Zimmermann and her colleagues categorized the types of requests as medical requests, other, and unknown. Medical includes the student’s own illness or disability. The other category includes possibilities like a family member’s medical emergency, court dates, accidents, funerals, religious observances, etc. The researchers found that medical requests have risen since 2002/2003.
Anecdotal discussions claim that more challenging courses have more requests for special considerations because students want to give themselves more time to study. The researchers found only a weak association with challenging courses having more requests.
Zimmermann and her colleagues also looked at demographics and how they shape the number of requests made. They found that students with low academic standing do not make more requests. They found that older students are more likely than younger students to make requests. But when they compared the students who make multiple requests, they found no differences in age groups for multiple requests. A larger number of older students may make one request, but they aren’t the entire group of students who make multiple requests.
Continuing their exploration of demographics, the researchers found that female students make more requests for special consideration than male students. As with most requests, their reasons are primarily medical. Zimmermann and her colleagues found that more of the high-frequency requesters are part-time students. But the requests remain stable across income ranges, so socio-economic status does not seem to be a factor.
Conclusions about Special Considerations
Zimmermann and her colleagues make several conclusions in their discussion of these trends in higher education requests for special considerations. They note that there has been a rise in the rate of requests, but they conclude that because this increase mirrors the increase in enrollment, the behavior isn’t excessive or problematic.
They also discuss the rate of medical reasons rather than other reasons. Like the requests overall, the rate of medical reasons for the requests has increased, but the rate of other reasons has remained steady. Zimmermann and her colleagues actually compared the rate of these medical excuses with illness-related work absences for people in the same age range and found that the rates are consistent. They argue that this similarity shows students’ genuine need rather than an attempt to lie to improve their grades.
Zimmermann and her colleagues note that universities may be enacting more lenient policies about special considerations. They argue that these policies are reasonable and reflect care for the students’ rights. Again comparing the university to the workplace, in the workplace there are unions and workers’ rights groups who protect the needs of the workers and advocate for sick days. In the university there is not a group that performs that task, so administrators are now implementing policies to be more aware of students’ rights.
The more lenient policies may have led to an increase in the number of requests. Zimmermann and her colleagues discuss that this increase may be because students feel more comfortable actually making the request, in addition to the administration’s concern about student rights. They also say that although more requests are made, they are actually appropriate requests. Perhaps without the current policies or with more strict policies in place, students did not attempt to ask for special considerations, even when they had a major event that they knew would affect their grade. Now, students are able to ask for these considerations.
Zimmermann and her colleagues draw a final conclusion that there is “no evidence of dishonesty.” Even as we see a documented increase in the number of students making requests for special considerations, Zimmermann and her colleagues’ data shows that these requests aren’t manufactured and aren’t dishonest attempts by students to raise their grades.
What Current Instructors Can Take Away
First, rely on your university’s policy rather than fielding requests on your own. Require students to go through the official procedure of making the request and supplying documentation. The steps in this process will automatically remove any student who does not have a legitimate request.
Second, if your university does not have an official policy and procedure for handling requests, create a very specific policy in your syllabus for these requests. Create a policy similar to the one we see from the University of Toronto, where you can rely on experts (doctor’s notes, obituary notices, etc.) rather than making your own determination of whether the request is legitimate.
Finally, researchers are not finding any evidence of dishonesty. Although students may make requests, they are asking for special considerations out of genuine and legitimate need. Zimmermann and her colleagues suggest that instructors remember that even if they receive several requests for special considerations during the semester, it is a very small percentage of students who are making the requests and those students show a real need.