I have a student in my course that does well on the exams, and his answers to the exam questions show a deep understanding of the material. However, this student has not been handing in the assigned homeworks and has a missed a few lab assignments, as well. I've been told by other faculty that he has a job which keeps him up late, and have noticed that he struggles to stay awake at times during the class.

Depending on how he fares on a project worth a large portion of his grade, and the final exam, the missed homeworks/labs could cause his grade to be below a C, which is the required grade that a student must receive if they are to advance to the second, more advanced course [and, a C grade is also needed to get credit for the course; otherwise, the student will need to retake it again on the next offering, which isn't until two semesters from now]. Further, this student is a senior, so a D grade would be a major setback for him.

For those of you who have been in this situation before as an instructor, my question:

Have you ever passed/failed a student like the one described above? If so, do you regret your decision? Why or why not?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 19:56

23 Answers 23


As an instructor, when I find myself in this situation, I invite the student to make an appointment to speak with me privately in my office.

During that private meeting, I will discuss his/her current performance in the class, and point out the likely consequences if he/she does not submit the required work. I will advise the student as to what he/she must do to achieve the grade he/she needs.

Then it's up to the student to earn the grade he/she wants - or to fail. You can't live their lives for them.

  • 75
    Given that the point of the course is to develop understanding of the material, I (personally) would be a fan of offloading some of the weight of the work onto the exam. I took a course once where the work was entirely optional, and not completing it would mean the exam and mid-term would be worth 100% of your final grade.
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 0:06
  • 58
    @Chris Sure, that may be possible in some courses. In other courses (I am in electrical engineering), part of demonstrating mastery of course material involves showing that you can use the material in a realistic context - project and lab work - not just in exams, which are somewhat artificial.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 0:42
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    In addition, if the student is really having a hard time for reasons outside of school, a meeting like this gives them a chance to ask the professor for help and be directed to resources that can alleviate some of their problems.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:34
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    @Chris 'I took a course once...' The vast majority of my courses were 100% final exam. That's what I call normal.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 8:13
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    Is not the purpose of education to ensure your students know the knowledge you present them. Closed book exams in class then it places the highest demands generally imposed in undergraduate classes (consider homework, take home quizzes, and lab work). If your student preforms well on the most difficult tasks you present them why would you penalize them for failing to do the easier tasks. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:53

I strongly recommend you start with whatever the policy is in your syllabus. Most syllabi contain details about grading, points allocation, etc. By starting here, you can avoid any claims of "unique treatment", given that everyone received the same instructions.

That said, it sounds as though your student has a unique personal situation causing him to have difficulty completing all the material. In that case, I would follow the advice of ff524 and meet with the student privately to discuss. Simply bring the issue up and see what the student says. A comment of "I don't need to do your stupid homework, I'm good enough at the material without it" may deserve a different reaction than "I would love to do it but I simply don't have time with my other responsibilities".

  • 49
    @ff524 - Personally, if I could be convinced that the student really had time management issues, I would consider waiving part or all of the homework requirement. The student is clearly learning the material, which is the overall goal anyways; if they're succeeding, why fail them on a technicality?
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:47
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    If the homework is a "technicality," why are you making the other students do it? If completing the homework isn't really necessary for demonstrating mastery of the course material, then you need to rethink your grading scheme. (And/or your homework.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:48
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    @eykanal If a student hands in completed homework assignments, and completes exams, and the overall grade would be passing, but discussions with the student reveal that they really don't understand the material (maybe they got lucky on assignments and exams), should they fail (since they don't actually grasp the material) or pass on a technicality (they completed homework assignments and exams), too? Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 20:10
  • 20
    @ff524 - I've seen many teachers assign homework to force students to practice the material. Others have it as a core requirement, as part of the learning process itself. It really depends on the teacher and the teaching method.
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 21:30
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    @tonysdg That's interesting, because over here I've heard the opposite argument: We should make homework voluntary and students should be grown up enough to decide whether or not they need to do it in order to learn the material. "Learn the material one way or another - how you do it is your responsibility - but if you don't use the offered learning material (homework) then don't whine about it if you fail the exam." Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 6:55

I had a professor that instituted a "flex" grading system (for all students) to cover this contingency.

