My problem is pretty weird to describe. This semester I didn't keep track of student attendance in classes because the university system didn't become functional until two weeks before the end of the semester. Now this student comes up complaining that he wants to fail due to absence in classes (which by the way he didn't attend at all) and not because he didn't do any assignments, and he argues that I cannot give any grade because he didn't do any assignment! That's because, for some warped logic, failing to attend classes isn't as bad as failing due to a bad grade: somehow the "system" cleans up attendance failures (but not grade failures) in the future school transcript. It is as if the student had never been enrolled in the course in the first place. Anyway, the "system" does not allow for failing students on both grounds either (that is, someone who hasn't attended enough classes and didn't achieve the minimum grade to pass). Moreover, this is an optional class and about half the students canceled their inscriptions in the first weeks.

So, the question is: should I bow down to this logic and fail the student because he missed classes (thus cleaning up the slate for him), or fail because he didn't do any assignments?

  • 59
    I think this will depend on your institution's regulations for how these two types of "fail" are to be used. You should ask your department chair or dean. Any answer you get here will just be a guess. Dec 14, 2015 at 18:05
  • 12
    "That's because, for some warped logic, failing to attend classes isn't as bad as failing due to a bad grade" - are you sure you got this right? At my university, it is pretty standard (well, among some ambitious, but sometimes borderline, students) to intentionally fail by means of violating formal requirements (such as attendance), because failing (and thereby being allowed to retry later) isn't as bad as almost failing (with a bad grade). Dec 14, 2015 at 18:18
  • I've seen cases where a student never attended the class but neglected to officially withdraw. Fortunately for the students, there's apparently someone in the administration (probably an assistant dean) who can magically produce a withdrawal long after the deadline if the instructor approves. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:56
  • For other readers: I share the OP's experience with these different flavors of non-passing grade reporting. We have a similar system at CUNY. I've added an answer below giving more scope and details to a situation like this. Apr 26, 2023 at 3:36

11 Answers 11


Agreed, this is pretty weird. It sounds so predicated on the (weird) particulars of your university that your guess is as good as and probably better than ours. Anyway:

That's because, for some warped logic, failing to attend classes isn't as bad as failing due to a bad grade: somehow the "system" cleans up attendance failures (but not grade failures) in the future school transcript.

Figuring out exactly what that means is probably the key to treating the situation properly...at least if we assume that "properly" means according to the practices of your university, which sound pretty screwy. Maybe let's take it this way: under what circumstances would it be appropriate to give a student a "failure to attend" grade which is subject to future white-washing? As far as I can see, the most sensible case for this is for a student who neither attended the course nor attempted any of the course work, including homework and exams. If so the registration for the course looks like some kind of mistake.

Does that describe your student? I.e., did he never come to class -- had you seen him before?!? -- or do any of the assignments or exams? If so, then just based on what you have said it sounds to me that this policy could reasonably be applied to him. If he attended a bit at the beginning, turned in an assignment or two and then just stopped entirely then indeed it looks like he was a non-accidental attendee in the course who just did very, very little work and the other kind of failing grade would be appropriate.

Perhaps you should consider talking to someone in your university's administration to get them to explain this screwy policy? If the policy makes sense in the minds of others -- especially, if the students have a consistent understanding that has largely been supported by the policy -- then even if you think it's stupid (and even if you're right!) you could be inviting trouble by calling it as you see it.

Anyway, good luck.

Added: OK, here's another, completely different interpretation. Your university is in the process of adding a new, very formalized (you mention something about implementation coming up in the last two weeks of the semester; is that what you mean, a system for tracking attendance?) mandatory attendance policy. If so, maybe the attendance failure works sort of like an "incomplete" in US university systems: it's a placeholder for future work on the part of the student. Maybe the student makes up the class attendance in the future and they get....I don't know. Either the grade they got the first time around or the grade they got in the new course, in which case indeed failure to attend is an easy loophole to get out of any poor grade. Anyway, there are any number of curious policies that a university might have, and for sure I don't know what's going on in your case.

