Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sick, sick, sick

Students get "sick." Okay, it happens.

Why more students get sick on Fridays, specifically, is more troubling. Or, as we put it around the Northwoods, Thursday is the new Friday. And sometimes Wednesday is the new Friday. Here in the Northwoods, we support grain industries in major ways. Oh yes. Anything to help the economy!

I have no doubt whatsoever that my absent students feel lousy. Some of them really are sick. Some of them are so hungover that they're going to spend the day worshipping the porcelain gods. Some of them are dealing with serious personal or familial problems. And some of them feel lousy because they didn't do the reading and aren't prepared with whatever they were asked to do for today in class, so they don't come.

It's only really a problem for me in classes where I give fairly regular (though unannounced) quizzes, especially in first year classes. (Is there a real reason why first year students seem to get sick more often? Or is that just my own false perception?)

Other than wishing in a vague way that everyone on earth were always healthy, including my students, I really don't worry when an individual student misses a class because I figure they're adults, and things happen, and they make choices. And sometimes my class isn't first priority. I can accept that.

The problem is, they ALL want to "make up" the quizzes, or be excused, or something. If this were one person, say once a week, I'd probably be more sympathetic. But, especially for Friday quizzes, it's more like five people. And they all want me to schedule a special and different time to do their make-up. And I'm lazy. Were I truly nice, I'd gladly give make-up quizzes to everyone.

Here's the thing, though: it's extra work to make up additional quizzes, and my class quizzes aren't really just "did you read this" quizzes. They're also a way for me to get us talking about what I think was most important in the readings. So I've chosen the questions carefully. (This is one of those "takes a more time than you'd think" things about teaching.)

I've also instructed students that if they miss class, they need to get notes from someone else in class BEFORE they come to class the next time. To emphasize how important I think this is, I even have them exchange phone numbers and emails with other people in the class during the first class day. Of course, most students simply don't bother to get those notes, so I could give them the same quiz I gave the class a day or two earlier. But anyone who did get notes would be prepared for exactly the questions on the quiz, assuming that they got notes from someone who actually paid attention and took notes.

For serious health and emergency issues, they notify the dean's office and the dean's office sends an official excuse. I have NO problem trying to accommodate these students, though it's really difficult to accommodate someone who misses 20% of a class.

The problem I have is with the students who aren't in class for more mundane reasons. I'm not interested in trying to judge the validity of their absences at all. I just want to find a way to deal with them all fairly without making myself a ton of extra work.

Please tell me this problem isn't unique to me?

Does anyone have a really good solution?

The problem's compounded when they miss a peer revision day and expect me to find them a group and make time for them to do in-class work they missed. How do you deal with that one?


  1. Well, you could always let them miss one or two quizzes with no penalty, but after that they're responsible for everything.

  2. We are having just this problem, but with our midterm exam. The midterm was in December and there is still one student who hasn't written it (she was sick and then she sprained her writing hand - not the greatest excuses but she had notes for both). So we've had to schedule a special time and place for her to write, and this is after we scheduled a special time and place for 5 other students to write (only 3 showed up!). We had to make up new exam questions, too. And we had to come up with a time that was good for everyone, which took a lot of negotiating.

    We've been talking about it over the last few days and have decided that next year we are just scheduling a make up day, time and place and you either show or you don't. We don't have time to work around everyone's schedules, especially since we are adjuncts - I'm only on campus one day a week and going up extra days costs me in transit, time and child care. Giving one make up is reasonable, giving two or more is not.

    For in-class quizzes I would have a No Make Up policy. I don't give quizzes but I do participatory exercises that go towards the participation grade and my policy is if you aren't there you don't get to make it up. That is part of the choice you make when you choose not to come to class.

    Am I a hard-ass? Perhaps. But I find that the level of commitment from the students to do things in a timely fashion so low that I don't mind being a hard-ass about this. I've cancelled class due to illness exactly twice in the last 10 years, I have students who are late/absent/asking for extensions repeatedly throughout one course; goodness help them when they get 'real' jobs!

  3. I don't have a solution to the quiz problem, but I think it really is true that first-year students get sick more often. Maybe being exposed to new varieties of germs does it?

  4. kermit - do you consider pitchers of beer to be 'germs'?

    There is some truth to first years, especially those that live in residence, getting sick more often. They are generally not eating well or sleeping enough and they are passing 'germs' around as well. And drinking too the point of regular hangovers. But I still don't see the point of excusing them from the work they are actually there to do. A year's worth of bad grades due to the 'transition' to Uni (read: too much partying) isn't going to kill them either.

