Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Incompletes. An Early Thirsty from Cassandra.

As often happens, a comment by BurntChrome (another community member I miss), referenced in OPH's comment on a recent discussion, intersected with thoughts I was already having:

I have had students whose parents died during the semester; I've had students who had emergency surgery during the semester; I've had students whose children were hospitalized with serious conditions–NONE of those students–NOT ONE asked for accommodation. But do you want to know something? I GAVE IT. For free! Most of them didn't take it. What that has taught me is that the students who need it most often don't ask, and it's not because I am an ogre. It's because they feel like college is work, and should be treated as such.The ones who ask for accommodation, and I give it? Very often they don't complete the work.

I just finished teaching a 5-week online summer class.  As tends to happen, a few enrolled students never did anything at all, and a few more disappeared at some point without ever communicating with me.  The majority, as usual, completed the class with only minor difficulties along the way.  But an unusually high percentage were wrestling with serious personal difficulties: a parent in the hospital, helping a parent care for an acutely-ill grandparent, the death of a close friend.*  There were also a few who were having serious problems with the class (which they were taking the second, third, or greater time; if I'm doing the math correctly, at least one student had attempted it every semester, and at least once during the summer, for several years). 

One of the students described above finished the class – a bit late, with perhaps not hir best work, but well enough, and in time to have hir grade recorded with the rest.  The others ended up with either Fs (because they completed a tiny fraction of the required work) or incompletes (for more or less the same reasons).  Those with incompletes asked for them, or at least asked whether there was any way to receive an additional extension, while those with Fs simply admitted defeat at some point, and I accepted their conclusions, encouraged them to re-enroll in the fall, and wished them the best in coping with their ongoing situations.  

That worries me a bit.  I wonder whether, by offering incompletes only when prompted, I'm disadvantaging the students who don't have the courage (or the effrontery, depending on how you see it) to ask. On the other hand, I know that most incompletes eventually turn to Fs anyway (students have until about midterm time next semester to complete the work), and that, although it costs money, the best way to pass the class is to actually (re)take the class. It's a pretty hard class in any case, and even harder with no or minimal support and a full load of other classes, plus whatever other responsibilities the student has, to juggle. 

So I'm wondering: assuming you have fairly wide latitude to do so (I do), and that it's relatively easy to retake the class in question  (for the required class I teach, it is), how do you decide when to offer, or grant, an incomplete, and when to record an F for a student who simply hasn't finished the work of the class by the end of the term?  Do most of the students for whom you record incompletes actually finish the work within the allotted time? What about students who take the same class over and over and over?  Does your school have an approach to that situation?  And have you experienced the phenomenon I'm increasingly experiencing (though not this particular term): the student with official accommodations (i.e. a letter from the disability office)  who receives an incomplete, and then seems to expect what is essentially one on one tutoring on hir schedule?

I am taking students' words for the reality of these situations. Maybe that's naive, but it feels right to me, and the bottom line is that they still have to do the work to pass the class (and this is a class that one passes by producing a substantial amount of writing, and where turning in late work generally means receiving less help/feedback, so there's no unfair advantage gained by, and no need for me to write another exam for, students who receive extensions).  


  1. from ELS

    Oh dear God, the incompletes. You ask great questions and I know from reading you for years you'll make an astute judgment.

    First of all, I do EVERYTHING I can to avoid an incomplete, even allowing the "appropriate" student a chance to finish some work in finals week or during the actual 72 hour grading period I have between finals and final grades. It's amazing how motivated they'll be if you just say, NO INCOMPLETES, BUT.... IF YOU WANNA WORK...

    As for who gets them, oh, man, I hate that it's subjective. First of all, ANYONE who is close to being done, maybe just missing one last piece of the puzzle, well I'll consider it. But I always check with their advisors. Is the a student flunking everything? Is this a student who has a bunch of incompletes already? That helps me a great deal.

    My school has an automatic F after a period of time with that I grade, and I simply tell students that date and it's up to them. I tell them, I HAVE OTHER CLASSES NEXT SEMESTER. You want it, you have to work. The automatic nature of the change to F makes me worry less. It should make students worry more, but it doesn't tend to. I throw up my hands, "Sorry, university policy."

  2. My incomplete students (not intended) ALWAYS expect one on one help. And it doesn't matter if they've been authorized by the college or not. It's like they've been kept back by their high school teacher and they simply wait for me to lead them to the water. And I used to do it pretty happily, until I realized I was doing 40% of the work or more.

  3. This is deep stuff. Let's see if I can address the questions expressed and implied.

    Yeah, I've given incompletes. That some have resulted in the student netting a B+ or better justifies the practice. That so many result in an F, due to the student disappearing and never turning in the work or due to the "work" being more of the same crap, will vex me till retirement or death, whichever precedes.

    How do I decide? Some are imposed by the Office of Student Appeasement and Retention, others by the Dean. Some are granted from the goodness of my heart (don't laugh) when I've been asked directly. In rare cases, I've offered, unasked, but only when preponderance of evidence indicated that the student was going through serious shit and truly didn't know how to navigate.

    The ones who never asked, or who never revealed they needed to be asked, keep me up at night. They are the unknown unknown. My one consolation is that they were somehow strengthened by their experience, whether it was to suffer the consequence and thereby resolve to be more proactive next time, or to earn the grade without unwelcome help. If I chase them all down, how many will I deny that opportunity? Or so I ask myself, as if the conclusion is that I'm already striking the correct balance. Someday, I hope to believe it enough that I stop second guessing, or to disbelieve it enough that I alter my approach.

  4. My colleagues and are wrestled with this over the summer as we did a (long overdue) complete revision of a course. We wanted the syllabus to state that we would not allow any make-up work but our unwritten policy was that we would then bend the rules in certain cases. This led to objections that those who read the syllabus and didn't ask for an exception would never benefit. It's a very good point. We decided to not say anything about make-up work in the syllabus. We assume the student will ask since the syllabus is silent on that policy. We will deal with each student on a case by case basis (it's a small class so that's not much of a problem).

  5. My school has a pretty clear policy: Incompletes are to be given by request only (or at least as the result of an agreement between the student and faculty member, no matter who initiates the conversation) and ONLY if there is no more than a single course assignment missing. And students' are supposed to have a good reason for the missing assignment. All unfinished Incompletes automatically convert to Fs near the end of the following semester.

  6. Here the faculty member has wide latitude too. My personal policy is an incomplete only for students who are otherwise up to date with the coursework but have a compelling disaster at the end of the semester (hospitalization, immediate family death). My dean did once force me to give a student an incomplete and a makeup exam so they could leave early for their father's 65th birthday, though (!).
    Many of my colleagues give them to anyone who has not been keeping up with the work, and it's a legit way to go, just not my way, if that makes any sense.