  • I think this is something like what my institution does: There is a first day attendance clause. Basically, all students must attend the first class day and have the instructor enter them in for attendance, or the university's system automatically drops them from the class. It's an involuntary withdrawal, before any tuition has been paid, that's as if the student never enrolled in the first place. If tuition's been paid, at best you can withdraw with a W before 50% of the course has been completed. Therein at best you can receive a WF (essentially a fail grade) or special circumstance.
    – CKM
    Dec 14, 2015 at 17:57
  • 1
    Some instructors, then, will simply mark everyone as present at the course start and never take attendance again.
    – CKM
    Dec 14, 2015 at 17:59
  • 1
    A number of universities I've worked at have a grade option of X, which means (and I quote) "no basis for grade". My understanding of how this grade works is exactly the interpretation in your post. In contrast, the first day attendance clause described by @Kendall is designed to avoid financial aide fraud, so I don't think that is what this is.
    – David Hill
    Dec 14, 2015 at 18:08
  • @Kendall: my university does the opposite. If a student misses all the class meetings during the first week of class, the instructor may (at his or her discretion) effect an involuntary withdrawal of the student from the class. In particular, the student cannot count on it being an automatic withdrawal: if they want to withdraw from a class without grades reported, they better make sure they check with the registrar's office before the deadline. Dec 15, 2015 at 4:28

Ask an Administrator At Your Institution

I honestly think there is only one answer to give here: you need to talk with someone at your University who understands the policies of your particular institution. At all institutions I am personally aware of (having attended or read through their student handbook), there is no such thing as a difference between failing because you didn't show up and failing because you showed up and got everything wrong. But given the extremely large variance between institutions, and especially between countries, your institution may have it's own unique rules.

  • If at your institution there is no such thing as "fail by absence", then of course you cannot comply with the student request.

  • If your institution provides a policy of "fail by absence", then you need to look at the definition of what this and whether or not this student qualifies. If indeed the definition is "did not complete X% of assignments or tests, or did not attend at least Y%" of classes", and your student meets this guideline, then you absolutely should mark "fail by absence" in accordance with your University policy.

One needn't actually agree that there is any difference in "not trying" and "trying and failing", and one need not even agree that one is not as 'bad' as the other. If your institution honors such a concept, and asks you to indicate which occurred, it is your duty to answer honestly and correctly.

The student might be a nuisance or annoying, or give you no good reason for their failure to attend - and the reasons might very well be none of your concern. But if your system distinguishes between attendance-related failure and exam-related failure, then you should too. Problems with the policy should be addressed to policy makers, not enforced willy-nilly on students.

If you wish in the future to go against such policies, and assuming you have the authority to do so, you really must place this in your syllabus at the beginning of the semester so that all students necessarily understand that policies normal to your institution will not be applied to that class. You should of course check with administration to ensure you have such an option.


I'm surprised that people here are offering callous advice such as "I don't see any reason you should do this student any favors" and "Since he badly failed on both grounds, the worst wins: fail him for bad grades." Guys, have you heard of compassion? The student is failing either way, so no decision would be "doing him any favors." From an ethical point of view, since according to the OP he in fact did not attend any classes, both grade decisions are equally valid and equally in line with the spirit of the university's (admittedly, pretty stupid in my opinion) policy. So, it all comes down to whether you are a vindictive type who wants to inflict maximum pain on a failing student to teach him a lesson he'll never forget, or whether you have some compassion and understanding for human failings.

Personally I'd go with the compassionate approach. Pedagogical research also suggests that people learn better from positive reinforcement than from negative reinforcement (citation needed, but I don't have time to look it up right now) so if your goal is to teach the student some kind of lesson, I think the attendance fail will also be better from that point of view.

  • 1
    I indeed heard of compassion and I practice it a lot, surely beyond my duties as professor, but from the question it seems that the student just complains, without offering any reason for compassion. Should there be, I'd be obviously withdraw my remark, to lean toward compassion. Dec 14, 2015 at 19:33
  • 2
    @Massimo Maybe the student is an unpleasant or annoying person who likes to complain, or is poor at communicating his wishes. Honestly I don't see why that should affect your decision, or why you need a special reason to choose the compassionate option (while still failing the student -- again, not doing any favors or compromising any academic standards).
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 14, 2015 at 19:44
  • 3
    Because if, for instance, the student couldn't attend for health or other serious reasons, I'd be willing to limit as much as possible the effect on his career (according to the OP, the "system" cleans up attendance failures), but if he just complains (maybe on and on) without offering any reason for not attending when attendance is mandatory (a side note: in general, I'm against requiring attendance and I do not require it), well, I fail to be compassionate. . Dec 14, 2015 at 20:24
  • perhaps you mean positive or negative punishment rather than negative reinforcement?
    – BCLC
    Dec 15, 2015 at 13:37
  • (In the US) It isn't unheard of for students to use student loans to fund not-school related things. After you fail X classes you loose the ability to withdraw more student loans. So it may not be the more compassionate thing for us taxpayers (if this is in the US) to let a student off with an I or something as they may just be using it to defraud the student loan program. There are two sides to the coin since we don't know the real motive for the student.
    – mkingsbu
    Feb 26, 2016 at 17:04

I do not think it is all that strange to have a way to enter "registered but did not attend" as one of the possible outcomes of course and to treat that differently from "performed poorly". Our university does, as did every other university I am familiar with (small sample size, obviously). We are on a pay per credit system, so a "registered but did not attend" entitles the student to a refund of tuition.

