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Excused and unexcused class absences

One of the issues that many faculty members struggle with is that of class absences. Students have a wide variety of reasons that they miss class: Some have an athletic event to attend [1], some have religious obligations, some have academic opportunities [2], some have interviews for jobs or graduate school, some get ill [3], and some just choose to miss class [4]. But absent students complicate class. Students who aren’t in class tend to learn the material less well, sometimes think that it’s our obligation to cover that missed material [5], don’t provide their unique insight in class discussions, and, in classes that rely on group work, may negatively affect their teammates who are counting on working with them.

Faculty members respond to absences in a variety of different ways. Many of my colleagues now have an N free absences rule: You can miss up to a fixed number of classes with no penalty. Unfortunately, some students don’t quite understand the point of these, choose to miss days early in the semester when they don’t need to, and then suddenly encounter the problem of days that they really need to miss. There are also some students who have more than three reasonable excuses. For example, an athlete in a two absences class might see only one conflict on the schedule, miss class for a meet, miss a second class for illness, and then suddenly discover that their team made the playoffs and need a third absence. I know that some colleagues struggle with what to do in situations like that. On one hand, you have a policy; on the other, you don’t want to discourage the student from attending the athletic event because they will almost certainly benefit from it and their team may be counting on them [6].

My policy is similar to many others but also differs in some significant ways. I tend to allow students two unexcused absences and an arbitrary number of excused absences. What are excused absences? Traditionally, either absences for sensible and predictable reasons (e.g., academic or athletic event or religious obligation) and for illness. I do require that they notify me of the predictable reason a week or more in advance and that they notify me of the illness the day of class, preferably before class [7]. I’ve been known to treat other unexpected events (I was up until 5 a.m. counseling a friend through a breakup) as excused absences, provided students notify me. I also encourage them to notify me, whatever the reason is that they missed class.

I’m surprised to see that students have trouble with the idea of notification. It makes sense to me: If you have an obligation to be somewhere (and yes, you are obliged to be in class) and you can’t be there, then you notify the person in charge. You won’t last long in a job if you miss work and don’t call in with an explanation asap [8].

But some students push the excused absence option pretty far. This semester, I had one student go to three separate conferences (three weekdays, three weekdays, and two weekdays, if I remember correctly) and some number of job interviews [9]. That’s a bit much.

A few other students also miss a substantial number of classes. In most cases, the large number of absences is a symptom of something more serious than I don’t care about this class. I try to work with academic advising in those situations.

In spite of the occasional glitch or student who abuses the system, my policy works pretty well. Particularly in our introductory course, most students make it to class on most days [11]. Nonetheless, it is probably time to update my policy a bit. First, I plan to indicate that I may limit the number of excused absences. Second, I plan to distinguish between unexcused absence with timely notification and unexcused absence without timely notification. Third, I may also revisit my penalty for additional absences [12]. What else? Oh, yeah. I should remind students in team-based classes that the faculty member is allowed to drop them from the class if their excessive absences have a negative impact on their group.

The Committee on Academic Standing, on the recommendation of the instructor, may drop or withdraw a student from a course for behavior that is disruptive to the learning of other students, including excessive absences. [14]

It’s probably bad to end this musing on such a negative note. So I’ll return to the primary positive: Most of my students attend most class sessions. Those who miss classes most frequently do so for sensible reasons that I’m happy to excuse. I treat them like responsible adults and they live up to my expectations. Absence policies exist primarily to help me (a) deal with outliers and (b) educate students on responsible behavior [15].

An alum reminds me that I should also explicitly note in my syllabus that I understand that certain disabilities may lead to absences and that I will not penalize students for such absences. I appreciate that excellent recommendation.

[1] Since the Grinnell faculty vote on the athletic schedule, it’s hard to tell students that they can’t attend an event. But when a team is away a lot, most of our coaches are willing to negotiate a bit.

[2] E.g., participating in a mock trial or Model UN event, presenting at a conference, or just attending a conference.

[3] I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a sick student coming to class and infecting other people.

[4] Choose to miss class is probably unfair. I’ve had over-tired students sleep through too many alarms, students who have been counseling a friend, and, well, students who say I just needed a wellness day.

[5] Stay tuned for the forthcoming essay on the question a student should never ask: Did I miss anything important?

[6] I’m always surprised when I hear faculty then ask for general College policies in such situations. It feels to me like a situation of You made the policy for your class, you decide how to enforce it. You can decide that not all absences are created equal. You can help the student realize that life comes with conflicts and that a choice that benefits them in one way may harm them in another. You can come up with some other option.

[7] No, I don’t require a physician’s note. I tend to trust my students.

[8] You also won’t last long in a job if you regularly fail to show up.

[9] Job interviews have also changed in recent years. I should muse about that issue, too [10].

[10] To be honest, I started this musing based on a note to write about student absences for job interviews and conferences. I focused on the absences here, but I think the original intent was that I write about the sea change in interviews I’ve observed over the past decade.

[11] Of course, most students also realize that they won’t learn the material if they aren’t in class. the course moves quickly, and each class depends on the prior one.

[12] In most situations, I reduce their final grade by 2% per missed class beyond the two unexcused absences I normally permit. So if a student has four unexcused absences, I scale their grade by 96%.

[14] Currently at, but the College seems to struggle with the concept of fixed URLs.

[15] Or at least what I consider responsible behavior.

Version 1.0 released on 2018-01-09.

Version 1.1 of 2018-01-11.