Wednesday, February 29, 2012



Has your college found a reasonably elegant way to handle grades of “incomplete?”

We’re struggling, and I know we’re not alone.  I’m hoping that crowdsourcing the question will lead to a better idea.

The idea behind the “incomplete” grade, at least at the undergraduate level, is to allow students who had some sort of real personal emergency a chance to finish a course once the emergency has passed.  The textbook example is the student who gets into a car accident shortly before finals, and can’t make it to the exam because he’s hospitalized.  Most of us, I hope, would agree that giving that student a zero on the exam would be needlessly mean.  So the instructor can offer an Incomplete, and give the student a chance to finish the class for a grade once he has recovered.

The Incomplete comes with an expiration date; if the work doesn’t get done by a particular date, the grade reverts to an “F.”  It’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card; it’s just an extension.

When the “I” grade works well, the expectations are clear, the amount missing is small, and the resolution is quick.  Under those circumstances, the “I” grade isn’t really an issue.

But it isn’t always that easy.

Some people give “I” grades without actually talking to the student first.  It’s a mercy grade, on the assumption that surely, Johnny wouldn’t have skipped the final without a good reason.  This seeming act of mercy – which I have no doubt is well-intended – actually has serious ripple effects throughout the college.

For one, it wreaks havoc with prerequisites.  If Johnny would have received, say, a C without the final, but he gets an Incomplete instead, then he isn’t eligible to move on to the next course in the sequence.  He would have been eligible with the C.  By the time the “I” gets resolved, it’s either too far into the subsequent semester to take the next course, or all the seats in the next course are taken.

If Johnny received financial aid, the picture is even murkier.  The financial aid office has to assume that Johnny simply walked away.  If the professor didn’t note a last date of attendance, then Johnny’s aid may be cut.  Had Johnny received the C, his aid would have been fine.

The “I” grade doesn’t immediately count against a student’s GPA, but it does count against the Satisfactory Academic Progress that a student has to maintain to keep aid eligibility.  Depending on what else he took and how he did, Johnny may lose academic eligibility for financial aid even before the eventual “F” is posted.

But the real nightmare is the professor who assigns “I” grades unilaterally, and then vanishes. At that point, even determining what’s missing -- let alone what an appropriate grade would be -- becomes a serious challenge.

I need to clarify here that I’m working in the context of undergraduates.  Grad school incompletes are another animal entirely.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways for a college to keep the option of the “I” grade without falling into these traps?

I know of no one at my school who unilaterally assigns Incomplete grades. There may be a very few, but the general practice is clearly to consult with the student in case of illness (or family members in case of accidents) before entering an I in the grade report. Furthermore, all grades at my college are submitted electronically and entering an I requires that the instructor fill in the requirements to complete the course and the default grade if the requirements are not met by the one-year deadline for completion. That is, an instructor can designate the default grade as a C for a student who was doing well in the class but has to take and pass a final in order to earn a B or A. The default grade can be an F for a student who was barely passing and requires a decent final exam grade to keep a C. In fact, no student can receive an I unless he or she was doing passing work at the time coursework was interrupted. (Funny how often failing student ask for an Incomplete, as if putting their bad results in the deep freeze will produce a better grade upon thawing; we don't allow that.)

It is possible for an adjunct instructor to assign an I under appropriate circumstances and then vanish to distant climes. In that case, however, the recorded information contains completion requirements and the department chair can find someone to administer an appropriate final exam and compute a term grade for the student. No undocumented Incompletes are permitted.
I've never heard of anyone unilaterally assigning I's either. Our policy outlines that there must be written agreement with the student (email is sufficient) that outlines work to be completed and the deadline.

We also enter grades electronically. We must enter last date attended and date that the I expires. The policy is that the student must have completed more than 70% of the course and be passing with a "C" or better to even have the "I" option available.

Between the written agreement, policy, and electronic records, mystery "I" grades haven't been a big enough problem to gain face time in a faculty meeting.

In a related note, I also have failing students who ask for an incomplete. I have a hard time not raising an eyebrow at the silliness of such a request.
My problem is the reverse — a student goes to the administration with a story (which may or may not be true and/or complete) and their grade is changed. Admin relies on the student to communicate with us,we are then expected to provide a task 'in lieu of missing work' that the student can complete before the deadline.

