Tomorrow I have a midterm exam (worth 20%). Today I found out that my son has speech and language delays (likely due to poor hearing). The only time to get parental training to help him this month is tomorrow. The timing of the midterm overlaps with the training. So, I am faced with a choice. A choice that for me is easy, but if I was in a different set of circumstances it could be really difficult. 

The problem here is that if I were a student in different circumstances I would be very stressed about my choice: Miss part of the exam or miss the opportunity to help my son. This situation seems problematic to me as an educator. I’m reflecting at this moment on how I approach these situations (not on how my teacher approaches the situation).

My Circumstance

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter how will I do on the midterm in my situation. My mark going into the exam is high. I can spend one hour of the allotted three hours rushing through it and likely pull off a pass. Lucky for me the course that I am taking is for fun so if I fail it there are no real financial or program progression consequences. I am choosing to rush through my exam because I don’t really expect accommodations when emailing the teacher to ask for them the day before (especially since my teacher just changed so I haven’t even met him and the course policy is quite clear that deadlines are strict).

I just found out today that if I do my best on the midterm exam I’ll miss the opportunity to help my son this month. I could not have emailed sooner to make arrangements. There is another training session next month and I could probably do my own research online and figure out how to help him and still do the midterm exam. I’m also a nurse so some would assume I should not need the training. My husband, on the other hand, could really use it and will feel better engaging if I am there. Attending this training session is obviously best for my family and I know I should do it even if it means that my mark in the course will suffer. The small tips they gave us today are already helping. About 45 minutes into the exam I’ll switch from trying to guessing so I can rush to the training. Would I want my students doing that? Nope. It won’t be an accurate representation of my course knowledge. 

As the Teacher

If I was the teacher, would I accommodate a request to write early?  This year there has been a lot of discussion around inclusion, flexibility, and the need to maintain some expectations. I have also been exploring gradeless approaches to education and including more choice in the classroom.

Taking this course has really helped me have more empathy for students. How often are we strict on the timing of exams or submission of papers or something else that really probably doesn’t matter too much to us? For example, in this circumstance, if a student started my midterm early and didn’t leave the testing centre until the rest of the class had started there would be no real consequence for the teacher (other than filling out a test centre form … providing that the test centre is actually open of course). Why do students need to be registered with the Glen Crombie Center to allow them to start early (again as long as they do not leave early)? My guess is the resource implications when too many students want flexible exam writing times. Is there a way we can look into being more flexible?

A circle around a date on a calendar with the word "exam" written on it.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Making Assumptions

When a student makes a last-minute request for testing at an alternate time or an assignment extension how often do we assume that is just because they procrastinated or they’re trying to cheat or something else negative? What excuse is a good excuse? Who are we to judge? Life happens.

Syllabus Wording

Here is where the wording of the course policies and syllabus is important. I want my students to feel like they can tell me what is preventing them from doing their best on the exam. There was some discussion of the importance of wording at a recent conference I was at where we were encouraged to think carefully about the message sent by our word choices (not well captured in the post below).

Considering Stakes

I wonder if the stakes of the midterm or higher or if the course itself cost me more money and my grade was lower if I would feel comfortable leaving the exam early to take care of my family. The most likely scenario would be me dropping the course to avoid a possible F.


According to the current test-taking policy in my program, I think my answer should be no to writing the test early … yet for compassionate reasons, I wonder if I would allow it. I hope so. However, a lack of consistency among faculty also causes issues when it comes to test-taking outside of normal times. Having a common definition of what qualifies for compassionate reasons is also difficult because every situation is unique. This particular situation probably wouldn’t fall under typical compassionate reasons. Does that mean that students would have added stress being forced into a decision between their family or the midterm? Is that conducive to learning?

The Big Question

Here is the bigger question: how can I build flexibility into my syllabus so that a student who has to make a difficult choice about writing an exam or taking care of their family feels like they have another option (or at least can talk to me)? That will take some time and discussions with faculty to figure out. Allowing options seems like a possible fix. However, there are institutional barriers to flexibility like the inability to individualize the weighting of assignments as the presenters in the post below have. Allowing flexibility is a complex issue that will take time to figure out.

Maybe I should study now …


Laura Killam is an experienced nursing educator from Northern Ontario with a keen interest in improving student learning through innovation. For more information please visit


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