Related: How to motivate students to complete low-point homework?

One of my undergraduate professors had a similar problem to the OP's in the above question, that is, that students would skip many minor low-point assignments in favor of studying for big exams, and the professor felt that not completing every single assignment resulted in a lower-quality learning experience even though a student's average still might be passing or even excellent.

The professor's solution was a policy that any student who failed to complete all assignments would be automatically assigned a zero for the course. That is, the student did not have an opportunity to accept a zero for the assignment that was not done - they would instead get an automatic F for the course. There was no requirement that each assignment be perfect, or even good - the requirement was that you had to at least attempt and turn something in for each assignment.

Are there any problems with this strategy from a pedagogical or ethics perspective? Obviously, some universities permit this and some do not, and the instructor in question did announce this policy in the syllabus at the beginning of the course, but I'm asking from a more general or best practices perspective. It seems to me that this is a non-optimal solution, more specifically one that is using an academic assessment system (grades/GPA) improperly as a behavioral management technique. That is, this strategy is similar/analogous to dropping a student's grade from a B to a C because they brought a weapon to class, or (in reverse) restricting a student from attending a campus dance because they did not demonstrate sufficient mastery of Boyle's Law (implementing a behavioral intervention when an academic one such as a lowered grade would have been more appropriate).

Is this a fair assessment of the situation, or is such a strategy a legitimate tool?

Obviously, the minimum level of effort required to constitute "completing" an assignment was vague and something I did not actually inquire into - one might wonder whether or not turning in a piece of paper with "I like pie, here is Boyle's Law, Boyle's Law is great, the answer to all of the questions on this assignment is THREE." would have sufficed (well, it would have been more than a blank page!). That also concerns me - whether or not being able to identify a boundary between making random guesses that effectively constitute not trying at all and an entirely incompetent, but sincere, attempt to complete the assignment (e.g. answers are all wrong, student failed to apply recent best practices covered in lecture, student confused Ohm's Law with Boyle's Law, student did not express all results to two significant figures as insisted upon in the instructions, answer was in French when English was required, student claimed that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy was invented by Freud in 1543 and is generally considered effective in treating acute alcohol intoxication, student claimed that Orange is the New Black is a prime example of early twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, etc.), matters in determining whether or not such a penalty should be allowed.

This question has nothing to do with cheating or plagiarism.

Note: This was NOT Competency-Based Education (CBE). This was a regular engineering class that just happened to have this odd policy tacked on because the instructor was sick to death of students skipping his little 2 point assignments that he thought were critical. The course was otherwise entirely normal.

In response to @aeismail, yes, assignments could be turned in up until the date of the final exam, at least for purposes of not automatically failing the course for failing to turn something in.

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    Was there any allowance for late assignments or excused absences?
    – aeismail
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 21:58
  • @aeismail yes, assignments could be turned in up until the date of the final exam. Commented May 14, 2018 at 21:59
  • This was 15 years ago and I did, in fact, complete all assignments and pass the class, so my own situation is not relevant. Commented May 14, 2018 at 22:00
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    Such a grading system is ridiculous. Commented May 15, 2018 at 0:43
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    This might not be common but not uncommon neither, especially when the course is graded pass/fail (in which case students might just skip the work!). The point is to set a fair standard for "completion" (good-faith attempt?) and give students enough time to make up missed work (because they could be overwhelmed and/or sick).
    – xuq01
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 2:14

3 Answers 3


your question needs a step back: is university the place to force students' personal behavior and personal decisions? if yes, then what is the difference between university and school?

My view is simple: University is the transitional place where students learn to make their own decisions and be responsible in preparation for real-life. This means that there is no one anymore chasing you to "please study". At university you are responsible for your own learning and students quickly start learning responsibility after a little while.

If we are going to keep holding the metaphorical stick and say "you HAVE to do everything as i told you to or else" then when will these students learn to make decisions or realize the consequences of bad decisions in a relatively safe Environment?

