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.