctor’s note from a real doctor.

    Here’s the thing about the oath. If you caught a student in a lie after they swore they were sick/at the doctor, and you took the evidence to the appropriate department at the university, would they prosecute? Or would there be a real consequence? If not, then you will be having students game the system and benefiting some % in the process. This seems to be another example of tension between having to maintain academic rigor and academic honesty vs treating everyone like the adults they should be. Not sure if it is tipped too far away the academic side, but it could be.

    I’d keep the “no excuse drop” policy and emphasize that it is really to give students some privacy in the face of personal/medical/family issues, not to facilitate skipping class or being lazy. I assume for papers and projects you would just extend a deadline with an excuse. I don’t know what to say about the oath thing, because I don’t think that exists where I am, and my confidence in it would be directly proportional to how much I trusted it was legit. (So, yeah, maybe some cynicism there, sorry.)

    Maybe I’ll have more thoughts later.

    • My own illness isn’t really an analogous situation, because I have responsibilities to others, not just to myself. If I were too ill to teach my classes, I’d have to make arrangements with my colleagues and dept. head to cover those classes. If I just didn’t show up to teach my classes without a good reason, and/or without making arrangements to cover those classes, I’d get into a lot of trouble. Possibly even be fired for cause, depending on how many classes I missed. I and my colleagues have been on the other end of such situations in the past–we’ve had to immediately step in and take over the classes of colleagues who’d suddenly fallen seriously ill.

      In practice, it’s hard for me to imagine how I’d catch someone who lied when taking an oath, in the absence of any other documentation. And yes, I doubt that anyone who was somehow caught in a lie would actually face criminal prosecution (though they might well face academic misconduct sanctions). The hope is that the oath acts as a tangible reminder of the importance of honesty. It also requires the student to invest a bit of time and effort, which hopefully discourages casually skipping out on coursework. If I request that students either provide documentation or take an oath, then they can’t *just* skip coursework. If they want to skip coursework without penalty, they have to go to the trouble of filling out a form and taking an oath.

      I have no idea what fraction of students will choose to provide oaths rather than doctor’s notes or other documentation, given the choice. And while I’m sure only a minority of students would lie under oath, I have no idea exactly how small a minority would.

  4. I have shifted the structure of my courses over the years so that students can drop a certain number of their scores, without penalty. i.e., I have 4 shorter exams over the course of a semester, and the top 3 grades count, or the top 4/6 homework assignments count, etc. Thus, I don’t require notes for absences of any kind. The wording in my syllabus is the following: “In general, there is built in flexibility for all elements of the course such that that students can drop their lowest grade(s). Thus, no make-up exams or assignments will be given if you miss an exam/assignment. Exception will be made only for extended medical or family emergency circumstances. In these cases, please talk to Prof. Blois to discuss further.” Of course, the “please talk to the professor” language may be problematic and I should reconsider how I handle this, but I’ve generally been very happy with this policy.

    • The one thing where there isn’t flexibility is the different elements of their final paper (required in some of my classes). Students have to hand in an outline, first draft, peer review, final draft, etc. But in this case, they can turn in late assignments and still receive partial credit.

      • It is now clear that every faculty member at Calgary was surprised when the new policy dropped the day before the start of term. So whatever that 2+ year community consultation process was, it did not cause any faculty to suspect that a change in policy might be in the pipeline for the Fall 2018 semester.

      • I don’t think it is generally a problem, but I was thinking about the set of circumstances that may have prompted the change in policy at your school. And part of the issue there may be that some students may feel uncomfortable disclosing private details of their lives. So in that sense, having students talk to me about their situation may not be ideal for all students. And thinking this through more, this potentially opens the door for my own subconscious biases about students to lead to different ways of handling any given situation. But I’m not sure I know of a better solution that isn’t overly prescriptive or structured, which has a different set of disadvantages. And over the past few years, I’ve found this to be a decent solution, at least for the set of students who felt comfortable talking with me about issues they may be dealing with in their lives.

