The Dead Grandmother Syndrome and How to Treat It

Gravemarker with angel lying face down in grief, holding a wreath.If you are a woman of a certain age, with grandchildren attending college, please watch out for yourself over the next couple of weeks. Your mortality rate is about to increase dramatically.

This is a well-documented phenomenon, first described in a scholarly journal, the Annals of Improbable Research in the November/December 1999 Special Education Issue with The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome by Mike Adams, Department of Biology at Eastern Connecticut State University. Although Adams’ article reports on the results of serious data collection, you should take the conclusions with a small amount of salt. The Annals of Improbable Research — also known as AIR — is a science humor magazine that publishes “…research that makes people laugh and then think.” But even as you may smile reading Adam’s research on the dead grandmother syndrome, it is likely because you recognize it from personal experience. As the end of the semester approaches and exams and papers are due, students who fall behind may resort to excuses for extensions or make-up dates. Your syllabus makes it clear that you don’t offer exceptions. Enter the death of a beloved grandmother.

While some faculty take a hard line on these excuses [Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before The Midterm … Chronicle Vitae, January 29, 2015], others have learned from personal experience that sometimes students’ grandmothers actually do die. Brian Thill writes of the conundrums faculty face in dealing with students excuses in The Time of Dead Grandmothers [Inside Higher Ed, March 14, 2006]. He writes: “As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It’s as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. … How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.”

Karen Eifler, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland, Oregon, offers a practical solution in Dealing with Student Deceptions: What to do with ‘Death in the Family’ Excuses [Faculty Focus, March 12, 2009]. Eifler, while well aware of the dead grandmother syndrome, also recognized that students do have deaths in the family and these events demand a sympathetic and courteous response, even while not wanting to encourage students to practice deception. This was her answer to the problem: “[W]hen a student informs me that a close relative has died, I immediately send a condolence card to the whole family, expressing my sympathy for their loss. If the student has been explicit (“It was my grandmother”), I am too. I can also match their vagueness. If the loss was authentic, the family is touched at the gesture, and I am truly glad to have extended that civility. However, if the story was a fabrication, the student finds he or she has some uncomfortable explaining to do to the family, which usually curbs that behavior.” It only took a couple of semesters before word got around about her practice, and it worked to her advantage to be seen as compassionate. Students quickly realized that it was better to speak with her honestly about their need for an extension as “…they figured anyone willing to call their bluff by sending condolences to the whole family would probably treat them with reasonable due process anyway.”

Ultimately it may be most useful to take a look at the underlying cause of the syndrome and address the stress that students are experiencing.

In his article, ‘Tis the Season of Dead Grandmothers [Chronicle Vitae, November 2, 2016], David Gooblar, lecturer in the Rhetoric department at the University of Iowa, questions  “…the assumption that strict discipline is the same thing as demanding a lot from our students.” He states that it is possible to care about your students without being a pushover. Strict policies with no exceptions may “…signal to students that adherence to the rules is more important than any other learning goal we have for them.” The end result may be detrimental to long-term learning. Gooblar prefers to create a “cohesive and supportive” learning community for his students. For example, he allows his students to come up with policies on device use in the classroom, having learned that students are more likely to adhere to policies when they have had a voice in the decision. He writes: “We should strive to create courses in which students want to do the work on time — because we’ve successfully made the case that doing the work on time will benefit them. We should also look to make students trust us enough that if tragedy does strike — sometimes family members do die, you know — they feel comfortable coming to us and explaining why they need some extra time.”

How do you handle student excuses and/or requests for extensions or makeup exams? Please share your policies and solutions in the comments section.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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