There were three aspects of the course: 1) homework 2) hourly exams, and 3) the final, weighted 1/3, 1/3, 1/3.

But if some student did markedly better or worse on one aspect of the course, the professor would re-weight the grades 40% for the best aspect, 25% for the worst aspect, and 35% for the middle one. That way, each part of the course would have a minimum weight of 25% and a maximum weight of 40%, but students with skewed grades were given a benefit compared to the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3.

The professor's experience was that the "re-weighting" rarely changed anyones' grade, but might for the odd student. I was that odd student.

  • 10
    @DanielR.Collins it is trivial to implement such a scheme in Excel or other spreadsheet. If you don't know how, ask for administrative support from your department and I'm sure they'll help you figure it out. Not saying you should use such a grading system, but the technical difficulty shouldn't be a factor in your decision.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:20
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    @DanielR.Collins these software suites usually have a function enabling download/upload of grades. At my institution many instructors would download the raw grading data, process it in Excel to compute final scores, and upload the final grades into the system. Is it slightly more work? Maybe (actually sometimes the opposite, as grading software is a pain to use and setting up your own spreadsheet makes things more transparent and minimizes the chance of errors). Is it sufficiently hard and time-consuming for your "waste of time" argument to make sense? I don't think so.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:28
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    @DanielR.Collins No, it doesn't need doing each week. It needs doing once at the end of term. A student doesn't have a grade for a course until they have completed the course.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 8:18
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    @DanielR.Collins If my students want to know where they stand, I tell them to work it out. They know what they've got for all the marked work, so they are just as capable of doing the calculation as I am.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 7:56
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    @DanielR.Collins - "My tech sucks so bad I can't calculate a simple maximum" is a really poor excuse for not giving a student the credit that one would otherwise say they deserve. What limits the ability to select an "ideal" grade should be measuring how well a student has mastered the material (which is inherently tricky), not primary school mathematics.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 4:50

Talk to the Student now

If possible you should communicate to the student exactly the precarious position they are in. Presumably this student is capable of completing the assignments and labs just like other students in the course. From the sounds of it, even doing an average to below-average job on these would substantially reduce the odds of a very negative outcome.

At that point the burden is on the student. You cannot make changes to the weighting of grades because of the external circumstances: this would really not be fair to other students. Presumably you have some notion of the percentage weights the various graded assignments are worth. Explain this, and make it clear that excellent performance on exams is simply not enough.

Of course, I would feel bad giving a D or lower to a student in this situation, but the grade must reflect the student's performance in the course as a whole. It is unethical to give a student a grade other than the one their coursework has earned.

  • 6
    I would like to add that other students may have the opposite problem: They are putting in a lot of work for the homework, but are not doing well on exams (for whatever reason). It would be unfair to shift the scoring in their un-favor, if it was specified before (most drastically, they may have chosen a course over others because of the focus on homework).
    – mafu
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 1:29
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    @mafu It is however possible to accommodate both ends of the spectrum by giving indirect homework incentives, instead of or in addition to direct incentives (i.e., graded assignments). For example, you could allow students who fulfill all or most of their homework assignments to redo their exam once -- by which I mean: once more than those who didn't do enough of their homework. Or perhaps allow them more time on their exams. With perks like these, students who don't have or make time to do all the homework still have the opportunity to get a 100% score -- it will just be a little harder!
    – Will
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 8:37
  • @mafu if they do all the homework, but they're still incompetent at the end (unable to pass exams/demonstrate mastery), shouldn't their grade indicate that they don't actually understand the subject? Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 16:14
  • When it comes to workforce performance what correlates best Exams or Homework?I put this as a comment and not a question because I would like people to think about this .
    – Autistic
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 5:14

Kudos to you for wanting to find a way for a talented and hard-working but over-extended student to succeed.

What is the right measure of whether the student is mastering the material in a way that supports the follow-on classes? Ideally, you will design your syllabus so that the student's grade will appropriately reflect their level of mastery. In some courses, there is no real mastery without lab mastery. In others, textbook-based conceptual mastery would suffice. They are many reasons why the grade contract on your syllabus might be incorrectly formulated. E.g., you might be weighting homework heavily because that is the only reasonable way to get pass rates appropriate to your institution. That is, sadly enough, sometimes it is unavoidable to reward effort instead of mastery. You say the student shows "deep understanding", and if by that you mean that he will be well prepared for the follow-on courses, you might propose a fair replacement for the grade contract on your syllabus. Make sure you would be comfortable offering every other student the same option. Then consider whether the grade contract on the syllabus should be altered to include this option. If yes, then you have probably found a good solution.