      • “I was thinking about the set of circumstances that may have prompted the change in policy at your school. ”

        I don’t know the backstory of the change in policy here at Calgary. Faculty got an email yesterday afternoon saying that the university had been consulting “the community” regarding this policy for over two years. Which was news to me; this was the first I’d heard of the policy change or any consultation process relating to it. But it’s possible I deleted an email some time in the past two years.

        I confess I am slightly annoyed that the outcome of a 2+ year consultation process was announced the day before the start of the semester, after most faculty have already published their syllabi (which include missed work policies). But in the grand scheme of things this is only a very minor annoyance.

    • Yes this is my practice as well. Built in drop your worst scores (be they bad scores or excused or unexecused absences). Officially no flexiblity about working the system to get an excused absence to also drop a worst score. But in reality some small willingness to flex for students in truly dire circumstances (often those involving hospitals for themselves or family). I do not require notes for those. I’ve never actually thought somebody was lying to me about those more extreme scenarios.

      While I very much share your cynicism that in a large some students will take the lazy way out if they can, I do think absences are different from plagiarism. Unlike plagiarism, it is hard to see how an absence benefits a student (or at least its my job to set it up so it doesn’t benefit them – either by drop the lowest score or requiring makeups that sound like they’ll be more scary than the original). Then I just take students at their word

      Jeremy to your issue of students (presumably pre-meds) who want to get an excuse to keep their drop the lowest grade option my first line is no exceptions – you’ve got a good solution – but if they push, my response is always, well then you can just do a make up and the make up is an oral exam sitting and talking to me. I’ve only ever had 2 students take me up and both of them really were in a tight spot and I was very nice to them in the oral exam and they walked away appreciating that I had made an accommodation for them. But a lot of people who are looking to game the system decide that this no longer looks like the lazy way out.

  5. With regards to your question…. “have a blanket policy of redistributing the weight of any missed assignment onto the remaining similar assignments (e.g., if you miss a lab assignment for any reason, the weight is redistributed across the remaining labs). On the theory that any students who choose to skip coursework for frivolous reasons aren’t really gaining any advantage, they’re just “raising the stakes” for the remaining coursework.”

    I think students could use this to game the system and create an advantage for themselves. For example, f they have four major assignments due across four classes, they could avoid one of them, spending their time getting better marks on the other three. If they drop one assignment for each class over the course of the year, then their overall average mark would be better based on the premise that more time spent results in better grades. Or am I just being cynical? I think the idea of dropping the lowest grade could work though. Students might take the same strategy in terms of allocating effort, but at least it would be open rather than hidden.

    One of our lecturers in undergraduate gave us an option of not doing a major assignment, but those who didn’t had 90% of the course mark from the final exam. Fortunately I did the assignment. After almost identical exams over the previous five years, he completely changed it and most of the students bombed. I suspect he had a giggle…

    • “I think students could use this to game the system and create an advantage for themselves…”

      Hmm…that particular way of gaming things depends on many profs having the same “redistribute the weight” policy. And it assumes a student who allocates effort across courses in a well-planned, forward looking way. Which students out to gain an unfair advantage for themselves do *not* do in my experience! In my classes, students who try to gain an unfair advantage mostly do so in ways that reflect *lack* of thought, planning, and effort. So I’m not too concerned about the possibility you raise.

      • Heh – while I would never have gamed the system to improve my grade, my immediate thought when reading that particular proposal was that as a student I would have been, possibly overwhelmingly, tempted to game that design just to demonstrate how bad an idea it was : Tell me that there are 4 assignments and that if I miss one, my grade will be based on the 3 that I did complete, and I will show up and ace the first 3 assignments and then refuse to turn in assignment 4. There is no conceivable benefit to turning it in for a grade.

