Last term, I collected some important projects from about 200 students. When I returned all of the work the next week, one student claimed that they had submitted their work, but never received it back. A misplaced project was highly unlikely, as they were individually bound in a uniform, bright cover and carried in sealed bags, so I assigned the student a 0. Still, I would like to have proof of “no submit”, especially as my supervisor occasionally wants an explanation for failing grades. But not having something is not proof of never submitting. What method can I use in the future to prove that a student did not submit their work?

  • 6
    There's a blog post from a few years back about giving out actual physical receipts with cryptographic signature (to prevent forgery). Likely unfeasible with a class of 200, but still worth a read.
    – waiwai933
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 6:12
  • 2
    I actually did the cryptographic signature technique that @waiwai933 promotes with a class of ~30 students and it worked fantastically. If you have a TA and do this only for important assignments, then I think this will work very effectively if you split the class up into two. Should only take 8-10 minutes in-class if you take the time to organize the slips of paper to give them.
    – T K
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 6:21
  • @waiwai933 I thought of this, too, but you'd have a signature from them. That's harder to set up.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 7:57
  • Would it be possile to additionally have them hand in an electronic copy, even if you for whatever reason need or want to have the physical copy? The electronic system (Blackboard, Turnitin, whatever...) will make it easy to prove (for both parties!) whether something has been handed in or not.
    – damian
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 10:29

6 Answers 6


I doubt this will work with 200 students, but the first thing I do when I collect assignments is check to see whose assignment is missing, and send the relevant students a message via the class messaging system. This does two things:

  • if there was a slipup at either end, this catches it quickly. Most often, the student says that they're turning it in late (I have an automatic submit-late-and-get-deductions policy).
  • By using the class messaging system, I'm on record as having asked the student about the missing assignment. If they complain a week later that they did turn it in, I can point to the message and ask why they didn't respond to it.
  • 1
    This is what we do at my school. Luckily, we have admins who handle this for us so the teachers do not need to track who did not submit. If you want the information and nobody will help you (as the OP's comment on Raphael's question implies), you'll have to do it yourself.
    – earthling
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 11:55

It's easy to given students the ability to prove that they submitted (some form of receipt only you could have authored). The other direction, however, is harder.

  1. Hightech

    Have them submit electronically with a system that you don't control and that stores timestamps with submissions. It does not show up there on time, you did not submit in time.

  2. Lowtech

    Have them sign when handing in (make sure to announce that submissions are only valid if signed off). You receive their submission, they sign some form for you (and you sign their receipt). Have witnesses.

In the end, there is no way you can make sure it's their fault; they can beat any system ("I lost the receipt!", "That's not my signature, somebody must have forged it!", "You never told me to sign!", ...). As far as I know, German courts typically rule in favor of students (if there is any doubt), even in ridiculous circumstances. That may be different in other countries, but you may want to check back with your university's legal department to be safe.

  • The first method will not work in my case, as much of the content is not electronic. If I tried the second, it would take too long to wait for them to stand in line and submit the work one-by-one.
    – Village
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 9:23
  • @Village Do you have TAs and/or colleagues that can help you out for 20 minutes?
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 10:01
  • No, I do not have any TAs.
    – Village
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 12:32
  • @Village That's too bad then. I guess there's no free lunch here.
    – Raphael
    Commented Apr 1, 2014 at 12:50

A few thoughts in addition to the above:

  • Is there a departmental office or library that can help with accepting submissions and giving receipts?

  • Can the department hire a temp for a day to handle the submissions?

  • Strongly suggest to the students that they copy and/or photograph their work, in case of disaster. Provide a means for them to upload their photo albums to the department.


For a large class, without or with receipts, set up 4 (or more boxes) split alphabetically. Students drop off the work and possibly sign a sheet. Either give them a quiz immediately while you double-check that you have all work, or check it later that day and query for any missing work.

If you're using a sign-in sheet, and a student wants to turn in someone else's, he or she discusses it with you directly. That way you don't get, "But I had Lisa turn in my work for me!"


I require my students to run a particular program to send their homework in. Positive identification of the students is already done when they log into the server. If your students don't use UNIX, the technique easily extends to a web or phone app with some other form of authentication.

The result is neatly timestamped student files all in one place. If you like, add some form of receipt. I take the opportunity to automatically update a web page showing who's turned in what.

  • I think OP is asking about submission of physical, dead-tree homework. Electronic submission seems easier to handle, there are many options. Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 9:53

If you use coversheets:

  • acknowledgement of all policies and adherence thereto, is checked and signed by the student,

  • a QR or barcode, containing their student number and name, course number and assignment number, and a timestamp is generated,

  • the QR or barcode forms part of the coversheet, and is scanned in when they submit, then out when it is returned or collected,

  • an email gets sent to the student confirming their submission for that assignment.

While it takes some thought to set up, the implementation is as simple as taking a picture on a smartphone, and scales extremely well (increasing returns on effort expended per assignment/course/student/year added).

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