Grandma Died Again: Goal Orientation and Excuses in the Classroom

Grandma Died Again: Goal Orientation and Excuses in the Classroom


If you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another - Yiddish Proverb

As long as there have been college students and teachers there have been assignments and reasons for not completing those assignments on time. Certainly most college professors have experienced the quandary of what to do about missed assignments and their accompanying excuses, either while designing the class and the syllabus or during interactions with individual students. Should excuses be accepted and make-up examinations and assignments be developed? Should efforts be made to ascertain the validity of the claims? While the literature on excuse making in college students is not a large one, several important factors have been explored in the last decade.

This paper will provide a review of the literature and then describe the results of a study conducted by the authors to examine the role of goal orientation on the practice of excuse making. Student excuses were collected over the course of several years along with assessments of goal orientation. It was then possible to evaluate the effect of providing a documented or an undocumented excuse on test scores as well as relate excuse making tendencies to goal orientation.

Background Information
In a sample of 261 college students, Caron, Whitbourne, and Halgin (1992) found that 68% confessed to making at least one fraudulent excuse while in college and 99% indicated they had made at least one legitimate excuse while in college. These findings compare well to more current data by Roig and Caso (2005) who found that in a sample of 565 college students 72% indicated making at least one fraudulent excuse while in college and 100% at least one legitimate excuse.

The most common reason provided for fabricating an excuse was the hope of gaining more time to study or complete the assignment (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005). Men were more likely than women to fabricate fraudulent excuses as well as to offer legitimate excuses. Students with GPAs of 3.00 or greater were less likely to fabricate excuses (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005). The most common fraudulent excuses offered were personal illness, followed by family emergency and failure to understand the assignment (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005). Interestingly, these were also the three most commonly offered legitimate excuses.

Attribution Theory
Attribution theorists have argued that people use excuses when self-esteem is threatened by potential performance (Basgall & Snyder, 1988; Smith & Whitehead, 1988; Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983). The excuses can serve to diminish public attributions of responsibility (Snyder & Higgins, 1986). Most of the extant literature has focused on the beneficial aspects of excuses, however recent research indicates that there may be negative consequences as well. The triangle model of responsibility asserts that people are held responsible as a function of the strength of connection between three components, the person’s identity, the event, and the prescriptions relevant to the event (Tyler & Feldman, 2007).

Excuses serve to weaken the strength of the above connections. Conditions that indicate the validity of an excuse include believability, care for others and a chance to make changes in the future. This allows the excuse maker to maintain a positive character. However, when conditions are not believable, lack or show no future potential for change, or display a lack of validity or respect for others, excuses can result in more negative character ratings and repercussions. Additionally, excuses may damage an excuse makers self-image and self-efficacy beliefs (Schlenker, Pontari, & Christopher, 2001).

Goal Orientation Theory
A second theory, Goal Orientation theory, has been used to examine many aspects of academic behavior. It holds the potential for gaining insights into excuse making as well. Goal orientation theory examines the sources of motivation underlying achievement behavior. It suggests that individuals will orient themselves towards and pursue one or more goals. Two goals predominate—mastery and performance goals. Mastery goals are associated with a variety of largely adaptive behaviors and attitudes such as the enjoyment of challenge, enjoyment in acquiring knowledge, use of effective learning strategies, greater persistence and the belief that competence is obtained incrementally through effort (Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Harackiewicz, Barron, & Elliot, 1998; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991). Performance goals are more complex but have sometimes been associated with a less adaptive set of academic outcomes such as self-aggrandizing, task-aversion, a reluctance to seek help, self-handicapping, and learned helplessness (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Urdan, 1997). Excuse making could certainly be classified as an undesirable academic behavior.