The problem is the student who delays communicating this because they are busy until just before the deadline. This ties our hands, as the task must be achievable by the student in the remaining time (for some reason, there is no deadline for the student to inform the instructor of admin's decision, and the admin doesn't communicate directly with us). We also have to be able to evaluate the work they submit (knowing that they will appeal a failing grade, and that other students may appeal their grades if the work is easier than the missed work most students did) — all while completing the usual end-of-term madness of marking exams and preparing for the next round of classes.

Zeno's system sounds ideal. Requirements are clear with no ambiguity.
I have to assume that it got worse at my college after we went to fully electronic grade entry, because now the Dean regularly reminds faculty that they should not give an "I" just because they felt sorry for some student who missed an exam. Given the venue for the Dean's comments, apparently there are some full-time faculty who don't know that giving an I to your C student example automatically turns that C into an F after a few months -- or has other negative consequences such as you list.

One situtation you missed (or maybe don't know about): One of our t-t faculty members seemed to think that the student could just sit in on the class next semester and take all of the tests over again without registering. Don't ask me how I know this.

An annual re-education effort might be in order at your college, as it seemed to be needed at mine. There seem to be more than a few faculty who have little idea about how the system actually works.

I like the automated system at Zeno's college. Our Dean insists that adjuncts leave behind their grade notes (including the expectations for finishing an I) before getting their last pay check but has to cajole regular faculty for info about an I.
I've never given an incomplete for someone for missing the final if all they'll get is a low pass. They can come into see me to revise the grade if they have a good reason.

I had one student in recent years who didn't submit major final project before the deadline for grades. Kiss 35% of the mark goodbye! I submitted my grades and found a copy of the late assignment under my the door the next.


Then again, some profs won't let you pass a course without completing all the homework. I don't know if the F is more humane than the I in those cases.
At my undergraduate university, when incompletes were given a separate form had to be filled out in adition to the usual grade entry form. The student was also supposed to sign off on the form, although I'm not sure what the policy was if this was not possible. Incompletes could only be given if the student had completed at least 50% of the work with a passing grade. The faculty member could designate a date by which the work had to be completed (I'm not sure what if any the constraints were on this, but I know of cases where it was both less than and more than the one year that seems to be standard). They also could designate a grade that the incomplete would revert to. So in this case if the student has a C without the final and might need the credit/passing score before the next semester, the faculty could designate that all work must be in by the first day of the next semester, otherwise the grade gets recorded as a C. This likely works somewhat better for spring semester courses were this allow all summer to complete the work. There was also a way for incompletes to be "frozen" i.e. permanently recorded as incomplete. I think this was mostly done if the student had a passing score on the completed work, but this work was not a sufficient portion of the course to grant a passing score while recording a 0 for the final, and the student did not need the credit to graduate. I suppose the idea was that this could be treated similar to a W, but instead for a case where the deadline to withdraw was passed while the student was still performing well, but after this deadline, the student had a legitimate reason why they couldn't complete the course. I have no idea how well this system worked from a faculty/admin point of view (and as a current graduate student who has not yet had grading responsibility, I cannot speak to that perspective), but from the student side it seemed to work. I did however go to a highly selective college so what worked there might not be best elsewhere.
I've never heard of a class that one can pass without taking a final exam. That might be a big part of your first issue.

The school I went to had a system where you submitted an I and a grade the students will receive if the I is not made up. In a couple of months, the grade converts, unless more information comes in. Usually, of course, it's an "F" (why do the Incomplete otherwise?) but in the rare cases that it's a passing grade, the problem is thereby solved.
@PunditusMaximus, the final exam in my courses count for 20% of the grade. I have had strong students either skip my final or take it without reviewing because they felt that their limited time would be better used studying for another class in which they didn't have such good grades. It'll bring an A down to a C, but for some students the C is a good tradeoff for not failing another class.

What is the point of placing so much emphasis on the final exam that failing it causes one to fail the class?
I have been in classes where you *could* skip the final and still pass, if you already had at least 60% of the available points. But of course in order to do that you would have to be doing well in the course prior to that point, in which case the chances that you would decide to skip the final are pretty slim.
Our problem with I's is a bit different. Students pressured faculty into give an I if their course grade looked like it would come out lower than what they wanted. Since the normal practice for resolving an I was to take the class the following semester, it was a way to avoid putting a low grade on their transcript in the hopes that the next instructor would be an easier grader. As you might expect, most of this came from pre-med students.
@Vicki, there is a world of difference between failing a final exam with a 60 or so and skipping it. In practice, students who fail finals are generally expressing their overall state of being, but I've had students knock B's down to C's by failing a final. But I've never taught a class where it was reasonably possible to pass with a 0 on the final. Mathematically possible, sure, but realistically? No.
Anyways, to get back to DD's question, I rather like the "I(F)" or "I(C)" approach. It elegantly cleans up the last of the border cases.
At the university where I used to teach f/t and the community college where I'm now adjunct, the decision to assign an I was and is the instructor's.