Then comes the 2nd question: Is it for you as a university educator to actually force students to do assignments? why?

If they want to have better learning experience from your class they will choose to do more work. If not then not. It is really not your business, their grades cover their learning. whether or not they choose if your class is worth remembering after the semester end is their own choice.

Finally, some university professors make me feel they just want to control students. I had various discussions before about why for example you'd be offended of having your student use a laptop in lecture or look at his/her phone (this seems to be more common in the USA instructors than in other countries I dealt with for some reason).

Of course I expect like a million comment now about how you are supposed to "do what is best for them". Except that that they are no longer children, what is good for them is to teach them to be adults. This means: guide them not force them


Would I use this policy? No. Is it so unreasonable that I'd call it bad practice or unethical? No. After all, blowing off small tasks would get you fired from many jobs.

Your objection that academic assessment and behavior management should be separate does not seem convincing to me. By collecting and grading homework, rather than trusting students to do it, we are already in the realm of behavior management, so it becomes an argument over the appropriate degree of behavior management. Which will clearly vary with the subject and the group of students. Some subjects are difficult to assess with exams (making homework very important), and different groups need their hands held more than others.

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    I have to disagree. collecting & grading assignments is accountability not behavior management. You do assignment, you get its grade which will help improving your final grade. .... Saying you have to do every assignment whether you like it or not (i.e. because you said so) is behavior management.
    – Elkady
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 1:32
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    Why do we provide grades to students at all? There is actually very little reason to have a final exam at all other than to influence behaviour except where we are doing competancy based leaning. Universities are in the business of educating people, not ranking them. Good assessment provides a guide as to what a student is expected to be able to do, and formative assesment helps them know whether they are doing it. I suspect with no assessment very few students would ever do anything (I probably wouldn't have, and I'm an academic now) Commented May 15, 2018 at 17:23
  • I dont think anyone here is against the concept of assessment. But rather if you should force students to do the task. For exame sayin assignment 1 is x% assignment 2 is y% . If a student chose not to do assignment 2 it is up to him/her. As wht shoud be graded and what shouldn't is a matter of teaching philosophy. I personally dont give graded labs assignments. I review them and give feedback though. 90% of my students do them because they know it will make a difference for them when they get to do the graded items/exams
    – Elkady
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 19:45

I agree with Elkady that university should be a place where students are treated as adults, and expected to drive their own learning, without anyone chasing them and forcing them to study. In view of this, I have always been averse to assessment structures that penalise students for failing to engage with the material in the way preferred by the professor. If a student is able to acquire sufficient knowledge to demonstrate competence on their exams, it shouldn't matter how that competence was attained (whether through doing all the assigned work, or some other means). If a student fails to submit an assessment task, and therefore gets zero on that assessment, that will require them to do even better on other tasks. For this reason, I have always hated compulsory attendance rules, compulsory submission rules, etc.

The strategic problem with this kind of assessment structure is that it mimics school-work, where there is an authority figure micro-managing the learning process. The student is expected to obey and learn according to the instructions of the authority figure, instead of being given resources and expected to use them proactively in their own way. The student is not allowed to make trade-offs in their learning process. This means that although the specific course material gets taught, the more general adult skill of proactive learning is not.

While there is a strategic drawback to this approach, there is no ethical problem with a professor structuring assessment in this way. Academics are rightly given wide discretion to choose the mode of assessment for their courses, and to determine what is optimal for their own teaching. So long as there is disclosure of the assessment rules at the outset of the course, I see no ethical problem with imposing a requirement of this kind on students.

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    Academics are rightly given wide discretion — Yes, but wide discretion is not a blank check. It would be grossly unethical of me to pass only to students who give me $1000, or who come to class naked, or who were born in Tennessee, or who sit in the first three rows of seats, or who call me "Princess Sparkles", or who write their 7s with a horizontal bar, or who only use red pencils. I think "turn in every assignment" is just as ridiculous as any of these.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 18:30

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