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In my opinion

Universities must discourage exam deferrals

The COVID-19 pandemic may presently complicate matters, but after classes return to normal, the problem must still be addressed.


Each year, the arrival of midterm and final exams signals the return of a persistent problem: deferred exam requests. An ever-growing number of students have learned that a medical note allows them to postpone their exams.

I became suspicious of deferrals once I encountered unusual scenarios with increasing frequency. For instance, some students would defer the midterm exam several times. Others would defer both their midterm and final exams in the same semester. Most bizarre of all has been the rash of concussions experienced by several undergraduates in the same class the night before an exam.

Predicting a medical note became a new art form. Often, the panic in a student’s email signaled that a future deferral was imminent. Periodically, I sensed a deferral was forthcoming once excuses for poor performances piled up during office hours. As well, a weak term mark going into a final exam was a strong indicator of a deferral request.

Read also: Fostering resilience among students: a little stress goes a long way

Although deferrals are taxing on resources, the good news is that practical solutions exist to help minimize them.

For instance, if midterm exams are missed in either October or February, deferrals can be offered in December and April, respectively. The repercussions are serious: students must write their midterm and final exams in the same week or month. Because of the compressed scheduling of exams, non-cumulative assessments essentially become cumulative tests.

If a final exam is missed in December, a re-write can be given during reading week in February, which can disrupt a student’s leisure plans for winter break. If the final exam is missed in April, a July deferral date can be assigned. In a post-COVID-19 context, students should assume the burden of time and expense, which would involve returning to their university and taking the exam during the summer. Unless seriously ill, few would choose this option.

Of course, these measures have limited deterrent effect without a qualifier: additional deferral requests should not be permitted. Otherwise, the process can be dragged out indefinitely.

Lastly, professors can ensure that a deferred exam adopts a different format than the original one. If a Scantron exam was offered, a written version can replace it, which demands more detail. If a written version was used, different questions should be selected to avoid the possibility of collusion with peers. By ignoring exam modifications, professors invite more deferral requests.

Read also: Professors discuss ditching the doctor’s note for sick students

No doubt, some use the deferral process whenever they encounter stressful circumstances, such as the need to balance course work with part-time jobs, family commitments and social life. Researchers suggest that accommodations for exam deferrals are warranted because competition, greater expectations, and higher tuition and debt have led to a higher incidence of mental health illness.

But the university contributes to the infantilization of students whenever it resolves their time management and/or personal problems for them. The solution lies in students learning how to balance various commitments for themselves. A relaxed deferral process allows them to escape this responsibility without consequences.

When it comes to accommodating deferral requests, university administrators need to ask themselves some tough questions. Upon entering the job market, will students avoid deadlines every time stress occurs? Do they believe that employers will give them weeks more time to complete a task because they stress easily? Is the university setting up students for workplace failure?

Doctors have a responsibility here, too. Every time a medical note is granted, a physician should ask: What will change in the next semester? Does the student plan on making any adaptations to avoid asking for additional deferrals? Are medical notes being granted too easily?

The COVID-19 pandemic may presently complicate matters, but after classes return to normal, the problem must still be addressed. Deferrals are on the increase, and they create all kinds of inefficiencies for professors, administrators and medical personnel alike. They are particularly unfair for those who are arrive promptly on exam day and who do not receive weeks of extra preparation time.

Universities cannot eliminate deferrals completely, but they can certainly establish policies to curtail their use.

Stuart Chambers teaches in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.     

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  1. Charles Kingsfield / October 14, 2020 at 17:51

    Thank you! Finally, someone who understands the significance of the problem and is willing to address the matter honestly.

    Some of us, probably due to time constraints and frustration, turn a blind eye to questionable, bad, or otherwise counterproductive behaviour on the part of students. The problem here is not eternal. It became fully visible only about ten years ago. We could get into a discussion of the “new and special” pressures to which contemporary students are subject (excluding the pandemic), but let’s not. Past generations of students were typically more level-headed and resilient. Full stop. Contemporary students tend to be weaker in all regards. Infantilizing them is the mistaken (even if well-intentioned) sort of “help” to render and in the end only makes them less effective agents, which is bad and wrong. Compassion and realism are not incompatible.

    On the practical plane, faculty might do well to allow students to miss a mid-term on the condition that the weight and core content of the missed mid-term shift to the final exam (if allowed by the institution). That way, faculty catch a break in the middle of a busy semester while maintaining reasonable standards.

  2. stuart chambers / October 15, 2020 at 11:45

    Charles, I agree. Like you, I saw the problem a few years ago getting worse. Once our department adopted tougher measures, deferrals dropped significantly. It comes down to this: Who is in charge? The university is not an institution that should be enabling this behaviour because it has repercussions on the workforce. Future employers will be affected by the impact of deadlines not being made and excuses being used for missing these deadlines. If we address it now, we minimize its impact on limited resources, and in the process, we make students more accountable for their actions. That should be the noble goal of the university.

  3. Shoshanah Jacobs / October 15, 2020 at 19:03

    The world of work to which you allude is a fiction. Work is (quite rightly) full of deferrals. There is sick leave, parental leave, maternity leave, stress leave, long term disability, short term disability, and many other rights for which we have all fought. Those employment contexts without these basic rights are deemed inequitable and we continue to fight to normalise the basic deferrals for which the majority of our society support.

    We, as faculty, are employed by our society to change, in dramatic ways, the people who are able to access a post-secondary education. We (and by we, I mean you) are not gatekeepers. We are mentors, advocates, and instructors. We are meant to teach our students the skills required in life, and yes, work. There are deferrals in life. I pray that all of my students learn how to manage them in a way that supports their own health as well as society’s.

    If mirroring the ‘world of work’ is really your only priority. Let it be the actual world of work, and not the one from a Dickens novel.

  4. stuart chambers / October 16, 2020 at 08:55

    Shoshanah, you and I are discussing two different scenarios. Pregnancy leave is a reality, as is long-term disability. I am discussing “FAKE” attempts at deferrals by students with poor time-management skills. If you want to enable that behaviour, that is your choice. For me, we should hold them accountable so that we do not create a labour force that makes constant excuses about missing deadlines. It costs time and money, not to mention the extra stress placed on others who must pick up the slack. By denying this, you enable this behaviour. The workforce (quite rightly) demands that deadlines be met to lessen costs and to sustain a professional reputation. The university plays a role in shaping this kind of professional attitude. That’s a noble goal.

  5. Charles Kingsfield / October 16, 2020 at 15:52

    In support of Stuart Chambers: A central consideration here is the need for fairness to students — the students who _don’t_ get the precious extra time the finalgers buy themselves with their Bartleby-ing. (The same consideration does not necessarily apply in the workplace.)

    Evening out all the differences in individual circumstances simply isn’t possible, so the only real way to proceed is to make procedures and expectations clear at the outset, set deadlines known to all well in advance, and uphold deadlines and policies for the sake of fairness to the group.

    Legitimate exceptions should be rare, yet in the last decade or so I have seen the number of cases of “atypical” cases skyrocket. At this point I’m shocked when everyone shows up for an exam because I’m so accustomed to people bailing, often for thin, questionable, or strange reasons.

    I’m not quite sure what “changing who has access to PSE” means. Those who demonstrate the practical ability to fulfill the demands of university life should have the opportunity to be students. Those who do not, or cannot through no fault of their own, should revise their approach, take time off, or (heaven forbid) reconsider their plans and aspirations. This isn’t cruelty; it’s reality. Standards matter, and, properly formulated, are not a form of oppression.

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