I am teaching a course in a college and assignment homework on a regular basis. Usually I collect all homework in the class and later my student secretary grades all the homework and return them to the students through the mail room. If a student did not turn in the homework at all, a zero will be given.

There is a student who claims to have turned in two homework but got zero for both. I am checking with my secretary and is awaiting for his reply. Likely he will tell me that he does remember anything about her homework. Also I have asked the student to check her mailbox, and it is quite likely that she could not find her homework there.

Another piece of information: I suspect the student is dishonest as sometimes her quiz answer is identical to the student sitting next to her. But since I never caught her red-handed, this should not be used as an evidence.

Now assuming that no evidence can be found regarding whether she turned the homework or not, there are at least three opinions for me:

  1. Give her full marks for the homework, assuming that it is I or my secretary who misplaced them.
  2. Give her zeros, ignoring her claims.
  3. As a happy medium, change her homework status as "excused" so these two particular homework will not be counted toward her grade.

I have done Option 1 in the past, but only to find out later that the student who made the claim turns out to be a very dishonest student and likely she lied to me and benefited from lying. What would you suggest me to do in this situation?

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    Learning management submissions with online homework submission take care of this problem- both you and the student get independent verification of when the homework was submitted and exactly what was submitted. Mar 28, 2018 at 14:09
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    Personally I would give a zero as there is no proof that the student turned in the work, but the ultimate question is what does your syllabus state you will do in such an instance and does your department have any guidelines/suggestions? Mar 28, 2018 at 14:12
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    I assume no one else has complained of missing papers? How big is your class? From a sheer probability point of view, it's rather unlikely that this one single person had their assignment lost on two independent occasions. The bigger your class, the less plausible this becomes. Mar 28, 2018 at 14:13
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    Just for clarification: Are we talking about physical mail (handing in a paper) or e-mail? In the later case, you could request a screenshot of the "sent" folder (or complete e-Mail-header). If they can not provide it, I would give a Zero. Was the homework on paper or done electronically? There coud be pdf time stamps, ...
    – OBu
    Mar 28, 2018 at 16:12
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    I would do as suggested by Brian B about utilizing your schools learning mgmt system (or setup a dropbox/gdrive folder) and have your students submit their homework in both pdf and paper form. Then you can set in stone that missing homework, that have not been uploaded, will be given an automatic zero. It's a little more overhead for your students (but for those with a phone it's seriously only 5 min) but keeps things fair in case the grader loses work (which I find had to believe was the case this time). Mar 28, 2018 at 20:35

4 Answers 4


Since you have no way to show that the student didn't submit the homework, it's simply your word against the word of the student. Furthermore, there were lots of homework assignments from various students, so it would presumably be easier for you to forget receiving the homework than it would be for the student to mistakenly remember submitting the homework.

If an unbiased third party considered this and assumed honesty from both sides, I think that they would conclude that it was more likely that you had lost/forgotten the paper than that the student had remembered submitting a paper when she, in fact, had not done so.

If this happened with a student taking a class from a TA or faculty member under my supervision, I'd tell the TA or faculty member to "excuse the grade" and adopt a system for homework submission (e.g. use a learning management system) that provides independent confirmation that the homework was submitted.

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    I would hesitate to assume honesty from the student, if their homework and no one else's got lost, on two separate occasions. Still, there's no proof, so excusing these assignments is still the best course of action. Hopefully they don't count for very much.
    – user37208
    Mar 28, 2018 at 17:08

Quiz her about the homework, e.g. "How did you solve this question? What method did you use? Which equations are relevant?" If she did do the homework, she should be able to answer these relatively easily. If she can provide good answers, then award her full marks; otherwise give her zero. The fail case would be if she didn't do the homework but still manages to answer these questions - but if she can do that, she's already mastered the course material, so full marks is still accurate even if it's not fair.

To avoid this in the future, if the learning management system suggested by Brian Borchers isn't possible, you could provide a physical receipt as well (similar to the receipts one gets at a store).

