Make-up exam policies that are fair and flexible

This time of year, faculty often see a significant increase in the number of students requesting make-up exams and flexibility in due dates. It can be challenging to write and enforce a policy that maintains fairness yet remains flexible for students who run into roadblocks and unexpected situations. For some, this is an ethical dilemma.

Students have a right to make up an exam for specific reasons such as religious observances, military obligations and jury duty. But, we all know there are also students who might be sick, have a family emergency, forget an exam, have car trouble, etc.  So, you can see that having a policy of “no make-up exams” really doesn’t work. A student who is absent as a consequence of his or her religious belief “shall be provided with an opportunity to make up such examination…” (Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 151C, Sec. 2B). As faculty, we have to confront this issue.

Navigating the murky waters of makeup policies begins with the syllabus; this is the place to make your rules clear. This document provides a back-up plan for disputes. But, how do you know if you are creating a policy that is fair and ethical?

A helpful article about these challenges comes from the Association for Psychological Science, entitled Dealing with Students Missing Exams and In-Class Graded Assignments. This article explores the ideas of alternate exam types, creating more difficult make-up exams, and extra credit in lieu of exams, all of which can be considered unethical depending on the situation. The goal is to create a level playing field in which all students have a reasonably strong chance of success and earning a good grade despite having missed an exam for what might be a legitimate reason.

Any good make up policy must not create significantly more work for the instructor, and be fair to the student who missed the exam as well as the class as a whole. Many faculty have multiple versions of an exam, consider using an old exam that covers the same material and is not easier or more difficult than the missed exam. The make-up examination, if different, should be similar question types, content, and time limits, and have the same grading standards.

If your policy is that a student must have a doctor’s note, consider the potential burden on the medical offices and the student who may have limited access and high co-pay. Just as easily, a policy such as this may mean that your classroom is populated by sick students. In an article by Christopher Munsey, Lee McCann discusses his policy, “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.” These comments probably resonate with many of us.

It can be helpful to see how other instructors are dealing with makeup exams. Faculty Focus looks at policies and how to discuss your rules with students in advance. What might be most helpful at this link are the faculty comments about what works, doesn’t work, and where they get stuck.

In speaking with GCC faulty, here are some strategies they use:

  • Any student may take the exam at the testing center for one week after the exam is given in class. No questions asked, but they are responsible for scheduling and requesting the exam be sent to the Testing Center in advance of the exam date.
  • A student may make up the exam until graded exams are returned.
  • There are four exams in the class; the lowest score may be dropped, excluding the final exam.
  • All exams are take-home and students will have one week to submit.
  • Exams are all given online, they are open book and the student has one week to complete the exam. No make-ups are allowed in this case, as the exam is available for multiple days and can be scheduled at the students’ convenience.