One strategy I use in courses where the final exam provides a comprehensive test of appropriate mastery is to give an A grade to anyone who gets an A on the final. (Of course, this is inappropriate in many courses.) Perhaps this offers a helpful starting point for dealing with this student.

  • 3
    +1 for the alternative grading scheme. Actually, most of the classes I took as an undergrad worked that way, but you had to at least pass the homework as well (get 50% right). Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 23:02

There are many answers already, but let me give one that applies in France (hoping I am not the only French around here).

First, Universities usually have special attendance waivers for students who work aside their studies. Students have to declare this early to make university able to accommodate them, but it is always a good thing to let them know they should disclose their situation to the person in charge. Note that some otherwise mandatory requirement can be waived (e.g. some homework, some in-class evaluations) but that some cannot (e.g. practical work in experimental sciences are usually too important a part of the curriculum to be waived).

Second, the grading system is often only loosely defined, which makes one able to adapt it to the case. One should of course always be as fair and as precise as possible, to make the grade really reflect what it should measure.

Third, even if the grading scheme has been precisely established and cannot be changed at all, the end-of-year jury has complete power of changing grades. Be sure to attend it so that the student's case is treated appropriately. Short of that, make sure the case is known to all colleagues.


While it is important to try to be "consistent" with grades, I think we can mostly agree that the point of courses is to educate, rather than demanding compliance to (admittedly artificial, even if self-consistent) rules. If the situation described comes up in the middle of the term, it's awkward to accommodate, because suddenly declaring that students have the option of having their grade determined by just exams could be objected-to on the grounds that if they'd known that, they might not have done the other work... Hard to argue with this, even if we imagine that the intention of homework and labs is to help learn the material, etc.

In the past, I have bent my own rules and given grades based on performance on the final. By this time, I would arrange things so that I'd have less reason to do so... Altogether, out of perhaps 100 such cases in 40 years, I can recall at most 1 or 2 where students were genuinely successful in learning the material while being somewhat disconnected. So, in fact, although some students half-heartedly complained that they'd have not done the homework if they'd been allowed-to, not "allowing" it did them a favor.

So, I have no regrets at bending the rules for a few, although I was not happy that in 98 percent of cases this bending didn't save them.

So, by now, my default for undergrad courses is to "require" homework + for exceptions see me at the beginning of the term, not part-way through... explaining that changing things in the middle easily leads to unfairness... I do give examples of plausible exceptions (about skipping homework, especially, about missing a midterm, ... how can I demand that people not go ski-ing at Thanksgiving?...)

Summary: the goal is education, but/and a significant fraction of students will dis-serve themselves through naivete... But/and I no longer can stomach arguing that enforcement of artificial rules "makes sense". I strongly prefer more defensible positions. :)

  • 1
    What if the intent of labs and homeworks is not just for students to learn the material, but for students to demonstrate that they can effectively use the material on types of problems that are not feasible in the context of an exam?
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 1:42
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    @ff524, yes, I agree that there is the possibility that you mention, of course. But/and not only might this be un-obvious to the students, but not truly innate to the subject matter... so I would feel it necessary to make such a distinction, about the goals, very, very clear at the outset, so that no one could plausibly imagine that "a good grade on the final" could possibly reflect the desired competence. That is, the true goals, whatever their reasonable testing-ground, could be made clear. Competence is competence, with or without obedience-to-rules. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:27
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    @ff524: Such cases ought not to be referred to as "homework", but "projects". Students recognize the difference, and won't expect projects to be optional or minimally weighted.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 5:41
  • bravo, @paulgarrett. Excellent argument.
    – dwoz
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 18:19

Stick to your syllabus.

That doesn't mean you're out of options though. Talk to the student and determine a minimum number of assignments that the student must complete in order to reach that C. Concentrate on balancing assignments that the student can complete, with assignments that you feel are especially important.