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    A quiz on the homework sounds good, but there is a second fail case, that she did the homework but can remember almost nothing--but even then, you could probably ask her to bring her study supplies with her (computer or paper and pencil, book, etc.) and redo a key question from the hw in your presence. Even if she can't replicate what she had, it should be clear if she's familiar with it. That might be too much the first time this happens, but reasonable for the second "lost homework." And from now on: "You shouldn't have to deal with this again! Email me a copy of your hw before submitting!" Mar 28, 2018 at 20:47
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    she did the homework but can remember almost nothing — This possibility requires a very, um, special type of homework.
    – JeffE
    Mar 29, 2018 at 3:12
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    I like the receipt idea but not the quizzing. Mar 29, 2018 at 3:30

I would need to know your grading scheme, e.g. how many homeworks in the semester, the weight the homework average has, to give very specific suggestions. But in a general sense here are some thoughts:

  • If there are a lot of small homework assignments, then it can be helpful to announce that the two lowest scores will be thrown out. The idea here is that the homework score functions to raise students' grades.

  • The syllabus can define a decreased maximum score for late submission, for example weight 90% if one day late, weight 80% for two days late, etc.

  • It sounds like the fundamental problem is the cheating on the quizzes. This is the thing to focus on. If the student is not demonstrating academic integrity, then you need to catch her in the quizzes/exams. Set her up so that she CANNOT cheat; and if she is unprepared, she will do badly; but there will be no gray zone of he-said-she-said. Get a larger room. Get more proctors. If necessary assign this student a specific seat where she is physically unable to see anyone's work.

  • Do not have her come in to be grilled on the homework assignment. There was a similar question about half a year ago (but about an exam, I think), and this was the consensus.

  • You might want to set her up to deliver her homework in person to a department secretary who is at her desk 9 to 5 every day except for lunch, with the secretary making a photocopy and writing a note on the copy stating the date and time of delivery, with her signature.

  • Philosophically, it may help to go back to your own first principles of pedagogy, whatever they may be (this may require some thought). For example, perhaps you believe that with the right support and some honest effort, all students can learn your material; and they key is to find, for each student, a way for them to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they've acquired.

  • It might help to think about why she might be trying to cheat and lie her way through the course. It is required for her degree program? Are there no alternatives to your course, that would enable her to graduate? Nobody likes that kind of pressure....

  • If there's a chance she is trying to learn your material but is getting frustrated for whatever reason, you may wish to set up an intermediate due date, by which you will require her to submit a first draft of the homework, and come in to office hours to help her see her way to improving the draft.

  • I like your thoughtful answer here but an still skeptical about why to not ask her about the content of the homework assignment. I did a quick search of the archives but didn't see the question you're referring to--any chance you could please update that part with a link to that previous question? Thanks! Mar 29, 2018 at 18:38
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    @cactus_pardner - In case I don't find it -- basically, let's assume for the moment that the student is behaving unethically. Grilling her about the homework will not be a foolproof way of establishing guilt. But creating objective conditions in which she can fail the course by not being able to cheat in quizzes and exams is pretty foolproof. On the other hand, if she has not behaved unethically, grilling her about the homework could be humiliating and inhumane. That's what I remember from the other page, in a nutshell. Mar 29, 2018 at 18:46

Consider improving your submission system

As other answers have pointed out, there is no ideal resolution to the present problem --- you simply are not going to know whether the homework was submitted or not. Consequently, the most important thing you can do here is to improve your submission system so that it tracks submissions. This will not solve your present problem, but it will prevent it from happening again.

These days, there are online submission systems that can be used to track homework submissions and make submission records available to both the student and teacher. Alternatively, you can use email submission, where there is a clear record of the sending and receiving of email. Alternatively, for physical submissions you can adopt a "locked box" submission system where you have a box for submissions that cannot be accessed by students and you immediately record the submissions that are present in it whenever you remove them from the box. Finally, if you particularly want to stick with physical submission in-class then you could create a list of students with "tear-off" submission receipts; as you collect the work you could tick off each student and provide them with a submission receipt, which means that both parties have a record of submission.

All of these methods require some work, though the online methods are fairly simple given that almost all work is done electronically nowadays. There may be some initial time-investment in setting up such a system and getting used to using it, but it is likely to be useful in the long-term to ensure you do not encounter this situation again.

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