People who pursue performance goals are intensely interested in evaluation, in the opinions of others, and place a heavy emphasis on appearance in front of others. The excuse making literature suggests that students who engage in fraudulent excuse making are concerned with similar issues (Snyder & Higgins, 1986; Tyler & Feldman, 2007). In the case of performance goals, these thoughts stem from the basic belief that intelligence or capability is innate and immutable. That is, performance oriented people believe that you are born with some set level of intelligence or other ability. Each evaluation provides feedback to your level of competence (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). When the feedback is positive, this may temporarily provide evidence of competence. When feedback is negative—for instance when an examination is failed—this is interpreted as a clear signal that you are not competent. In general, negative feedback is more salient. One successful evaluation provides affirmation until the next trial. One failed examination provides a convincing demonstration that you are not smart, not competent, and not worthy in that setting.

Performance oriented students tend to prefer and to seek out easier tasks where success and validation are more readily obtained. Additionally, performance goals carry a strong normative component. A student pursuing performance goals will compare her or his accomplishments to those of others. That student will be more satisfied when outperforming the others. Both performance goal orientation and excuse making are associated with procrastination. Gaining additional time to study or to complete an assignment was the most frequently cited reason provided by fraudulent excuse makers (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005). In both, procrastination appears to be a strategy associated with the belief that effort indicates a lack of ability and an emphasis on evaluation. Waiting until it is too late to adequately complete a project can sometimes function as an attempt to buffer the self against the negative effects of failure. After procrastination, excuse makers and performance oriented students can attribute the failure to a lack of time or a lack of effort and not to a lack of ability (Ferrari & Beck, 1998; Urdan, 1997). A meta-analysis of the literature on procrastination has shown that procrastinators tend to have lower achievement drives, self-esteem and self-efficacy (Steel, 2007).

Excuse making is also associated with internal/external locus of control (Wang & Anderson, 1994). People with an external locus of control believe that behavior is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances while those with an internal locus of control believe that their behavior is guided by personal decisions and efforts (Rotter, 1979). Research has shown that people with an external locus of control are more prone to make excuses, to assign blame to others and are more sensitive to blame than people with an internal locus of control (Wang & Anderson, 1994). Basgall and Snyder (1988) suggest that external-internal differences in excuses will be found only under failure conditions. Changes in behavior due to performance goal orientation are also exacerbated under conditions of failure (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006).

This paper explores the possibility that the endorsement of performance goals may be related to the phenomenon of excuse making and especially to fraudulent excuse making. It also explores the academic consequences accruing from the intersection of goal orientation and excuse making.

Description of the Study
The authors collected excuses across the course of 20 semesters from students enrolled at an urban campus of a public university in the Midwest. The students were enrolled in a variety of psychology courses including lower (Introductory Psychology), middle (Statistics), and upper level content courses. The student demographics of the university are 52% full-time students, 70% female, 23% African American, 11% Latina/o, and 30% over the age of 25. The students enrolled in psychology courses closely mirror the overall student demographics of the university. Some students offered excuses following missed tests and assignments. All students were asked for documentation for each excuse but were allowed to complete the assignment or exam even if no documentation was produced. Interestingly, the need to produce documentation for an excuse is not widely required at the college level (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005).

A record of the specific excuse offered along with evidence or lack of documentation were kept for each excuse. During the semesters that the excuses were collected, many students in the courses involved participated in a voluntary research study evaluating the relationship between goal orientation, grades and retention. This paper provides a report on goal orientation data for 271 of the students whose excuses were collected. Goal orientation was measured using Roedel, Schraw, and Plake’s (1994) Goals Inventory. This instrument consists of 25 statements rated on a 5-point Likert-type scale for strength of agreement. The statements assess attitudes and behaviors towards mastery and performance goals as described by Dweck and Leggett (1988). Twelve items are averaged to produce a mastery goals score (e.g., “I prefer challenging tasks even if I don’t do as well at them”), and five items are averaged to produce a performance goals score (e.g., “I like others to think I know a lot”). Higher scores indicate a stronger endorsement of goal orientation. Test-retest reliability has been reported as r=.73 for the mastery goals sub-scale and r=.76 for the performance goals subscale. Cronbach’s alpha for our sample was .81 for mastery goals and .76 for performance goals. At the end of the academic term the students’ psychology examination grades and assignment scores were obtained from the instructors for this analysis.