My school has a similar grade requirement for meeting the prerequisite for advanced classes, although a student will get credit for the current class with a D. When faced with similar situations I have on occasion recommended students be accepted despite their lower than typical grade. That has had mixed results, bending the rules too much for a student will not do them any favors.


First of all, let's dispense with the fantasy-world argument about the ethics of grading fairness and all that claptrap...The student's grade is the student's grade, and no other student has any standing to discuss it or even notice it, much less complain about it. "Objective" grading is a starting point. No more, no less.

Having said that, I have opened the door to the fact that any grade given is purely at the discretion of the professor, and that doesn't mean it is completely arbitrary: there should be some discernible qualification or justification for a grade that diverges from an "objective" grade.

Of course, any individual Professor's criterion for adjusting a grade will ultimately be subject to review and revision by the department chair and/or dean or even provost...so let's just dispense with that here and consider it assumed.

I think the breakpoint is whether the situation is chronic or episodic. My personal feeling is that a student isn't going to school to get through part-time work...They're doing part-time work to get through school. Their coursework is, as far as I care about, thier primary concern. With this notion, I am less inclined to give chronic absentee/no homework situations a "pass" but reserve the ability to be lenient in the here-and-there odd situations where "life happens."

  • 8
    as I suspected, many academicians HATE the idea that grades are anything but God's Own Truth. Downvoters, go nuts!
    – dwoz
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 21:38
  • 2
    +1 for "The student's grade is the student's grade, and no other student has any standing to discuss it or even notice it, much less complain about it." There should be no notion of a zero-sum game in academia. If a fellow student managed to get a better grade, be happy for him.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 15:20
  • 1
    Hmm. As long as the students will be compared by prospective employers or grad schools on the basis of grades (and they will be unless you teach at the kind of place that is as much social club and finishing school as university) then the other students certainly do have an interest in what their peers make. Now, you could take the view that you are assigning a more correct grade by allowing a variation. But you need to think carefully about that: how many other students are fighting through comparable circumstances and doing it better than this student. Why are you cheating them? Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 3:06
  • @LLlAMnYP, yeah! favoritism, discrimination, nepotism, so what. If the professor gave another student a better grade for worse scores that's the way it goes. Just be happy for him.
    – 8bitwide
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 5:48
  • @8bitwide Yes, pretty much so. It's a shame that you can't get it as good, as the "teacher's pet", but merely the fact that someone got a better grade isn't taking anything from me. Where I studied, dropping out of uni for a male student often meant getting drafted by the military. Finishing a semester without Cs meant getting a stipend for the next 6 months. Whistleblowing on a cheater could hurt the cheater, but certainly would not make your own stipend bigger. So yeah, be happy for the guy if he managed to get what he needs. (PS - employers don't give shit about grades).
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 8:59

In my experience, if a students final mark works out to be just short of a passing grade It is common for teachers to round up the grade if they think the student has an adequate understanding of the material.

In some cases this has involved meeting the student after the final exam and going over the test with them to get a better understanding of the students depth of understanding. Some answers on a test may look good, but it could just be that the student has seen a similar problem before and has a good memory - but are not capable of elaborating on their answer. In this way you can get a better sense of the students actual proficiency with the material and decide based on that to pass or fail.

The whole purpose of homework is to help prepare the student for midterms and finals - and retain that knowledge. So if they can accomplish that without the homework and have an above average understanding of the material I don't think it makes sense for them to fail the class. This is probably one reason why university level courses often have finals worth 50% of the grade, whereas homework accounts for maybe 10%.

  • The relative percentages of exams and homework vary greatly from one school to another, and even one professor to another at the same school. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 0:36
  • "The whole purpose of homework is to help prepare the student for midterms and finals" - not in my class. Homework and lab work is a chance to get students to apply material in a way that isn't practical in the context of an exam.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:25

Depending on whether your academic rules at your institution allow this flexibility, you can offer the student to do what at least two of my professors did during my undergraduate days:

  • Talk to the student first to ensure that they really understand the material.

  • Offer them to simply take the tests and the final test as 100% of their grade. Maybe ask to solve a couple of randomly selected homework problems too.

  • In the interest of fairness, offer the same option to all students in the class who qualify (based on already-passed test grades). If they feel that they really know the material excellently enough not to bother doing the homework, prove it to you in an brief oral exam combined. If they perform as well, they get the same waiver.

