Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Tressie McMillan Cottom fired off a tweet on Wednesday about avoiding giving “incompletes” after the bureaucratic nightmare she had to deal with.

I don’t know how her university handles them, but as a general rule, she’s right.  Whenever possible, avoid incompletes.

Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College, has called incompletes “pregnant F’s.”  It’s sort of backwards -- the incomplete is pregnant with the F, not the other way around -- but the meaning is clear.  In most places, at least at the undergraduate level, incompletes that aren’t completed default to F’s after a set amount of time.  That usually happens, but students often don’t notice, and wait until much later to come back and try to finish.

Anything that delays grades creates issues.  

The most obvious has to do with moving on to the next semester.  That doesn’t just refer to prerequisites; it also covers “satisfactory academic progress,” academic probation, minimum GPA requirements for certain programs, and, of course, financial aid.  Institutionally, reopening grades for a prior year involves changing the FTE’s that were reported to various governing authorities, which is not something to do lightly.

Any major extension brings with it some academic integrity issues, too.  Is it reasonable to judge a paper a student had six more months to complete on the same scale against students who only had a few weeks?  In some cases, the passage of time may even make a given assignment difficult to reconstruct. That can happen with assignments that take current events as their subject matter.

A professor who is more permissive with incompletes than her colleagues creates an equity issue among students.  A department that’s permissive with incompletes may wind up inadvertently teaching its students some lessons it shouldn’t have.  

The real nightmare comes when the professor isn’t around anymore when the student returns.  Depending on the professor, and the reason she isn’t around anymore, there may or may not be much of a basis for the rest of the department to assign a grade at all.  More than once, in more than one place, I’ve been in the position of working with students and departments to reconstruct grades and grading systems because the original professor has died, fallen ill, or otherwise moved on.  At Holyoke, after a particularly florid case, we even came up with a form that professors who submitted incompletes had to file with the department detailing what had been done, what still needed to be done, and the point values for each.  It was a bit of a pain, but it provided some assurance of integrity in the grading if something happened. That may seem morbid, but go through that a few times and the usefulness becomes clear.

Finally, of course, there’s the workload for the professor.  No good deed goes unpunished; she who grants leniency also assigns herself extra, out-of-cycle grading.  

I wouldn’t advocate banning incompletes altogether; they make sense in extreme cases, like a student who is in a nasty car accident at the end of a semester.  And at the graduate level, I’ve seen them make sense. But for undergrads, absent some sort of extraordinary documented emergency, I advocate hard skepticism. I’ve seen enough I’s turn into F’s over the years that outside of something extraordinary that you can specify and document, it’s better just to rip off the band-aid and give the F.  If the student steps up, you can always do a grade change.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a better way to handle incompletes?