Final grades and missing student work: what to do?

Even though I got my grades filed last Friday (hours before the midnight deadline), this week I kept encountering colleagues for whom the grading drama Would. Not. End. As you might imagine, this led to some discussions about what one should do when the grade-filing deadline approaches and you are still waiting for students to cough up the work that needs grading.

I'd like to tell you that this is a rare occurrence. Sadly, it is not. Before we get into speculation about why students may be failing to deliver the deliverables, a quick poll on your preferred professorial response:

I go back and forth on this one, in part because of my uncertainty as far as what's going on in the heads of students who neglect (for example) to turn in a final paper. Maybe in the sensory overload that is the end of the semester they completely overlooked on the syllabus (and on the announcements page on the course website, and in my reminders in the classroom) that this particular assignment even existed, so it didn't ever get onto their to-do list, and so didn't get done. On the other hand, maybe, in the crush of work needing to be done, the students do a little triage and decide that they can live with the final grade they'll end up with even if they blow off the assignment altogether.

In the first case, getting an incomplete rather than a final grade nearly two letter-grades lower than one might have earned if one noticed that this assignment existed and did a good job on it might be a relief. In the second case, it might be an annoyance. (Why an annoyance? At least at my university, an "I" starts the clock for the student to complete and submit the work, or at least to contact the instructor to say "Please assign me the grade I would have earned having blown off the assignment I blew off." If the student does nothing at all, 12 months later the "I" magically transforms to an "F".)

You might think that new learning management systems with their electronic dropboxes for assignment might ensure that students reliably turn in the required work. If only! For the first few assignments, anyway, as much as 10% of a class may end up not clicking on the necessary buttons (like "Upload" or "Submit"). Or they may upload assignments in an unreadable format. Or they may upload what is (or looks like) the wrong version of a given assignment.

Every now and then the "wrong version" that is uploaded is the smoking gun that helps you detect plagiarism. (Once the boyfriend uploaded a paper that differed from the paper his girlfriend had uploaded an hour earlier only by two words -- his name at the top instead of hers. Oops.)

But sometimes you may end up with a situation where it looks like what has been uploaded is an earlier draft of the assignment -- for example, because there are headers included for pieces of the assignment that are missing. How should a professorial type proceed? Is the right thing to do to ask the student whether the version that was uploaded was the version that was intended for submission? Or is it better to assume that the student made the time-management call and submitted as much as was ready by the deadline? Does assuming uploading mistakes or other technical glitches unfairly give these students extra time after the deadline to "find" the "right version" and upload it for more points?

I guess this boils down to the eternal question for those who wield the red pen, which is how best to balance justice and mercy.

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I hope your "red pen" comment was metaphorical. There is a goodly body of research which suggests that red corrections are not a good thing.

If I had a good student who did not turn in a piece of work, I would try to find out why. I would probably assign an INC until I found out. In fairness, I would then have to assign an INC to everyone who did not turn in work. But life is not necessarily fair.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

Indeed, I generally opt for non-red pens (usually green or purple ink if I can get 'em, but blue works too) for paper commenting.

However, given how few students actually reconnoiter to claim their marked final exams, that's the grading where I tend to break out the red pens. For some reason, I find it cathartic.

There is a goodly body of research which suggests that red corrections are not a good thing.

I've heard this, but I've never seen any evidence of it. Any references?

Isn't this exactly the kind of thing that should be decided and clearly spelled out even before the course is announced to potential students?

At my previous uni, you didn't get a grade until all assignments were turned in. Two deadlines: if you tuern in your work before the "real" deadline at course completion you get points that (together with the final exam) counts toward your final grade. You turn in after the deadline, but before the beginning of the next term (when the makeup exams are held) you get a "completed", but zero points. The end of term is it - you want to get a course grade you need to re-enroll the next term (or next year if it's only given once a year).

They're adults, they need to take responsibility for their own studies, and if they don't they should not be shielded from the inevitable consequences.

My first semester of teaching, in a class of 80 students, one student (call him "Charles") stopped coming to class a couple weeks before the end of the semester and didn't turn in the term paper. I figured he'd just decided to take the F and focus on his other classes, which can sometimes be a sensible decision; three C's and an F are better than four D's. The zero for the term paper made it mathematically impossible for Charles to pass my class, so I was surprised to see him at the final exam, where he did fairly well. But I decided that the rules were very clear, the syllabus explicitly said how much the term paper was worth, so I gave him the F.

A few months later, I was talking to another professor and happened to mention Charles. She had his cousin in a class. It turns out that Charles had missed class and not done the term paper because his brother had been shot and seriously wounded, and Charles had had to spend a lot of time dealing with the police investigation and the doctors. Charles had been too shy, or too proud, to say anything to me. As a result of his poor grades that semester, he'd lost his scholarship and had to drop out of school.

So now if someone doesn't turn in a major assignment, or doesn't show up for an exam, I give them an Incomplete and then start sending them e-mails. Usually their excuses are a lot less serious than attempted murder of a sibling, and more often than not they don't complete the missing work and end up with the lower grade, but if sending a few e-mails each semester for my entire teaching career keeps just one student from having to leave school, it will be worth it.