This way:

  1. You ensure that the students you graduate from your class truly reflect the level of knowledge you wish to impart to them

  2. You don't penalize students who know their stuff (because they are just extra smart, or because this is old material for them) by making them do make-work which doesn't enhance their knowledge or understanding because the homework in class isn't intended to evaluate the student's knowledge but to help them gain that understanding.

  3. You don't treat anyone specially due to their "special circumstances".

Remember, your goal is to (1) teach the material; (2) teach to learn. It's not to make students complete 100% of their homework because the homework, like Everest, is there.

  • +1 for allowing the student to be graded by demonstrating his command of the subject matter in a way which convinces you of that fact, rather than by adhering to anything else.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 22:43

What do you wish a grade in your class to mean? If you ignore the missing homework, a good grade in your class will indicate that a student has a strong grasp of the material and a high level of skill in solving the sorts of problems which you put on your tests within time limits. If you penalize the missing homework enough to make excellent test performance alone inadequate to obtain the good grade, a good grade in your class will not reflect the students ability to utilize their knowledge of the material to solve problems under time constraints. They may still have a good grasp of the material, or they might not. If they get a poor grade, they may still have a good grasp of the material, or they might not. The homework-penalizing grading will, however, reflect a degree of subservience and submission to discipline even in situations where the homework has little to no benefit to the students knowledge.

  • 4
    Why do you assume that homework has no benefit outside of the strict material on tests? The more open-ended time for homework often increased its value, in my experience.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 1:33
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    @jakebeal: Not for many students, who copy their answers off the internet.
    – user21820
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 7:30
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    @user21820 Then that is poorly designed homework.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:31
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    @jakebeal: I agree that there are ways to design homework to lessen that problem, but with websites like Math SE around, no math homework is immune from the problem since often the proofs from good students are very similar too. I've personally observed many students doing just that, and for these students homework doesn't improve their understanding at all.
    – user21820
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 13:38
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    Most of the reason for even having homework is to force the students to actually study and learn the material so the professor is not lecturing to a bunch of blank faces. That is what is required for the overwhelming majority of students to keep them on task and not have them procrastinate on learning. The homework is also a way to give "free" points to the students grades to make up for not doing well on the exam. In actuality, if one were to look at the "ideal" situation, the OP's student is exactly that. A student who learns what is needed when it is needed. Why punish the student for that?
    – Dunk
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 16:02

The last part of your question is a poll and is not kosher for this site, but I will offer my point of view about your basic dilemma.

The old-fashioned way of grading put a great deal of weight on the exam(s). In a lab course, this would include a lab exam.

Over time, we started to become more humane, and reduce the pressure about the exam performance, by giving more weight to other components.

If you feel that your exams are well enough designed that a solid exam performance sufficiently permits a student to demonstrate mastery of the material, and if you are confident about your exam proctoring procedures, then be humane. Be flexible. Celebrate his mastery of your course material by giving this student a well-deserved A.


As others have said: default to the syllabus grading scheme to the letter. Diverging from this sends you down a sinkhole of making more modifications on the fly, trying to be fair to all students, running different case what-ifs, and generally doing a lot more work.

Given enough heads-up (again, as others said), I have specified a bare-minimum number of assignments that a student has to turn in to get a passing grade.

Also consider the appropriateness of an "Incomplete" grade. Although I almost never do it, if there is truly a unique situation that you want to account for, consider withholding the grade until the student passes in some bare-minimum work after the fact. A downside of this is that it does create more work for you (scheduling and following up), but in theory that grade status is designed to account for that.


In my alma mater, which was also where I taught for a several years, the academic studies bylaws explicitly stated that the course grade is intended to reflect the student's command of the subject matter. Assuming the subject matter is not the practical skill of writing code or building something, the "deep understanding" OP has discerned would be enough to give the student an excellent grade. There are rules, and there are higher-level rules (the "constitutional level" if you will). So, actually, sticking to some formula in the syllabus against one's better judgement would be mis-grading that student and, theoretically (but not practically) grounds for him/her to complain...

