Office of the University Registrar

Medical Excuse Notes FAQs

Return to Medical Excuse Notes on Syllabus Guidelines.

Does this mean I need to change how I respond to student absences and missed work?

No. Other than no longer requesting a medical excuse note, there is no obligation that faculty change how they manage and respond to missed work from students.

Can I ask students for written communication about their absence?

Yes. Faculty are encouraged to establish an expectation of timely, relevant communication about student absences to the extent that this fits into their own course management and approach to missed work. This may include utilizing a pre-established template or form, or may be a request for emails sent to a specific address within a timeframe relative to the missed work. Of note: communication should comply with HIPAA regulations, avoiding information about personal medical details.

Is there a template I can use to help students communicate their need for an adjustment?

Suggested template for student attestation:
Name: __________
Dates of absence: __________
Assignment/exam missed: __________
Reason for absence (optional): __________
I, (student name), attest that this absence was unavoidable, and I understand that makeup work will only be granted at the discretion of my instructor.
Student signature __________, date _____.

This may be used as a template for emails or a Google form (or other), depending on the specific needs of the course and instructor.

Without a doctor’s note, how do I know if a student was really sick?

Unfortunately, even with a doctor’s note, you have no way of knowing if the student was really sick, when, and for how long. If a medical note is required, one of three situations is likely:

  • The student may see the doctor while they are sick, receive necessary treatment, and procure the required note.
  • Requiring a note, a student may see a doctor and exaggerate their (nonexistent or now-recovered) symptoms. Healthcare providers are patient advocates, above all else, and will almost always provide the note that the student is requesting.
  • Requiring a note, students with the means to do so may purchase a fraudulent doctor’s note online.

Thus, professors who require notes are generally receiving a mix of these, but trusting all of them. Medical notes do not provide a reliable check on student behavior.

If medical notes aren’t an option, how will I distinguish who deserves an adjustment, and who does not?

This has always been, and will continue to be, part of the academic freedom afforded to faculty. Each instructor has the responsibility and latitude to determine how they will handle missed work and requests for adjustments.

During course planning, it is important to consider how to equitably address missed work, in light of one’s pedagogical goals and course structure. Below are some suggestions from faculty who have addressed this:

  • Faculty may opt out of the judgement role by establishing course policies that treat all students’ missed work the same way and provide a pre-established option for completing the work (e.g., dropping the lowest grade, turning in late work with a penalty, taking a makeup exam, doing an alternate assignment, or other course-appropriate option). By rendering dishonesty moot, these policies disincentivize fraud, save faculty members from the unseemly activity of trying to discern if a student is lying, and put the responsibility for students’ choices on the students.
  • Faculty who want to encourage student communication about missed work may utilize a form or template for students to submit a standard attestation about their absence. This will not guarantee honesty, but may streamline the process and teach professional communication skills.

I don’t have time to create new exams or assignments for students who miss the scheduled assessment. What do I do?

You don’t need to create alternative assessments for each student. Instead, as you plan a course for the quarter, it may be most useful to do so with the assumption that some students will miss some work, and plan ahead for a streamlined response to that reality. In doing so, consider what purpose each assignment, lab, and test will serve. Are they formative – do they provide feedback that prepares students for future assignments? Or are they summative – do they provide a final assessment of a student’s understanding of a course topic?

In the case of most formative assessments, comprehension of the topic will likely be assessed again in subsequent measures (such as a final project or cumulative exam). If so, you might:

  • Drop the lowest of assignment or exam grade.
  • Utilize progressively cumulative exams – each exam is longer than the previous, and incorporates questions reviewing material from the previous exam(s)

In the case of most summative assessments, there is a necessity that students complete the work.

  • If midterm exams serve as summative assessments, one solution for students missing a midterm is to offer an optional cumulative exam that replaces a missed exam.
  • If the course includes a series of assignments, create one standard makeup assignment that would include the material covered in all of these assignments.
  • Importantly: Include a time-sensitive component that precludes students from submitting the same assignment done by a previous student. This might include requiring use of articles published in a timeframe since the last iteration of the course.

In some cases, allowing students to submit late work may be a reasonable strategy. If it will not change the progress of the class, increase opportunities for cheating, or impede a student’s own progress (by trying to work “backward” and “forward” at the same time), this provides a streamlined option that does not require more work on the part of the teaching staff.

Penalties for late work can be set up in the Canvas gradebook, such that a percentage of the assignment grade is deducted for each day late.

I can’t keep track of students who need make-ups and extensions. What can I do?

The need for a strategy to handle missed work will not materially change with the absence of medical excuse notes. In most cases, faculty can use the same management strategies that were used in the presence of medical excuse notes.

Some suggestions:

  • Use an automated form (e.g., Google forms) – at the individual class level, or at the departmental level – to manage needs and workflow.
  • When possible, assign a TA to manage adjustment requests.

I’m concerned that students are disengaged from class and will further disengage if they are not asked to produce medical excuses for absences.

As noted above, medical excuses do not provide a valid check on student behavior, nor do they improve student engagement.

In addition, research by Learning Technologies & UW-IT has found that student engagement in classes does not appear to be significantly affected by opportunities to miss class. When lecture capture technology became available, Learning Technologies & UW-IT collected data in response to faculty concern that students would stop coming to class if faculty recorded their lectures and posted them. This data indicated that there was no change in the number of students who attended lectures in person when lecture recordings were also available.

Are there any implications for international students who may have attendance requirements as part of their student visas?

No – U.S. institutions are not required to check class attendance or report on student participation in classes so as long as they are registered and continue to earn credits each quarter, there is no class attendance requirement for international students.

I am worried that students will cheat the system. How can I prevent that?

This is a perennial concern among faculty, and there is no solution that will prevent all dishonesty. As noted, medical notes do not guarantee honesty. Conversely, omitting medical excuse notes is unlikely to prompt a significant increase in dishonesty.

The Center for Teaching and Learning offers excellent resources for developing courses that foster student engagement and decrease academic dishonesty.

By and large, students do want to succeed, and a student who seeks an opportunity to do the work is not looking for a free pass. They are looking to demonstrate their learning and succeed by their own efforts. Adopting an attitude that students are motivated and willing, yet sometimes hindered by the same realities that everyone occasionally faces, may reduce the tension that faculty experience if they feel compelled to judge the worthiness of students’ reasons for missing work.