Types and Frequencies of Excuses
A total of 596 excuses following missed tests and assignments were offered. Students were always asked to provide documentation for these excuses. Acceptable documentation was provided for 233 of the excuses, leaving 363 without documentation. Previous research has focused on student’s recollections regarding excuse making rather than actual counts of excuses. Students in those studies indicated whether an excuse was legitimate or fraudulent. In this study, the authors only knew whether documentation could be provided for an actual excuse; legitimacy was not ascertained. The personal beliefs of the authors, however, were that they were inclined to view the documented excuses as valid and to suspect that many of the undocumented excuses were fabricated. The 61% of the excuses in the study that were not accompanied with documentation compare quite closely to the 67% and 72% of college students who reported using a fraudulent excuse in previous studies (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005).

The relationship between excuse making (and thus completing work at a later date) and grades was investigated by comparing the examination and assignment scores of two groups of students: those offering excuses and the general class. Since the various grades were recorded in different classes with different point values, all grades were normalized to a distribution where the mean score was 75 (SD=12). Previous research has suggested that the most frequent reason given for offering a fraudulent excuse was to obtain extra time to either complete an assignment or to study for an exam (Caron et al., 1992; Ferrari & Beck, 1998; Roig & Caso, 2005). The potential for gaining an undue advantage through this strategy is also one of the prime concerns for faculty when considering late assignment policies.

However, this strategy didn’t seem to have the desired effect. When students offered an excuse their grade was over one letter grade lower (M=64.7, SD=21.5)) than the class average (t=2.093, df=1188, p=.037). The effect was even more robust in the students who did not provide documentation. These students earned markedly lower grades (M=58.5, SD=23.1) than those that could provide documentation (M=74.7, SD=13.7; t= -9.61, df=594, p < .001). Caron et al., (1992) and Roig and Caso (2005) report that students with GPAs of 3.00 or greater are less likely to make fraudulent excuses than students with lower GPAs. The data from this study demonstrate this effect at a microlevel, the individual test score. Thus, the strategy of making a fraudulent excuse to obtain extra time seems to be a flawed one.

The most commonly offered excuse in this study was illness, followed by work conflict. Together, they made up 57% of the excuses offered. The first category is consistent with previous reports of college excuse making (Caron et al., 1992; Roig & Caso, 2005). However, work conflict, which makes up a large portion of the excuses presented in this study, did not even appear as a category in either of the previous studies. This probably reflects the demographics of the university’s commuter student population as compared to the residential student populations in the earlier studies. The prototypical excuse, “my grandmother died,” appeared at a relatively low and similar frequency as in the earlier studies, which is comforting both for faculty and grandmothers. Table 1 below summarizes the findings.

Table 1

Summary of Type and Frequency of Excuse Offered

Type of Excuse Frequency Percentage
Illness 221 37%
Other 126 21%
Work conflict 118 20%
Child care 30 5%
Out of town (business) 25 4%
Death in family 23 4%
Car problems 21 4%
Procrastination 11 2%
Snow 11 2%
Court Date 10 1%


Results Related to Goal Orientation Theory
Goal orientation theory predicts that students who offered excuses and especially those that offered fraudulent excuses should pursue performance goals more than other students. For the overall sample, students endorsed learning goals (M=3.78, SD=.63) more than performance goals (M=3.58, SD=.88) (t(1088)=2.226, p=.026). These goal orientation scores are similar to other classes that the authors have evaluated (Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006). The pattern of goal endorsement for students who offered excuses was similar to the overall classes. The excuse makers pursued mastery goals (M=3.73, SD=.71) more than performance goals (M=3.62, SD=.74). Neither mastery goals nor performance goals for the excuse makers were significantly different from the overall class goal orientation scores (Mastery goals: t(813)=1.09, p=.278; Performance goals: t(813)=.693, p=.521).