  • This is a good answer. In other contexts, what you describe can be compared with the Rule according to higher law. That is, while statutes and case law are very important to a well-functioning, consistent, and fair legal system, there are some times where things just break down and require human intervention from people with a thorough understanding of fundamental rights and fairness. Commented Jun 17, 2019 at 23:07

One way out would be to announce to the class that you would be giving out a difficult optional assignment that anyone can attempt for bonus credit of say 20%, and at the same time inform that student privately that you are doing this for his sake but such that it is still fair to all, and so he had better submit the optional assignment if he didn't want to get a poor grade.

The first advantage is that it is fair to all students and yet rewarding those who have a much deeper mastery of the subject. You should of course mark the assignment impartially and try to prevent any cheating, and it will naturally give extra credit to the better students.

The second advantage is that it does not penalize any students at all, since it is purely bonus credit. So no student will have any reason to complain, since the good students can prove that they deserve a good grade.

The third advantage is that you do not have to rely on your subjective and possibly inaccurate judgement of this student's abilities. It may be bad to give good students an 'undeserving' poor grade, but it would be even worse to give bad students a truly undeserving better grade than there is clear evidence for (unless you are absolutely certain that your student's performance on the exam is so outstanding that all your colleagues will agree fully with you).

Note that I'm purposely not answering the question of whether to pass or fail the student involved, since according to the above we can only answer that question after the optional assignment deadline.

  • 2
    This is common in my department.
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 17:06
  • @Nemo: That's nice. I myself do it but not as a last-minute resort but right from the beginning. But I've never seen or heard of such practices in my university's mathematics department, which is a pity.
    – user21820
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 2:59

It is imperative that you design your grading system to take this type of situation into account. Some students simply will not get the homework done, even if they understand the material. The reason is not really your concern (unless of course it's something like a medical or family emergency). In my courses, I always instituted a way for students to avoid zeros on homework. For instance, I would allow them to make up late work for up to a week, though at only a fraction of the value. If it was past a week, I would offer them additional work (e.g. writing a paper, or doing a special project or lab) to make up some points. However, I stress that this policy must be written in your syllabus so that grading remains fair to all students.

  • I studied at a high-level British university where papers should be turned in some time before the end of the year. I wrote more and much better papers than I ever had, and I enjoyed them and was actually interested in practically all of them, instead of (at rule-based American universities) staying up all night and forcing myself to do what was required on time.
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 17:12
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    One system that could accommodate students who master the test material but don't do the homework, would be to have test scores above a certain level, waive the homework requirements, and/or have the grade for the homework for a unit equal the test grade if the test grade is higher than the homework grade. Typical grading formulae are pretty crude and introduce artificial stress (unless your goal is to teach game theory and how to beat arbitrary rating systems).
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 17:15
  • 1
    @Dronz I agree, but whatever you do it needs to be clear in the syllabus so that there is fair treatment for all students
    – f.thorpe
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 18:25

My approach in this kind of situation has been to follow my syllabus and grading process to the letter. Students who earn Fs, even those who need a passing grade to advance, get Fs. If they need a heads up to see this coming, then it's definitely worth pulling them aside and telling them. It really can change their approach.

  • 5
    It can also result in grades in your class being near meaningless. For instance, in junior high school I had an algebra class. I got straight As on the tests. I did well on the homework. The teacher, however, defined half of the grade be based upon keeping all returned homework and tests in a folder. I was not good with organization, and had basically no such folder at the end of term. His intention was to fail me, but I luckily successfully argued that organizational skills were not even taught by him, so weighting them so heavily was petty and counterproductive to education.
    – otakucode
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 0:36
  • 3
    @otakucode: I would call that an example of having a bad grading schema, which is a different (albeit important) issue. The solution is to fix the grading schema to something worthwhile. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 3:17
  • 1
    Everyone should take notice that I didn't comment on OP's choice of what counts for what. I've always figured that anyone who can ace the exams and turns in a few of the homeworks should be able to to get an A.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 4:05

Convert assignment to exam. Just explain the student that not everything can be verified in exam, that some kinds of performance, understanding can only be seen from assignment results, so assignment marks influence the exam marks.

As the student is doing exams well, he will do the assignments well also now, because they are part of the exam. Currently he probably does not think it is necessary.