        I’d like to think I’d be amused, now that I’m on the other side of the desk, if I met a student who was as much of a smartass as I was in school.

      • See the comment thread on our old linkfest post about “gaming a game theory exam” for amusing discussion.

        As a prof, I’d be fine with a student acting as you suggest. You aced the first n-1 quizzes? Well done, you’ve earned the right to skip the nth.

  6. I don’t, nor have I ever, taught, but from what I remember of my BSc in the UK, we could request a deadline extension for things like sickness, so there wasn’t really the option to miss coursework. We either did it on time, or handed it in later after an approved extension. There was also often the possibility to retake a given piece of coursework (slightly reframed of course), so if you missed it the first time, you could still get some marks, albeit with a limit on the maximum score (I think it was the minimum score necessary to pass). This was more often used for the rare in class quizzes from what I remember…
    HTH

  7. In Intro Bio here, we try to be consistent with policies across semesters which leads to a lot of inertia. I think that, for a variety of reasons, when I first started teaching it, I got the message that I should be really skeptical and expect students to be trying to get out of stuff, and so we’d ask for documentation for everything. But this is problematic for reasons given above, and also for other reasons (e.g., do you really want to send the kid with norovirus to the health center for a note?) It also was making me kind of miserable. So, last year I decided to adopt the default mindset of believing my students, rather than expecting proof of every particular hardship. (For the record, we are pretty generous in our policies, allowing letters from a pretty broad range of people, including clergy, academic advisors, and others.) I’m not sure what the impact was on students approaching me or the amount of work they did, but I think it was pretty small. But it had a huge impact on my happiness (I was much happier not feeling like I needed to be skeptical all the time) and I think it also made the students feel a lot better (since, unfortunately, faculty don’t do a whole lot of trusting of students in intro-level courses).

    As Brian indicated above, students don’t really benefit from missing work. I think this also holds for giving a delayed exam. We give the same exam to students who take it late (they usually take it a couple of days later, while we’re still grading it). I can’t think of any cases where a student who took it late for a last minute reason did unexpectedly well. Often they do poorly. I think letting them take it late is compassionate and doesn’t give them an unfair advantage.

    We also switched last year to allowing students to drop their lowest exam. I think this had an enormous impact on student morale, but it had the downside of meaning that students who did well on exams 1-3 kind of checked out for exam 4. So, next year, I might do something slightly different, like down-weighting their lowest exam but not dropping it entirely (e.g., something like the lowest exam is worth 15% of the exam grade, the highest work 35%, and the other two are worth 25%).

    • “it had the downside of meaning that students who did well on exams 1-3 kind of checked out for exam 4. ”

      Yeah, with a drop the lowest score policy, you’re basically saying that everybody has the right to blow off one exam if they want to. Which is fine, if the instructor is ok with that.

      Re: delayed exams, in the past when a student has had to miss an exam for a legitimate reason, I’ve allowed them to make up the exam within 48 hours. But if that’s not possible the weight gets shifted to the other exams. I agree that students who take the exam a day late don’t seem to gain any appreciable advantage.

    • “We give the same exam to students who take it late (they usually take it a couple of days later, while we’re still grading it). I can’t think of any cases where a student who took it late for a last minute reason did unexpectedly well. Often they do poorly. ”

      This is my experience as well, exactly.

      I know there have been cases where students formed successful cheating networks. But what I’ve seen throughout my student and working life is that it takes a lot more effort to cheat than to do the job right and the results in the end are usually worse anyway. IMO though I don’t recall ever thinking that a student cheated on an exam.

    • Rather than dropping an exam, I offered my mid-terms as homework assignments. I can’t recall exactly how I graded it but I think I offered half the credit they missed – in other words, they could raise their score from 60 to 80, 40 to 70 etc. I like this because it forces them to review the material and gives them time to write their answers carefully. It also helps them figure out how to prepare for future exams.