However, I have never entered a grade of "registered but did not attend" of my own accord, Typically this request comes from the registrar's office to confirm that the student did not do any work in the course, has no attendance record, etc. In other words, instead of coming to me to plead his/her case, the student goes to the registrar's office first. And if I do have any evidence of the student contributing even a single assignment, then the inference is that they did use at least some of the course resources, are not entitled to a tuition refund, and hence should not be given a "registered but did not attend" grade.


I write LMS software and have done a lot of university work. Most fall into the following categories:

  • courses are wiped based on a cut-off date. This is the most common. Most universities allow one week, some two, some more (not as common). If the student decides they want out before the cutoff their transcript is wiped clean even if they have graded work.

  • course can be wiped clean due to medical or financial problems. This is basically ad hoc and student would have to work with school administrator to get the sign off for this. Administrators team would go into my system and individually take care of this.

  • have schools that based on the first graded assignment the teacher records, then they are a student of the class. If no scores then they can be wiped.

I can try to think of a few other cases since I am sure there are a couple I am missing. But for your case, he never turned in anything, he didn't go to class... then he should be unenrolled for transcript purposes. Your university cannot validly say this student can pass the class or not. You cannot state that they are unable to do the work or not. A university class is not about expressing your knowledge, not about meeting criteria.

Therefore the only logical thing to do is exclude this class from the transcript. If you don't have records of attendance or grades then you have nothing to say against it. Think about if a student went to half your classes, never turned in a paper... he just lost his mom/dad in an accident, suffering from depression, has some other issues, is it right that this student gets a failing grade when you don't have any idea what their knowledge level is?

Note: That some universities handle this right. If a student opts out like this student would the require that the class is retaken within the next calendar year to keep the old class wiped. (of course the university ensures paying for another class too)

  • some more (not as common) — Really? Every university I've been affiliated with (all in the US) had a drop deadline 6-8 weeks into the semester.
    – JeffE
    Dec 15, 2015 at 2:53
  • @JeffE, nowadays for some reason the automated version often has a much shorter deadline. E.g., at my univ, it's just a week or so, while 20 years ago it was a few weeks. Dec 15, 2015 at 19:26

The student is correct. Its not his/her fault that the system is stupid. The expectation was created by the system. Not your place to try to change it or to punish the student for the expectation. If you do think its a stupid system, then voice that opinion through the proper channels.


Since you were not keeping track of attendance, it does not sound like you were making attendance a component of students' final grades. If this is the case, then you can't fail him for lack of attendance, and must fail him for his low grade.

If, on the other hand, you were counting attendance in students' final grades, then I guess it's a coin-flip, but the student's argument that he lacks a grade, as opposed to having a grade of 0, seems like nonsense to me. I don't see any reason you should do this student any favors by failing him on the basis of attendance, but that's up to you.

  • 2
    If there is a requirement in the university for minimum attendance (and most of them have), then you should fail them by this criteria. Attendance comes first than grade, because generally the former is a prerequisite for the latter.
    – Chaotic
    Dec 14, 2015 at 19:49
  • -1 for the claim that he "must" fail him for a low grade. No convincing argument for a "must".
    – einpoklum
    Dec 15, 2015 at 22:51
  • @einpoklum Really? The argument was that if 0% of a student's grade is determined by attendance, then it is impossible for lack of attendance to be the cause of the student's failure. This seems pretty straightforward to me.
    – Jeff
    Dec 16, 2015 at 3:00

In the real world of real universities that have actual buildings with classrooms and stuff instead of browser windows, what you describe is called an "administrative fail" , or commonly AF or WF (withdraw-fail). In brick-and-mortar universities there's typically a date cutoff, usually halfway or three quarters of the way through the semester. Ask your virtual registrar if they have an faq on this.


Oh, come on, just Fail him the way he asked for and don't sweat it.

The system is silly/weird/stupid, the reporting system didn't work, he wanted to drop the class mid-semester and forgot, whatever. You're not giving him academic credit for something he hasn't done, so be kind and help him/her.


I'm writing a very late answer, partly for the edification of other readers, to support the OP's situation, and to highlight the academia varies more than you think it does principle.