Your syllabus has, or should have, a formula used to calculate the students' grades. This student is making a choice, based upon what he or she understands that formula to be, not to do the homework. Every student should be able to look at the grade formula, figure out what grade they can accept, weigh that against their goals and the time demands of their other courses and pursuits, and determine what they want to hand in.

Of course, doing the homework should help the student to generate an understanding of the topics in the course, and thus help the student do better on exams and major assignments. It could also help a student recognize red flags for a lack of understanding that merits extra attention. If the homework doesn't play such a role, or some other similar role, then it's just busy work, and you need to ask why its being assigned in the first place.

You should view the grade as a pre-established contract with the student put forth in the syllabus. If the student can abide by it, they stay in the course, and if they find they can't, they're free to make other plans. The fact that you're wrestling with this decision now seems to signal that you haven't clearly established this contract. Use this situation as an experience to sharpen your grade formula in the future such that a student in this situation would get the grade you feel is deserved, but for this semester you need to stick to whatever formula you conveyed. If you haven't conveyed a formula, do what you think is right, but it is WRONG to place students in a situation where they don't understand what generates their grade and you should certainly fix this for future iterations.

How much should homeworks count? My own personal feeling is that if it counts too much, it just encourages academic dishonesty. It should count enough that poor homework performance should certainly rule out an A, just to encourage students to do it.

  • 3
    I disagree vehemently with your first sentence. Grading is an inherently subjective task, and I always made sure to keep my syllabi loose enough to allow me to assign sensible grades. In particular, I think that setting percentage thresholds for letter grades and trying to design exams to fit them is absurd. I made up exams that tested what I wanted to test and then interpreted the results. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 4:55
  • @Brian that is what curves are for. You can't go changing a term paper that accounts for 10% of grade to 30% or homework that counts 5% to 20% because the grades don't work out the way you want them to. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 17:05
  • I’d never ever have assigned a figure like 5% in the first place: it’s too small and too precise. My syllabi ran to descriptions more like this for courses in which there were too many students for me to bleed copious comments over weekly homeworki: There will be three midterms and a final. The midterms will count approximately equally, and the final will be worth approximately two midterms. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 21:05

You should discuss an alternative scheme for the homework problems for this student. Just tell the student that the way things are going now is not acceptable, he'll not get the credits for the course. If he tells you that he'll try harder, tell him that you actually know why he isn't doing well on the assignments, that he is going to fail the course and may also become ill due to overwork and then risk dropping out of university altogether.

Then offer him an alternative scheme for the assignments that is more compatible with his schedule, but which also comes with zero tolerance for not adhering to it. You should aim for assignments for him that are at least as hard as the regular assignments. You should tell in class that some students are following an alternative scheme for assignments to accommodate for private issues, that this is open to everyone, but the assignments are on average a bit harder than the regular assignments. This makes sure all students are treated equally, and that the alternative scheme is not an easy pass so the floodgates for the alternative scheme are not opened.


One follow-up question I wold ask is whether the exam in question is as rigorous as the OP suggests; the student may indeed have known the material well (or known it already from past exposure), but if it required very little practice to master the skills needed to excel at a summative assessment, how powerful a measure could it possibly be? My students often ask me for a final exam whose grade could trump the rest of the semester (probably because they got that "Senior Day" treatment in high school), but I ask them two question which quickly snuff out the requests:

  1. Would you be satisfied if your exam results dipped and thus brought your A down to a C, "just because" you got a 79.8% on the exam?

  2. Are you prepared for an exam genuinely testing every major "essential" ("irreplaceable") concept we have discussed, and not this "gentler" one I have prepared in acknowledgement that you have already showed me a partial mastery based on your earlier exams? ("'Cause I could always make this final exam a lot more challenging....)

  • 1
    After reflecting on it after the semester ended, I'm fairly certain that the student had prior exposure to the material, which was not the case for a majority of students who were in that particular class. The student in question passed this particular course, but failed the follow-on course [I suppose he did not have as much prior exposure to the material covered in the follow-on course].
    – Mad Jack
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 3:44

I know what you want to do. You want to give them a break. BUT, you established grading standards for the entire class. It would be unfair to treat this student differently from the rest. And you can be penalized for doing so. If you don't want to enforce your own standard, then you should create a new one for the next class. But you must enforce the one you established for this class.

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