Guidance on Incompletes
Starting with the spring 2020 semester, when all classes went suddenly online, colleges across the country, including Geneseo, reported an increase in students struggling to complete coursework. One response to these struggles was a many-fold increase in the number of “Incomplete” grades awarded to students. Although there is no definitive quantitative measure to determine how much work a student needs to have completed for a faculty member to assign an Incomplete grade, a general guideline prior to the pandemic was that students would have “2/3” or “3/4” of the semester work completed, potentially needing more time to finish a paper and/or take a final exam. Awarding an “Incomplete” or “I” grade assists students who face extraordinary and unanticipated obstacles. Incomplete grades, however, have never been intended to be a general “extension policy.”
Helpful or harmful?
Without a doubt, faculty generosity with extended time to complete work over the last two years has been extremely helpful to many students, particularly given the mental health struggles experienced by college students in the last two-plus years due to stress, insecurity about online learning, access to academic materials, family illness and loss, and significant social isolation during the pandemic. In most cases, especially when students had only one or two Incomplete grades and a reasonable amount of work to complete after the end of the semester, students were able to catch up and earn their course credits. But in other cases, unless they were prompted, few students let their faculty know how much they were also behind in work in their other classes. So when an instructor set a reasonable deadline of an extra month to complete a course assignment, they were usually unaware that several other faculty had made the same agreement with the student. Often too late, the DAPA office, in working with students, recognized that many incomplete grade offers were deferrals, not solutions, providing immediate relief (extended deadlines) but allowing students with poor project management skills to continue to feel overwhelmed. They still delayed completing their work, begging for more extensions, and ultimately abandoning their exams and papers and failing the class.
Are we back to normal?
We see many students performing at outstanding levels, engaged with classwork, earning academic honors, participating in research, and producing impressive papers and creative work. Nevertheless, neither students nor faculty are seeing a true “back to normal,” and some learning practices remain confused and distorted by students’ high school and college experiences since 2020. Most critically, class attendance, while improving, has been compromised by mental health issues, emotional stress, social isolation and insecurity, and a fear of showing up after missing a few classes – snowballing into a multi-week disappearance.
The DAPA office elevates class attendance to the top of our conversations with students struggling in their academic work, and students routinely agree that missing class nearly always correlates with lower grades and poorer understanding of course content. But a rational understanding of the need to go to class is insufficient motivation for the student who hasn’t addressed mental health issues, lacks support, or hasn’t made a plan to act on their good intentions.
Our message to students is that we value learning, and we know that students want to earn credits with integrity for content they have learned and assignments they have completed. Our job is to help students discover which solution is best for them. If your gut tells you that an incomplete grade is reasonable, that the student is likely to meet the learning goals of your course with some extra time to complete the work, assign them the “I” grade. But please do not use grades of Incomplete just to avoid difficult conversations.
Faculty decisions on Incomplete grades
Denying a student’s request for an Incomplete grade does not mean that you fail to sympathize with the challenges they have faced this semester. It is often, rather, a kindness. Please make sure that the student understands that you are not punishing them nor disrespecting their personal struggles. This isn’t about “teaching life lessons” (we all have missed deadlines in our jobs and responsibilities). We deny Incompletes if a student is likely to fail the class (don’t give false hope), if they have failed to attend class enough to understand the content (faculty do not “reteach” the class to students awarded Incomplete grades), or if the nature of the work they still need to complete really cannot be done independently.
If your student has accommodations with the office of Accessibility Services, Dr. Fisk will be happy to consult with you on whether or not a grade of Incomplete is appropriate.
Because a student’s ability to complete work is often dependent on the course and discipline, there is no college “rule.” But it may be helpful to tell a student, “The Dean advises that students should have completed at least two thirds of the work for a course in order to be given an Incomplete grade.”
Faculty may use their own discretion in awarding Incomplete grades to students who have completed less than two thirds of the semester’s work.
Outreach from the DAPA office or the Dean of Students inquiring about or advocating for an Incomplete on behalf of a student is intended to provide additional information and (when appropriate) begin a dialogue, but it is never a mandate. Faculty determine student grades.
- Please review your gradebooks three to four weeks before the end of the semester. If you have students who are unlikely to be able to pass your course, please outreach to them and make sure they are aware of this fact. Remind them that although we cannot force them to withdraw from your course, the withdrawal deadline is the one week prior to the last day of regular classes (link takes you to the academic calendar). Withdrawing sooner rather than later opens more time for students to concentrate on their other courses. Please ask students to take questions about how withdrawing might affect their financial aid to the Financial Aid office and questions about academic standing to DAPA.
- If you decide to award a grade of Incomplete to a student, please create an agreement with the student so that you both know precisely what work a student must submit, what short term and long term deadlines you want them to meet, and what level of access they will have to meet with you after the semester ends. You do not have to use the agreement form, but you should follow the prompts to put your expectations in writing. DAPA stores agreements in the “notes” in a student’s NAVIGATE page, making them visible to the student as well as to faculty & staff. You may upload your agreement directly to NAVIGATE, ask for assistance in doing so, or email an agreement to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Most students will need extended access to their CANVAS modules. BUT CANVAS IS GOING AWAY. CIT explains in this email how to give students access to your course material created in Canvas. Information about handling materials created in Brightspace for students who need access after semester ends is forthcoming.
Grades for Incompletes are “officially” due six weeks after the start of the next full semester, i.e., for spring semester and summer session incompletes, grades are due in early October and for fall semester and intersession incompletes, grades are due in early March.
You may set an earlier deadline for students to complete work. It is often not in the student’s interest to let assignments drag into the next semester when they are taking new courses. If you set an earlier deadline, please make sure your student is aware of it. Whenever possible, send a nudge prior to the deadline to the student who needs to submit work or take an exam. In an ideal world, students would set their own prompts on their calendars and work consistently toward their goals to complete their courses. But a small extension of kindness attached to a reminder will go a long way in supporting students whose sense of belonging has been compromised by their own disappointment in their academic performance.
A faculty member may request an extension of no more than six additional weeks for an Incomplete grade by emailing the College Registrar. Faculty must change the student’s grade in the Grade Change Portal in Knightweb or the grade will roll to the default grade when grades are due.