At the Great Desert University, you had to fill out a form that was designated a "contract" between the student and the instructor, each of whom had to sign it. It specified, in detail, exactly what work remained, how it was to be assessed, and when it was due. Then a secretary would drop the form into a file drawer, where it would moulder away, forgotten.

One hellish semester-end, when I was sick with exhaustion after having graded 120 term papers, on the very last possible day a young jerk (sorry: that's the kindest term I can come up with) surfaced at my office with a vast paper that he'd failed to turn in two semesters before. I said the semester was over, grades were due that day, and I was not grading another (flicking!) student paper. He whipped out a copy of his "contract" and said, "But you signed your name to this. It's a contract that says you agree to read my paper. You don't have any choice."

The guy had been barely passing at the time he maneuvered me into giving him an incomplete.

In my cloutless FT/NTT position, I did not take chances that some student would go to a dean or a vice-president and complain, as this one implicitly was threatening to do.

Henceforth, I wrote a new rule into my syllabi: An incomplete is awarded only if the student has completed ALL BUT ONE of the graded assignments and has a C average in the course and can produce a statement on a doctor's or a funeral home's letterhead as to the veracity of his or her excuse. If any of those conditions is not met, I will not give an incomplete, no matter how tragic the story.

Tying in with this new policy was a decision never to accept late papers. If you haven't turned your drivel in by the time I sit down to read a given assignment, you are out of luck. Thus a late paper shoved under the door avails you naught.

In my present incarnation as a semi-retired adjunct, I have given one incomplete (with the chair's approval). It went to a young athlete who sustained a concussion on the soccer field -- the second such injury she'd had that semester. Because there's no assurance that I'll be employed from term to term, we agreed to give her a very tight deadline. She only had a couple of weeks to do the paper, and she never turned it in.
At the CC where I am faculty, a student may receive a grade of I if the faculty member completes a form stating how and when the work will be completed, what percent that work counts for and what the grade will be if the work is not completed within one semester. If the form is not completed and turned in, then at the end of the semester the I becomes an F.
At this college we used to be able to give a mark and the letter I for incomplete. For the student who didn't show for the exam without explanation I could give a 62I, for example. After 30 days, unless I did something, the mark became a 62. This gave me a chance to find out if the student chose not to write the final or if a life event prevented him/her from getting to the exam.
We have two options since many of our students are active duty or reserve military or TAD gets assigned in the middle of a semester.

If less than half the session (8 weeks) has elapsed and something life altering (surgery, hospital, deployment etc)occurs, the student MUST reach out to the professor and they work out, in writing a way to get everything completed by end of session.

If more than half has gone by or there is no way to complete by session end date, then I can be requested, again by the student. There are forms and due dates and if the student goes awol their grade is on them. (Usually converts to F).

Should the faculty go awol, department chairs and such have all info needed to fill in and keep the student moving forward.
My daughter's professor just assigned her an incomplete because he did not complete the grading of her final. She is a freshman and this is her first college experience. She took the final with extended time but was finished before the regular exam as they started early. He chose to leave town without it. He then assigned an incomplete thru the automated system which stated that she needed to retake the final or her grade would revert to a D. Naturally, she freaked out. She and I both emailed him and he explained the situation and said he would grade it when he got back to town and change the grade. This I really find outrageous and grounds for an ADA lawsuit. I mean, at the very least he could have emailed her to explain it before doing it. He could have got it express mailed to him. He could have walked over and gotten it. I teach high school and college and fully understand the rights of students under ADA and the responsibilities of the professor. I explained to him that her financial support is contingent upon grades and I did not want the grades to go out before it got fixed. He was rather arrogant and told me "well I could have just given her an F, would that have been better?" I'm appalled. It's this kind of "above the law" mentality that gives higher education a bad reputation and reflects unfavorably upon all of the responsible faculty who do their jobs with no excuses. I can't come down too hard because he still has to grade her final and change the grade and I know how these things work. But I wanted to express my opinion that teachers using incompletes in order to extend their grading deadlines is just unacceptable. Am I alone or is this a clear violation of policy? Does this actually happen alot? Is it condoned? Please advise.
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