I'm at a large U.S. university (CUNY) that currently uses a similar menagerie of final grade codes, that record different situations for not-passing, and handle them in different ways. A non-exhaustive list includes:

  • WN: Student never participated in class.
  • WA: Student was administratively withdrawn for immunization non-compliance.
  • WU: Student was withdrawn unofficially by virtue of stopping attendance at some point.
  • W: Student officially requested to withdraw from the class.
  • INC: Student had some component of work incomplete, and is expected to be able to complete it outside of class with instructor before end of next term.
  • F: Student completed the course but did not succeed at passing, due to failing-level work.

In addition to this, there's also a "refund period" of about the first week where a student can drop a class, get their tuition back, and have it be entirely expunged from their record.

I think that all of the W-type grades avoid having any impact on the student's GPA. The WN grade gets reported by faculty about two weeks into the term (and has monetary impact; I think financial aid gets clawed back by state/federal agencies). The WA is assessed by administration about one month in. W's are accepted at any time up to and including the last day of class. WU's are assessed after final exams are given.

The evolution of this system has (over the nearly two decades I've been at the institution) evolved to make it more and more likely that failing grades are kept off a student's transcript. For example, when I started, to receive a "W" grade, the student needed to be currently passing the course, had to get an instructor's approval signature on a form, and could only do so up to about the halfway point in the term. At some point that faculty sign-off form went away, as well as the requirement that the student be passing the course. Then the deadline was pushed further into the term, and now one can withdraw (at will, by web portal) at any time, including on the last day of class.

Moreover, the "WU" grade was introduced so that students are presumed to have withdrawn even if they don't ask for it -- and this is broadly what the OP is dealing with. If a student simply stops attending class, they are expected to get a WU grade. If a student attends class for the entire term, submits all assignments, and just skips the final exam, then the assumption is now that they should receive a WU grade (and so avoid reducing their GPA).

So: As others have advised in the situation, someone like the OP should read their school policies carefully. In our case, we have a very formal multi-page memo that everyone consults for the decision process on which flavor of grade should be assigned. In our case, the school really, really wants instructors to be assigning WU's instead of F's, because (I presume) it boosts student GPAs, likely increases retention, and lets the school retain their current and future tuition payments.

There's a piece of fine print in our policy that says instructors may instead opt to assign an F grade if students submitted more than half the work for term and received failing grades for it; but almost no one (faculty, students, administrators) is aware of that clause, so one needs to be cautious about using it. E.g., students who are failing late in the term will likely just ghost the course, not request a W, and be surprised if they get an F instead of a WU. Previously there was a window where W's were not available, but WU's still were, and in that era I would get some students requesting the WU from me instead of an F -- exactly like the case of the OP. (Now that W's cover the whole term, cognizant students use that option instead, so I haven't received these requests in a few years.)

In summary: The school likely has a formal recommendation/decision-process for the described grade zoo. The instructor in question should find that and read it very carefully.


As a relatively recent student, my university's policy would have been to fail the student.

It was understood that it is the student's responsibility to complete the withdraw form at the registrar's office prior to the drop deadline. Reviewing the few course syllabuses I still have, the policies related to absence are:

  1. Absence exceeding 6 class hours of instruction: Instructor may submit a grade of F immediately at their discretion.
  2. Absence for a scheduled test: Grade of 0 for the test, most classes have a make-up exam or a policy where the final grade may be used in place of the lowest grade.
  3. Absence for the final exam: Policy is an F. Instructor may intercede on the student's behalf and record an I. An incomplete grade must be completed during the following semester or it will automatically be changed to an F.

Absences are defined as non-attendance without approval from instructor or university.

I have exactly one syllabus where the policy was that if the student disappeared for an extended period of time prior to drop-date, the instructor would submit a grade of "W" on the drop date. The instructor explained that this was her way of covering for a student who had mistakenly forgotten to drop the course and implied this was due to a prior incident.

  • Very similar at my U, way back when. I think early withdrawals were not noted in the transcript at all. Then after some deadline you would get a W in the transcript: withdrawn. Past some second deadline, the only option was a failure in the transcript (if that was to be the outcome). I definitely remember the W code.
    – Kaz
    Dec 15, 2015 at 1:04
  • A drop within the first two weeks cancelled the registration as if it had never existed. Past that, you had until the 3/4s mark to withdraw with a grade of W if allowed (university and state regulations may prevent withdrawing in some cases.)
    – DKATyler
    Dec 15, 2015 at 14:23

You must log in to answer this question.