Teachers’ Motivation, Semester-End Excuses: A Plea to College Students

Teachers' Motivation, Students' Excuses-With the end of the year and final exams approaching, many students are scrambling to find ways to either boost their grades or postpone their deadlines. That means that all over the world, teachers are suddenly fielding a thick flurry of emails containing variations on a theme. If you are the grandparent of a college student, you should be very fearful for your health and indeed your life around the time of final exams. Science has shown grandmothers are a whopping 19 times more likely to die before their grandchild’s final exams (when proof of death is the grandchild’s say-so).

There’s a humorous side to this, of course; students’ excuses can be ridiculous. And what students don’t realize is that the email they worked to craft and perfect begging for an extension is going to be read alongside scores of other emails telling similar stories, and teachers are going to share strategies on replying to them with each other. My favorite comes from Kevin Heffernan at Southern Methodist University, whose response includes this gem:

I would very much like to send your [Mom or Dad] a card and a short note to let them know they are in my thoughts and to single you out for praise in being so proactive and forthright in speaking to me. Would you be kind enough to send along [his or her] snail mail address so I can get this in the mail in the next day or so? 

Curious what types of emails students send? I once had a student beg off an assignment due to, and I quote, “an acute case of diarrhea.” (And now I’m sure my spam comments will take a turn for the much worse.)

It’s not always grandparents dying, of course, although that is quite the popular theme. Feast on some of the examples The-Toast showed in this piece last year:

“hey dr x everyone in my family just died like right now so i won’t be in class tomorrow”

“dr x i have six grandmas and they’re all in the hospital so i wont be in class tomorrow”

“hey professor i have 97 grandmothers, all dead, i will not be in class for the rest of the semester”

One friend of mine who works as a professor now requires proof of death before she will grant extensions. This simple change in policy appears to have saved hundreds of grandmothers from death, while simultaneously subjecting untold numbers of roommates to horrible car accidents and the need for companionship in the hospital.

As funny as these excuses can be, they can also have a negative impact on teacher motivation. I know I dreaded checking my email when I was teaching and exams were drawing near. I hated feeling like the bad guy saying no, but also had to uphold university policy and be fair to all students in the class. Moreover, granting the requested extensions might impact my ability to meet my deadlines as an employee of the department and university. More importantly, to see the volume of these emails communicates something to the instructor that I hope most students don’t intend:

Your work is not really important.

Teaching is difficult. It requires planning and effort. Even if a professor has taught a particular class for years, materials must be reviewed and updated, lectures delivered, and (thanks to students passing old copies to one another) exams rewritten. Grading essays or short answer exams takes hours and brainpower. To put in all of this effort and be met with students offering flimsy excuses in the hope of not offering corresponding efforts of their own feels lousy. It makes it feel like your work doesn’t matter, and when feeling like your work matters is a key component of motivation, it can lessen the quality of education for everyone.

Students, won’t you consider your teachers’ motivation this final exam season? Sucking it up and meeting your deadlines is free for you to give, but priceless for your teachers to receive.