Wednesday, February 29, 2012
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
What is the point of placing so much emphasis on the final exam that failing it causes one to fail the class?
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.
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.