    Ironically, the word verification for this post is "tokme"

  5. No make-ups, nohow.

    I do the same thing with my quizzes (unannounced, and can't be made up), but I tell my students that I'll drop the lowest one. I also offer one or two extra-credit opportunities worth the weight of a quiz apiece, that will go toward their quiz grade. So, if someone had legitimate reason to miss three quizzes in the course of a semester (or just got unlucky), but was conscientious, they won't be penalized. Otherwise, to hell with them. I firmly believe that quizzes, beyond their important keeping-up-with-the-reading properties, are a good way of encouraging attendance.

  6. I'm mean. They have to provide a doctor's excuse. They then write me a 1500 word essay on the topic. If not, they lose 120 points for each absence in my small class, where the goal is participation.

    In the large class, I don't even think about it. There's 270 people registered. I don't have time to keep up with them. They are responsible for getting the material during lecture, discussion or from friends. Since I have stage fright, the fewer of them that are there, the better. If they miss the midterm, they have to have a doctor's excuse; the make up is an oral exam conducted with me or one of my assistants.

  7. Here's what I do. I essentially have a zero-tolerance policy for unexcused absences, "because the work we do together in class is impossible to truly replace--if you miss it, it's gone." Absences are only excused if (a) there is contact from student to TA or professor *in advance* of the deadline (email works well for this, as it's time-stamped) and (b) if there is a doctor's note or other documented major emergency. I don't believe that permitting unexcused absences helps our students learn that choices have consequences.

    Having said that, we still have a good ly number of absences--usually, because students at this Uni often have to travel for concert tours which are important to our recruiting. In the case of these or similar excused absences, I set a single makeup time, which is *outside the regular class schedule.* Typically this is a Tuesday or Thursday morning at 7am, as classes at the Uni begin at 8am.

    This does a couple of things: it almost completely obviates schedule conflicts, which are the single hairiest part of scheduling makeups, and the thing I most resent doing--I don't think it's our staff's obligation to cater to idiosyncratic individual schedules. Moreover, it cuts down on "semi-voluntary" absences: if a kid knows that a makeup will require getting up at 6:30am in order to stumble into a 7am makeup session, s/he is much more likely to make the effort to get to the originally-scheduled class.

    Moreover, it rewards the ones who truly want to excel: the hard workers are also, typically, the ones most likely to be willing to get up early.

  8. Every time I move to a new town or start a new job, I spend the next year getting all manner of disgusting illnesses, so it may very well be that your first years are actually sick.

    I had a professor who scheduled two make-up quizzes per semester for those who had missed, or wanted to replace a crappy grade. They were not as specific as the original quizzes, because they were covering several weeks worth of work, but they were tough quizzes. The amount of work necessary to get a good grade on the make-up quiz made the entire experience worth avoiding, if possible.

  9. Grumpy: yes, beer = germs. In which case I should be coming down with 3 different diseases in the next few hours. :)

    but to clarify: I fully support being a hard-ass.

  10. The solution is to be a hardass, unfortunately. People do what they have incentives to do, including push over nice instructors.

  11. Thanks for all the responses, folks.

    I realized this morning that I'd built into the syllabus an assignment to make up quizzes that will be useful, require some but not a lot of grading on my part, and may actually contribute to students' educations.

    I'm hesitant to be really hard ass about people missing class, especially for health or family obligations. I had to drop out of a term in grad school when I had emergency surgery, and I would pretty much have been homeless if my grad department hadn't found a way to continue my funding (I owed a HUGE medical bill AND couldn't work). My gratitude toward the people who helped me NOT become homeless precludes certain hardassness.

    I really like some of the suggestions people have, and got another great one from a colleague, which I think I'll institute in the future. This colleague should never be allowed to retire.

  12. Anonymous8:00 AM

    Hi, I'm a college student who stumbled onto this site from Google, which probably means I'm exactly who you don't want advice from. BUT you can have it anyway, since this post is on an issue dear to my heart.

    My favorite make-up policy so far has been "I'll give you 10 quizzes, I'll average the best 8 scores, and there are no make-up, ever." It works well for midterms and finals too: "2 midterms and a final, if you miss a midterm we just count the final that much more".

    The key to getting my attention is zero tolerance, as somebody mentioned above - as soon as whining isn't going to save my sorry skin, then I get moving.

    Most of us, as I'm sure you've figured out already, are very hard workers looking for excuses to procrastinate..