Worried Grandma

Professor Palmer,
I regret to inform you that I won’t be able to take today’s exam as my family has suffered a great loss.

Prof Palmer,
This is the worst possible timing, but sadly my grandmother has died and I will be forced to miss our exam today.

Hey, I missed today’s exam because my grandma died, what should I do?

Every semester right around test time I get emails like the ones above. For some reason grandmothers just start dropping1. It’s uncanny. When I start talking about this fact with my students they all smile and laugh quietly. I tell my students in as earnest a voice as possible that this phenomena is a prime candidate for social research. Fortunately for us this research has already been done by Dr. Mike Adams (1990)2.

Adam’s work is clear: Grandmothers3 hear of their grandchild’s exam, become tremendously worried, and die from the stress. My students laugh at this finding, but I go on in earnest. After a short discussion to define a hypothesis, dependent, and independent variable, I ask the students to work with their neighbors to identify all three in Adam’s dead grandma research. After a few minutes students correctly identify all three and I put up this slide:

Dead Grandma Syndrome Hypothesis

It never fails that at some point a student will say, “Professor Palmer this research doesn’t factor in student lying. Most of the students are making it up.” I muster my acting skills I learned in high school drama and through a perplexed look on my face. “No, that can’t be. Students wouldn’t do that. Would they?” If my acting holds gullible students will tell me that desperate students will say or do just about anything to not miss/fail a test. Then we move into a discussion of spurious correlations.

Students must understand how to ask a research question before students can understand that sociology is a science. Activities like the dead grandma can really help your students grasp these fundamental concepts quickly.


1. While this post and my presentation of the dead grandma research is delivered in a tongue and check way I tell my students after the discussion that I have a great deal of reverence for anyone who suffers the loss of a family member. In fact my dear grandmother’s funeral coincided with a test I had as an undergraduate, but I told the professor days in advance and took the test before the exam date.

2. Adams, Mike. 1990. “The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society.” The Connecticut Review. Available at: http://www.cis.gsu.edu/~dstraub/Courses/Grandma.htm

3. The research reports that Grandfathers do not expire nearly as often as their heterosexual partners. An interesting fact that I ask my students to explore using a symbolic interactionist lens. Why use grandmas and not grandpas when forming an excuse? There must be some perceived rhetorical value in the gender of the grandparent.