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.
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.
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.