The goal orientation profile was different, however, when comparing students who offered excuses with and without documentation. The students who provided documentation endorsed mastery goals (M=3.84, SD=.71) more than performance goals (M=3.57, SD=.78). Again, these goals were not statistically different from the overall sample (Mastery goals: t(674)=.963, p=.336; Performance goals: t(674)=.067; p=.336). In contrast, students who could not provide documentation endorsed performance goals (M=3.67, SD=.75) more than mastery goals (M=3.61, SD=.69). These students pursued mastery goals less than the overall sample (t(674)=-2.742, p=.006) and less than the students who provided documentation (t(269)=-2.720, p=.007). Students who did not provide documentation endorsed performance goals more than the other two groups but these differences were not significant (compared to the overall sample: t(674)=1.002, p=.317; compared to students with documentation: t(674)=1.090, p=.276). In general, it appears that the pursuit of mastery goals buffers students from less productive strategies such as offering undocumented excuses. This fits within the general constellation of behaviors associated with mastery orientation (Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006).

Goal orientation theory predicts that the two goals are orthogonally related constructs. Therefore, students can adopt any level of either mastery or performance goals. As a result, it can be useful to examine the combined effects of the two goals (Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006; Urdan, 1997). Participants in the current study were classified as high or low in mastery and performance goal orientation through a median split procedure (mastery: median=3.8; performance: median=3.6). This analysis identifies four combinations of goals: 1) students who pursue both goals; 2) students who do not endorse either goal; 3) students who pursue learning goals to the exclusion of performance goals; and 4) students who endorse performance goals to the exclusion of learning goals. A Chi-square analysis demonstrates that these frequencies are not equally distributed, (X2 (3) =14.527, p=.002). This is largely driven by the greater number of high performance students (whether low or high mastery) providing undocumented excuses.

Again there is a need to make a distinction between students who can offer documentation and those who cannot offer documentation. In this study, the authors were inclined to treat the excuses accompanied by documentation as legitimate. As can be observed in Table 2, approximately equal numbers of excuses were provided by students in all four categories. Thus, the four constellations do not seem to be related to the production of legitimate excuses. In other words, students in all four categories do get sick, have work conflicts, or experience a death in the family.

However, a markedly different pattern appears in the students who were not able to provide documentation. A preponderance of these excuses came from students belonging in the two high performance categories. It is suspected that many of these excuses may have been fabricated. From this analysis, it appears that strong endorsement of performance goals is associated with the production of fabricated excuses. See Table 2 below.
Table 2

Goal Orientation Frequency as a Function of Excuse Type

With Documentation
Goal Orientation Performance
High Low
Mastery High 33 41
Low 33 32
No Documentation
Goal Orientation Performance
High Low
Mastery High 52 24
Low 40 16

As students progress through college they tend to adopt stronger mastery goals and weaker performance goals (Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991). In this study, the students were enrolled in a variety of psychology courses including lower (Introductory Psychology), middle (Statistics) and upper level content courses. Introductory Psychology is primarily taken by students in their first year in college. Statistics is typically taken during the second year. The upper level content courses are typically taken during the third year and beyond. In this sample, mastery goals increased and performance goals decreased across level of coursework as shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Changes in Mastery and Performance Orientation Across Level of Coursework

Overall Goal Orientation Class
Intro Psych Statistics Upper-level topics
Mastery 3.58 3.68 3.75
Performance 3.78 3.39 3.38

At the same time, excuse making decreased across level of coursework with the highest percentage of excuses offered in Introductory Psychology classes as shown in Table 4. The rate of excuse making was negatively related to mastery goals, r = -.957. The rate of excuse making was positively related to performance goals, r = .994. Thus, as goal orientation theory would predict, the adoption of performance goals is associated with a less than adaptive academic outcome, excuse making (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Urdan, 1997).
Table 4