John, I think I would attempt to contact a student who had been consistently attending and turning in material and then, as in the case of Charles, vanished shortly before the end of the semester. However, in the case of a student whose attendance and performance had been desultory, I would simply calculate the grades and report the results. (I do, however, use the class email alias to send out blanket reminders of due dates, so even the desultory students are given fair warning that they need to turn in assignments that are critical to their grade.)

So, having been on the other side of this equation, I'd like to say that the "I" plus email is likely the most effective method of getting work turned in. In my case it wasn't a domestic tragedy that prevented me from completing work but a bout of depression. As well as ego. Part of me knew I couldn't do the work up to my usual standards and a lot of me refused to turn in poor work. Someone telling me to turn in what I had, instead of nothing, might have helped me get through that. I know that a lot of professors wouldn't deal with these issues, but they're likely not reading this.

John's anecdote is compelling, but as the old saw goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.

IMO, An educator is not a project manager for a major corporation, nor are they a salesperson peddling knowledge for money. Your primary job is to educate.

If someone has an established track record of failing to learn, the lesson you need to teach them is that *given that they have already performed poorly*, they ought to plan for the future and make damn sure that the paper is received by the professor. If the dog ate their homework, too bad; they've already failed consistently, and the final assignment was their chance at redemption. Presumably you've said something in class like, "Some of you are not doing particularly well, and the final paper is basically your shot at passing my class. If you don't know for sure that you're not one of these people, it's best to assume that you are, and make every effort to ensure that you meet your deadline with time to spare, in case your computer crashes or the dog eats your homework."

If someone has an established track record of learning (participating in class, good examination records, what have you), then kaboshing their grade without checking for an exception is teaching them the wrong lesson. They likely already know how to learn. You're just going to make them paranoid and make your brethren hate you when they find out that the 121 emails they get from their future class entitled "Did you get my assignment??" because by God no way is *that* happening again is all from your ironclad response.

So I answer "it depends". If your student load is so large that you can't deal with the logistics of exceptional incidents (certainly possible), then the Incomplete is the safest justifiable default.

I've actually been on the student end of this situation several times (you'd think I would have learned after the first one). In my case the failure to turn in one or more major assignments was because I didn't manage my time well during the semester, waited until the last minute to start something, realized there was no way I'd be able to turn in anything readable, and then gave up on it.

In each of these times, the professor chose the first option: give a zero for the missing assignment. I think this is the only appropriate way to handle it and I would have been extremely uncomfortable had the professor offered to give me a grade consistent with the rest of my work.

I honestly don't know what my professors could have done to help me prevent this kind of situation when it occurred, and I wish I did. Now that I'm a grad student and teaching classes myself, I've had a few students do this and I see how frustrating it is as an instructor.

I'm with Pat, if they've been making progress and actually trying, they get the benefit of the doubt until the absolute last day for grades. Otherwise, they deserve what they get. There has been s very clear distinctionin most if ghe classes I've taught. Then again, I have a stringent no cheating/plagarisim policy, that I've only bent once,because the student told me before I'd graded the exams. Otherwise, they failed for the semester and had to deal with the dean. In his case, he had an un-droppable zero. (I came from an undergrad with a workable honor code where people actually turned themselves in)

I think I would also consider the age/year of the student in question. For a freshman or even a sophomore, I might be more inclined to make more of an effort to find out what's going on and give them an opportunity to finish--in case, as with Susan B., they just haven't figured out how to manage their time yet. If it's a junior, senior, or (certainly) grad student, I'd probably be more inclined to assume they blew it off intentionally, since by that point they should have learned how to manage their time. This is all for a mediocre student, though. As some others have pointed out, though, for a student whose work has until that point been good, I'd make an attempt to find out if something was wrong. However, I'm not a prof, and I recognize that the best intentions often don't survive contact with reality...

I usually make every effort to contact the student in question and make sure they get the assignment in before deadlines. I my 21 years experience, giving Incompletes can be a problem because you then have to remind some students as time passes. At our Univ. all I get converted to F in 1 year. I have actually had that happen a few times!

My vote is with I, contact student. Not only for John @ 5's reason, but sorta from the other side: About three years into his college career, my husband became disabled by a back injury. We're talking, he was paraplegic but sitting in a wheelchair caused him too much pain to function even with opiate drugs keeping him stoned silly, so he dragged himself around the house on his elbows when I wasn't home to help him. It took a few months of trying physical therapies and such before the surgeon was willing to schedule him, and then THAT took a few weeks too, plus the recovery time afterwards meant that it was going to be impossible to complete the semester, and he'd already missed a few weeks of class.

He wrote a nice email to the Dean of Students, explaining the situation, and asked if he could get some sort of disability help or perhaps take Is or Ws or what the procedure would be. No response to the email. Re-sent, CC'ing other administrators. No response. Sent a registered letter with a copy of his doctor's letter, and we got the return receipt signed by the dean's secretary, but still no response. By now it was pretty near finals week and he still wasn't able to walk. I made an appointment with the Dean because clearly regular communication used by normal humans wasn't sufficient. On the appointed day, I was made to wait an hour, after which the secretary came out of his office and informed me that the Dean could do nothing and that arrangements had to be made with individual professors.