  8. Now faculty in my dept. just got an email from our associate head for undergraduate studies, who interprets the new regs as saying faculty *can* require students to provide *either* a doctor’s note or sworn oath, on pain of having their request for relief from coursework automatically denied. That is, faculty *can* require rather than merely request specified forms of documentation, they just can’t require a doctor’s note.

  9. Question for anyone still reading: to what extent do instructor policies on (e.g.) late work, medical excuses, grading, etc. vary among instructors at your institution, and to what extent does this variation confuse or frustrate students? Do you ever run into problems with students falling afoul of your policies, or objecting to them, because a previous instructor of theirs had a different policy than you?

    I guess the question lurking behind this question is, on what matters should institutions have institution-wide policies, and on what matters should policies be left to individual instructors?

    For instance, on my reading of our institution’s official Calendar statement as to what grades of A, B, etc. mean, I don’t think it would be permissible at Calgary to have a grading system in which, say, the top 10% of students get A’s, the next 20% get B’s, etc. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some instructor somewhere at Calgary does that.

    As a more clear-cut example, here at Calgary no exam during the last 14 calendar days of the term can count for more than 10% of the final grade (there are exceptions for final projects, oral exams, and a few other things; final exams can count for more but they have to be held after the end of term). So there’s a case in which the institution sets an institution-wide policy. But why have institution-wide policy on that and not on, say, documentation of absences, or other grading-related matters, or etc.?

    Just musing…

    • “no exam during the last 14 calendar days of the term can count for more than 10%”

      This is to prevent faculty from piling the bulk of the course grade into the last few weeks – say a course has three mid terms for 25% and a final for 25%, the third mid-term comes on the last day of the semester and the final is five days later, then half the grade comes over five days.

      Likely it was a problem and that’s why a rule was made.

      IME attendance and exam policies have always been squishy but it seems to work. I was never aware of any specific such policies at an institution I worked at or attended. When I taught, I told students up front that you miss, you call. No call, no make up. You lose. But I always fudged where I though it appropriate – i.e., for hard working students who come to class every day. Is that a bias? Sure. But when you work hard you earn the benefit of the doubt. That’s the way it always was for me as student – faculty bent the rules for me because I gave them good reasons to do it. The amazing thing is that underperforming students who don’t get the benefit of the doubt don’t complain about this “bias”. They seem willing to accept the system for what it is.

  10. Your point about the primary demographic of your students is interesting. Items like that simply must be taken into account and you should be applauded for thinking about that. My university, to my knowledge, does not have an official policy. It’s up to the professor’s discretion. My policy (for a MWF or TR course schedule) is that students get three free rides with no questions asked or penalty to their grade. They are to think of these as sick or personal days and use them when needed. I don’t excuse absences. Serious illness or accidents might be an exception. After three absences the grade begins to fall with every absence. Six absences is failure. Of course I’m flexible and take this on a case by case basis; but that’s the spiel they get on day one.

  11. Way too late of course but I thought I’d chime in with a bit of a different perspective.
    Our entire University system is very different but as a general rule most courses here have no attendance whatsoever. The reasoning being that a University student is an adult (over 18) and they should be responsible for their own work – it is a bit different for practical classes obviously but mostly the group working together manage their time themselves.
    That means doctor’s notes only come in for final exams or written “homework”.
    In my experience it depends on the exam. If it is a 200 student exam you require a doctor’s note as those are managed by the student’s office. However, any student always has 3 trials for any exam and usually the number it took you to pass or get that grade (you can also try again if you didn’t like the first grade but then the second one counts) isn’t mentioned later on. So it is possible to miss an exam without a note but then you have only 2 more trials.
    If it is a small exam (small group of people that is) or homework, it is entirely up to the professor/teacher. I usually go with believing my students, unless I have pre-existing reason not to.
    In general I think most professors work on the reasoning if you don’t show up for class or don’t do your work, it is you who will suffer as you don’t know your stuff for the final.

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