As a state university adjunct I get a fair number of students who start classes are finding themselves unprepared, have unforeseen events (job, home, personal), which impact their ability to complete the course in a timely fashion. I tend to offer an incomplete as a way to permit the student to complete the work, and achieve the best results possible. Normally, I do not ask for “proof” of the excuse.
Recently, I had peers admonish me, with the argument that my approach was reducing revenue for faculty. It was argued that normally, the proper way is to let the student withdraw, and then re-enroll the next term. That way there are two instances of the faculty getting paid to conduct the course.
In my case, the normal incremental work for me to handle an incomplete is rather small, and I have been perhaps a bit liberal in the interest that the students get a good value from their academic experience. I have taught at three universities, and pretty much had the same practice at each. However, I have getting considerable flack, so thought I would get additional input from a diverse community.
How is the assignment of an incomplete grade practically handled at your institution, and what are the thresholds for qualification for that grade? Is it appropriate to offer incomplete grades without requiring a particular level of hardship or requesting proof of that hardship?
There is no clear cut answer to the question I posed, but there is value in understanding the perspectives of others. And in this case, there is no right or wrong response. However, to add clarity, I will provide two examples of recent incomplete grades, so that the context is more clear.
Before I do that, I will add, with some reservation, additional general details. The bulk of the students I teach are distance learning students. The majority however, are in state. My institution is part of a large state university system, and tends to serve more non-traditional students, and certainly students in non-traditional settings.
The first instance is Beth, who has been a student of mine in the past. Beth works as a clerk in a public institution and is married with a 2yo girl. When I first had her as a student, I was told by her adviser that she was an excellent student. My experience confirmed that. The third term that I had Beth, she was taking four courses, trying to complete her degree soon, working full time, and raising a 2 yo girl. She was taking two advanced level technical courses from me, and our meetings were conducted on the phone. Somewhere mid-term she mentioned that she was pregnant and would be delivering in a couple of weeks, but would make up the work immediately. She probably would, but I told her that she had a lot on her plate, and as far as I was concerned she had a few more important things than her weekly assignments, and that should it make things easier for her, an incomplete would be possible, and explained how it would work. Her words were that she would not need that, but thanks for the offer. I told her that since the end of the term was getting close, that if I didn’t hear from her for some reason, unless she objected I would assign her an incomplete in both courses. It turns out she had the baby, underestimated how tired she would be, and the demands of two children. I didn’t hear from her until the last week of the term. It turns out that her other two instructors were unwilling to cut her any slack in deliverables, so my two courses took that hit. Fine by me. Within three weeks of the term being over, all of Beth’s work had been submitted and was exemplary.
I was chastised by two peers, who pointed out that Beth knew she would be delivering a baby mid-term, and that she could have lowered her course load or even eliminated going to school for that term. I countered that in a job setting, a pregnancy is a medical matter, and I knew of no employer who wasn’t expected to give time off for a new child.
Shortly after the situation with Beth, another student, Burt, who was doing good work for the first 4 weeks of the term, contacted me and apologized and said he would have to withdraw from his course. I suggested that we have one more phone conference to discuss things. Burt, like more than half my students, is an immigrant, and is struggling to learn, obtain credentials, get a better job, and well, we all know the stories. So Burt had signed up for 5 courses, and was overloaded (no kidding). But Burt’s wife’s hours had increased, and she couldn’t say no, because he had lost his job, and she was the sole means of support. Furthermore, his wife’s sister who had been nannying their kids, had to go back home on short notice. So Burt was suddenly unemployed, working a course overload, trying to make ends meet, and now watching two young children. He was overwhelmed, and didn’t think he could get all his coursework done. From my perspective, he had learned a valuable lesson in over-committing. In Burt’s course, he had completed the first phase, and the remainder of the course was three research papers and a final exam. I offered an incomplete, explained how it would work, and pointed out that our need to meet, and his need to use online materials was reducing. We could schedule the exam when he was ready, and he could write the three papers and submit them as he was able. The long and short was that Burt finished the other four courses, and received good grades. He completed the work for my course within 8 weeks of the end of the term. He did well in my course, and his papers were well written. He continues to work on his degree, and told me he will never sign up for an overload again.
In both the case of Beth and Burt, I did not feel that I had students shopping for incomplete grades. I did feel the students were financially strapped, time limited, resource limited, and that by offering incompletes, they were able to convert a situation which would probably cost them more tuition, cause their degree to take more time, and have an element of discouragement to their academic efforts.
The relationship between educators and students can be a special one. Kind of like a doctor-patient relationship. Or it can be a rather quantitative relationship of assignments, rubrics and graded outcomes. Having worked in the scientific and aerospace community for four decades, I have had a large number of relatively new hires working for me. Many come ill-prepared for work in industry. So in my courses, I have exercises which are similar to what they might encounter in industry. While I don’t have specific exercises for how to treat people, I figure that a certain percentage of them will be supervisors, managers and leaders, and I want them to have developed judgment and experienced being “human.” So I try to set an example and treat them as I would a valued employee.