By then, some of the professors had left the proctoring of finals and actual submission of grades to their TAs and buggered off to do field work and conferences and such. He couldn't get in touch with all of them, and naturally they had little memory of someone who had only shown up for the first four weeks of class months and months ago, but after the summer was over most of them agreed to change his grade to a W with a note on his transcript about it being for medical reasons.

It may well be that the student has tried to go through the normal channels to let you know what is going on, and has been screwed over. I went to an SLAC that didn't have these problems, but hubby went to state school that was plagued with administrative SNAFUs. I am given to understand that this is pretty common, really...

@Jim Thomerson--the article you linked to suggests that teachers, when using red pens, find more errors in student work than when using non-red pens. By using a red pen, a teacher becomes more aware of student errors. I'm not sure why that's an argument for not using a red pen to correct student papers.

I had been on the student end of this. I had done a homework assignment but forgot to turn it in. My professor called it to my attention, and then I pulled the homework out of my notebook. Simple as that. So, yeah, I'd suggest e-mailing the student, just to see if it was a similar oversight.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 05 Jun 2010 #permalink

I quite liked the way my university did things. First, your worst grade was automatically discounted, perhaps not for the final assignment, but this was usually an exam anyway. Secondly, they were at pains to make clear to us that in the worst case, a few pages of brain-dump on the subject was going to be worth more than a zero. Third, in case of personal disaster, there was a procedure for reporting said disaster, whereupon each case was individually considered. But having too many other assignments surely didn't count as a meritorious case. I don't really know about people making mistakes in submitting their work, I never heard of such a case.

Well, teaching high school, my situation is a bit different (165+ students for a whole year) but the same thing happens (work missing, lost by me, lost by them, etc.).

If the kid has a history of being responsible, what I usually do is omit the assignment from his/her grade. Our electronic grade book allows us to omit the grades from assignments if we choose.

I post grades (anonymously using "secret names") on a bulletin board in my room several times each quarter so students can see where they stand, assignment by assignment. It is their responsibility to identify any assignments for which they have a zero and get with me about dealing with it (I am very lenient about make-up work).

These are the kinds of situations that I feel deserve to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is a bit stressful but always solvable.

I am having a problem with this right now as one of my ESOL students is missing two chapter tests. Being in ESOL, she is allowed to go to the ESOL support room for help during tests and exams. The ESOL teachers then pass the tests on to me. The two other ESOL students in the same class had their tests returned to me (separately) but hers never showed up. She is conscientious and reliable and I have no reason to suspect that she is trying to pull something over on me (though I have plenty of other students who would) so I will omit those test grades from her grade. She is very worried about her grade but I have tried to assure her I will work out a reasonable solution.

My guiding mantra is "it's just a grade" fully knowing that it can always be changed.

Incomplete. This means they have three months to contact me or they get No Credit. Forcing them to contact me allows me to decide whether they had a valid excuse or not. And no, I won't email them, its their responsibility to sort out their grade.

I announce deadlines repeatedly in class, as well as telling them that they need to double-check the grades displayed on Blackboard/D2L to make sure everything looks right. So once the final exam day passes, any assignments I don't have get entered as zeroes and the students get the corresponding final grade. If the student 1) is someone who I have observed being a dedicated student, and 2) takes the initiative to contact me after the final exam about a missing assignment, and 3) has a good excuse, then I am willing to grade the assignment (with the appropriate late submission penalty) and file a change of their final grade. I only give incompletes when the student takes the initiative to contact me about it.

There was one incident when a student disappeared a few weeks before the end of class. I emailed her but got no response. Because this was a student whose dedication I had observed, and because she had mentioned a family health issue once earlier, I decided to assume she had a good excuse and I gave her a late withdrawal (as an adjunct at the time, I couldn't give incompletes). I found out later her dad had been extremely ill, and she'd gone to take care of him (on a remote Indian reservation where I'm guessing email access was spotty), and she was grateful for the W.

In line with Lora's story, I remember an acquaintance from a post-bacc language class some years ago telling me that while she was an undergraduate at a large state school in Oregon, her mother suddenly died in the middle of the semester. She told me she begged the administration for a leave of absence -- not only for her own sake, but because she was the oldest child in her family, and not only her father but her younger siblings were having a very difficult time and needed her support -- but they refused to grant it, for reasons upon which I won't speculate, given that it would be difficult to refrain from bad language. In any case, it is not difficult for me to imagine her having had a terrible time trying to finish up her classwork while needing to travel back and forth from home as well as dealing with her own feelings . . . I wouldn't want to give someone a failing grade under such circumstances, so under Janet's hypothetical I'd give an incomplete while contacting her and seeking an explanation of what happened . . . to paraphrase Atlas Shrugged (and may this be the last time I ever do _that_!), I'd rather be a sucker than a bastard.