Rate of Excuse Making by Class Type

Intro Psych Statistics Upper-level topics
Overall 7.9% 5.7% 5.4%
Documentation 3.2% 2.1% 2.2%
No Documentation

However, the goal orientation scores of students who actually produced excuses did not change across the type of course enrolled in as shown in Table 5. Both mastery (F(2,684) = .931, p=.881) and performance scores (F(2,684) = .644, p=.901) remained fairly consistent across course type. On the other hand, as indicated earlier, students undergo a gradual change in goal orientation while in college (Hoyert & O’Dell, 2004, 2005, 2006; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991). The pursuit of mastery goals tends to increase, and the pursuit of performance scores tends to decrease. However, this growth and change does not seem to occur in the students who offer excuses.

Table 5

Goal Orientation of Students Offering Excuses by Class Type

Intro Psych Statistics Upper-level topics
Mastery 3.60 3.86 3.66
Performance 3.61 3.62 3.65

Conclusions and Recommendations
Performance goals are associated with a variety of maladaptive academic behaviors while mastery goals are associated with a variety of adaptive academic behaviors (Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Harackiewicz, Barron, & Elliot, 1998; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991; Urdan, 1997). Fabricating excuses is certainly an example of a maladaptive academic behavior.

The results of this study are consistent with the idea that the pursuit of performance goals is linked with excuse making. Students who did not provide documented excuses endorsed performance goals more than mastery goals. They also pursued mastery goals less than the overall student population. A high proportion of undocumented excuses were made by students with high performance orientation scores. Additionally, the goal orientation of students employing excuses in this study did not change across course level unlike the general student population who show an increase in mastery goals and a decrease in performance goals. Conversely, adopting mastery goals seems to prepare students to engage in more adaptive behaviors and guide students away from less adaptive strategies such as making fraudulent excuses. Students who pursued mastery goals showed a higher rate of documented excuses. Mastery orientation increased across course level at the same time that excuse making decreased.

Students with undocumented excuses earned markedly lower grades than those who could provide documentation. Highly performance oriented students sometimes engage in maladaptive strategies in an effort to protect their self-esteem. They might procrastinate, self-handicap, or offer fraudulent excuses at times in which success is not particularly likely (Harackiewicz et al., 1998; Urdan, 1997). The strategy buffers them from the feedback following a failure. Under normal conditions, this feedback would be interpreted as evidence of a lack of competence. However, if they can attribute the failure to the excuse or to procrastination, they are buffered from this negative feedback. Thus, a student could believe that s/he is still bright and competent, and feel it was the conditions of the excuse that held her or him back. An external excuse can be found for failure rather than an internal one (Wang & Anderson, 1994). While students may offer fraudulent excuses in an attempt to protect their self-esteem, the end result is a decrease in grades that has the potential to harm the very attributes they are struggling to protect. These results lie in opposition to the Yiddish proverb that begins this article, as this study demonstrates that any excuse just won’t do, rather that documentable excuses prove superior in assignment and test scores and should do more to protect self-esteem and self-efficacy as a result.

How can teachers translate these results into agents of change for the classroom? The following are suggestions which may be helpful:
1) Have a clear policy regarding makeup exams and assignments included in your syllabus. This has the potential to decrease the number of undocumented excuses offered by students. In this study, the authors asserted in the syllabus that if an assignment was turned in late or an exam missed, that documentation must be provided in order to earn the right to be able to make up the exam or assignment.
2) Require documentation of excuses when allowing students to make up exams or turn in assignments late. This should decrease the number of fraudulent excuses offered, which ultimately could harm students’ grades and self-concepts.
3) Foster mastery thoughts in your classrooms. An increase in mastery thoughts is associated with a decrease in excuse making in this study. Thus, structuring the classroom setting to provide the opportunity for students to be exposed to and influenced by a mastery orientation should reduce the number of excuses offered.


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