Is my student trying to pull the wool over my eyes?

I am a university professor. This morning I got an email from a student who claimed that they could not make the midterm this morning because their car “just shut down” on the highway on the way to the exam. When I asked for documentation (e.g., a tow trick receipt), they claimed that they could not produce any documentation because they had a friend come jump start the car for “alternator/battery problems.” Is this plausible? Whenever my battery has died it has resulted in me being unable to start the car, not shutting down while driving. Is there any scenario in which jump-starting a car would fix a problem that caused your car to suddenly shut down on the highway?

If the battery is drained enough, the engine will stall. This is a bigger problem in the newer cars.

Absolutely plausible. The last battery I had that died on me was in the middle of the night. The engine died about the time the headlight beams turned orange.

Thanks. But would jump starting help in that situation?

It’s possible. Physics-wise I mean. For example if the alternator was on the fritz. That could cause the battery to drain to a point where the car would stop running mid-freeway excursion. A jump start could give the drained battery enough juice to drive a few more miles. The alternator (or wiring, etc) would have to be fixed though, otherwise it would happen again the next day.

I think I told this story here before, but its funny enough to repeat. One time I was driving down the freeway in rush hour traffic and I saw a friend of mine pulled over on the side of the road monkeying with his engine. I stopped to help. I noticed he had his business suit on, as expected, but I was surprised besides his business clothes, he had mechanic’s cover-alls pulled over them.

It turns out he’d been nursing a sick alternator for months. He’d already purchased a new one, and kept it in the trunk, along with a set of tools and the over-alls and a drop cloth. So there he was on the side of the freeway, overalls, and drop cloth, replacing the alternator. I guess he wanted to get every last mile from that old alternator before replacing it!

It didn’t fix the problem of a bad battery or failed alternator, but just delayed it. Jumping a dead battery would charge it up again enough to get by for a while. Actually my ole 59 Pontiac just died on me on the way to class once. I was dead in the water until the guy that owned the service station I went to drove by and stopped. A couple taps on the carb to dislodge dirt in the floats and I was on my way again. It tends to happen more with people with little money and old cars which generally are students.

Jumping might have actually fixed…a loose battery clamp. If one was loose and got snugged up a bit during the jump it would have helped keep it running. Just the charge from jumping would have run down after a short while, I’d think.

If this never happens again then it could have been a load.
If this were real then a repair invoice will be in this kids future.

While all these explanations are possible, they are highly unlikely. Given loose terminals, drained batteries etc. , are all extreme cases. Cars generally don’t suddenly stop for a drained or faulty battery that can be restarted and driven on with no follow up repair. The student should come up with a more plausible explanation. He definitely does not have car repair in his future. You have a right to be skeptical.

If the car had a failing alternator (which is the part that recharges the battery as the car is running), the car would continue to run on battery power until the battery voltage dropped low enough that the electronics on the car would stop working and the car would die. Getting a jump start would let power from the good/running car flow to the now dead battery and allow you to start the car. However, removing the jumper cables would put you right back where you were when the car died–that is, a failed alternator and a battery low enough on charge that the car will stall momentarily.

The odds of a jump start fixing a loose connection at the battery cables which was causing a no-charge situation are very slim.

There are a number of scenarios in which something like this could happen and it could also be that whatever caused the engine to quit may have nothing to do with jump starting. The jump starting could just be coincidental.

Failed ignition switch is just one of a number of reasons.

Whether your student is telling the truth is an unknown and maybe their academic track record should be considered in weighing this.
A high GPA and no history of skipping out could mean they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks! You guys have saved my student’s skin. If she knew you existed, she would thank you.

If this is a sincere student, then the jump would have charged the battery - but in a short time the car would die again. Meaning she will need to get to the root of the problem - which should entail a receipt from a shop for say a new alternator, new battery, or both. At a minimum she’d need a new battery from WalMart or an auto parts store.

If you are still skeptical, you might ask for documentation on what was repaired if a tow bill isn’t available. A simple jump start is not going to be a long term fix.

What would a student gain out of this, assuming it was a lie? Other than a little more time to study, I can’t think of much unless one of her friends photographed the test with a cell phone. Do you have any good basis for your skepticism?

In my 44 years as a university professor, I have heard every excuse imaginable. I make up a different exam for a student that misses a test. Word gets out and that problem rarely occurs in that class again. The other technique I’ve used is to tell the student that I really have a full day, but if they will come in at 6:30 a.m. in the morning, they can make up the examination. Again, word gets out not to miss an examination.
I had a graduate student call me from his home. He lived in married student housing right on campus. He called an hour before a test and said that he couldn’t get his car started and wouldn’t be at the exam. It was a nice, sunny, warm day. I said that he could walk the distance in 15 minutes or take the campus transit system, but if he didn’t take the test, I would record an “F”. He someone managed to get to class.

When I was a college student it never occurred to me just to not go to the exam. If I wasn’t prepared. Or if I had been up all night playing poker. I’d go anyway. Might get lucky and it would be easy. Who wudda thunk I could just not go? … lol …

@GeorgeSanJose–I thought as you did when I was a college student. However, in my last fifteen years of teaching (I retired in 2011), I had students that would not come to class on exam day and expect a make-up exam. Some of these students would actually tell me that they didn’t come to the exam because they weren’t prepared. I always announced an examination at least a week ahead.

Being the father of a teenager and a person who has seen many excuses, I would say don’t get your undies up in a bunch, and let it go. I recall in teacher training a favorite quote, you cannot see everything and you cannot hear every thing, as you know there are many students who care not and I have not been in the field, as you are but would be willing to cut a break just for effort to be in communication with a plausible story. Do not punish the ones that try, in their effort is a significant trait not found in others.

It sounds like you have made your decision and have given the student the benefit of the doubt but…

Why didn’t she call you or your secretary? Doesn’t every student have a cell or smart phone?

Did you check with her other professors to hear of any similar excuse stories?

Could she have called a taxi to get to class on time or even a little late? From personal experience I can say that adrenaline can help a person to work smarter and faster so as to do a 1 hour test in a half hour to compensate for oversleeping.

Yes, auto electronic and other electronic device failures can be intermittent.

As a followup, ask for a copy of any repair receipts. You might not get one but keep the heat applied for a good life lesson for your student.

let it go. people need breaks sometimes. it might be the spark of compassion that leads to something great!