Excused or unexcused absences?

This week, I have been helping a student catch up in my Latin class because he missed last week due to a religious observance.  In the first week of class, he had notified me that he would miss this week, so I was expecting it and I have had no problem helping him catch up.  After all, how would he learn the new material and retain his Latin abilities without outside help?  He had tried to stay caught up with the readings and homework, but it was clear from meeting with him that he needed more review.  So I helped him.  The most interesting part of this story to me is how he reacted to my help.  He was very thankful and his response implied that other teachers would not have been so helpful.  His reaction has made me think about what constitutes an excused and an unexcused absence, and what that means for help outside of class.

What is an excused absence?

Our university has no policy, except to excuse an absence due to religious observances.  Absences due to training for the National Guard or Army Reserves seem obviously excused.  As do ones due to illness.  But whose illness? The students, yes; but what about a family member’s trip to the hospital or when a family member undergoes surgery?  Absences due to funerals also seem to fall under “excused;” but what about the family who wants to celebrate a potentially last birthday with an elderly grandparent?  Does it matter whether the student notifies you ahead of time?

I have been asked by students about all of these issues lately, and I have wondered: What message does it send to my students if I do not excuse these absences?  Am I saying you shouldn’t celebrate a grandparent’s birthday out of state?  Now, I would love the chance to celebrate one last birthdays with my deceased grandparents. Am I saying you shouldn’t care for your family members? Is the implication of not excusing an absence even something worth considering?

Does an excused absence effect how much help the student can get outside of class?

When a student misses a class, and you’ve determined whether the absence is excused or unexcused, what is the result of that determination?  Do you penalize the student if the absence is unexcused? Is the penalty in the form of a lower grade or not being able to get extra help so that the student learns what they missed that day? Is the latter a reasonable penalty in a skill-based class like Latin? No matter what your answer is, you should be upfront about it from the first day… if you have an answer to these questions then.

I don’t have many answers to these questions at the moment.  I raise them now because the attendance policies on the syllabi often attempt to be black and white, but students’ attendance cannot be so easily classified and responded to.  It is always going to have some arbitrary element to it.  What guidelines help you, or seemed to help your favorite teachers, determine how to handle students’ absences?

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3 thoughts on “Excused or unexcused absences?

  1. I tell my students they must contact me before class, even if it’s just a brief email. Excused absences include illness, religious observances, family emergencies, and away games for sports. With smartphones and everything, I figure it’s pretty easy for them to shoot me a quick message. If they weren’t able to because, say, they were in an ambulance going to the hospital for something serious, I would be happy to grant them an exception in the tell-me-before-class rule. I don’t ask for doctor’s notes for illness; I trust them. That may be a naive mistake, but I don’t think my students have overused it. I interpret “family emergency” pretty broadly; for example, this semester, I have a student who has missed a Friday class a couple of times because his family situation is difficult and he’s had to go home (an hour away) to care for his younger brothers over the weekend. If the student contacts me in advance, I am willing to work with them. However, if their absence is unexcused, I will not allow them to make up work. This issue just came up yesterday, because I had a student who missed the part of the exam conducted in lecture (the way he phrased it, he wasn’t sure the exam had happened, so it seems clear to me he just hasn’t been coming to class–the lectures are huge and we don’t take attendance). I refused to let him make it up because it was not an excused absence.

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  2. If you have an achievement-based focus, where your role is to help students achieve the greatest amount of learning, then I believe you should help them make up work or catch up whether or not the absence is excused. There’s no point in denying them the chance to learn the content of your class. However, you’re not obligated to go to great inconvenience yourself to make that happen if they don’t show they’re serious about learning. If your grading system incorporates class participation, then you can take the type of absence into consideration. Regarding a test, that depends on your philosophy as well. Is the point of a test to measure progress or is it to allow students to “earn” a grade? You can deny opportunities to earn a grade if an absence is not excused, but denying a chance to measure progress also hurts you and your ability to know where they are in learning.

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  3. So I gave up differentiating between a cute excused and unexcused absences. This means that I do not decide what is a legitimate absence and what is not instead I say that all students have a certain number of cuts that they can use during the course of the semester. at the end of the semester I reduce that participation grade so that I account for that number of cuts ( for example if I say that each day’s participation is worth 10 points and you’re allowed three cuts I will reduce the total participation score possible by 30 points to account for three cuts). This reward students who come more frequently we don’t use all their cuts because then they have extra participation points but I don’t have to deal with any paperwork. nobody’s complained yet.

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