Let me start by saying that I love my upper-level undergraduate students. They are engaged, enthusiastic, willing to try anything, hard-working, and asking great questions. I have near perfect attendance in my class, and when a student misses class, I usually hear a pretty legitimate excuse, often with documentation. Our students have complicated lives.
But it pains me when students miss hands-on labs or field trips. I want them to get the educational experience of the lab/field, and I don’t want to penalize them because they were prostrate over the toilet with the stomach flu. (Boy, has this been the winter for stomach flu – some of my colleagues have had it three times.) Paper- or computer-based labs are fairly easy for our students to make-up. I give them the lab hand-out, give them a suitable extension to the deadline, and tell them to ask me when they need help. But what I’ll call “wet” labs, where we are working with specific samples and techniques, usually require setting up equipment, procuring samples, etc. These labs get set up the afternoon before lab and cleaned up immediately after the students are done, because other classes use the same room. So if a student misses a wet lab, I either need to go through the whole set-up/take-down process again (often several hours of my time). If a student misses a field lab, it could mean a whole afternoon or even a whole day of my time to go out in the field with them. Or I could send the student out on his/her own with no hands-on guidance and no one watching out for his/her safety in the field (a real concern). The alternative to recreating the lab/field experience is to give them some sort of easy-to-assemble alternative assignment, but I often feel like the alternative assignments (write a paper…) don’t meet the same educational objectives as the original experience. Plus, it’s difficult to feel fair grading an entirely different assignment and throwing it into the same grade pool as the rest of the class.
This semester I am teaching a class that is lab and field intensive. We are doing wet labs or field work 10 weeks of the 14 week semester. So I’ve already had a few missed labs to deal with. I’ve been trying to get students into the field to make-up for missed field labs, but without overwhelming myself in the process. I took two students out to one of my field sites for a 1/2 day to help me collect preliminary data, and I called that their make-up lab. I assigned another two students to go out to a field site with each other and replicate some of the work they missed. But I’ve got at least one more field make-up to deal with, and we’ve still got ~5 weeks of semester left. So I’d be curious to know how other faculty deal with make-up labs and I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. But when you comment, please remember that these are hard-working, enthusiastic upper-level students with complicated lives, and not freshmen who were too hung-over to come to class. They deserve compassion and a good education, but I can’t be constantly on-call to create lab and field experiences on-demand.