Last semester, I was teaching a class where there is a small assignment (~2% of the total course assessment) that students need to submit every week. Unfortunately, some of the students joined the class late, due to add/drop forms that needed to be signed manually, or for other unknown reasons.

Is it fair to give zeros to students who missed early assignments because they added the class late? There were a few students who may have missed 3 or 4 weeks of assignments.

Response to comment

Q: Were the students not able to physically be present? Were the students not able to predict that they would take your class?

They were physically able to be present. Some students may not have been able to predict that they were able to take my class. For example, one student had to add the class after the add date deadline, because he was admitted late to the university.


After thinking things through, I checked that the last date for adding the course is the Monday of week 2, and the first weekly assignment is also assigned and due in week 2. I found in the data that there were several students who did not attend in week 1, but all of these students attended and submitted the weekly assignment in week 2.

Consequently, all of the students in the course were registered by week 2, and would have been able to submit all the weekly assignments. Thus any students who did not submit a weekly assignment deserve to get zero for that assignment, unless they have a reason to be excused.

  • 1
    If students were auditing a course with the expectation of enrolling when the paperwork was sorted out, why didn't they do the assignments at the appropriate time anyway? Certainly they couldn't get them "officially" graded before they enrolled, but if they were taking responsibility for their own education they shouldn't need "extra time" to turn them in after they officially joined the course.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 15:25
  • 6
    @alephzero in some schools, you can join class A, then swap to class B, so you as you do it within the add/drop period. So a student may have been in a completely different class the first couple weeks.
    – iheanyi
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:04
  • 3
    @iheanyi: The only case where I'd remotely have any kind of sympathy is when this class's lectures conflicts with the schedule of the class that the student swapped with. Even then, you should be keeping up with the materials of both, just maybe through some way other than attending lectures. The add/drop deadline should have no bearing on this.
    – user541686
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:33
  • 2
    Does your institution charge students for classes they attend, wether they are registered or not? ( then no, it's not fair). Does it allow unregistered users to attend classes? (Then yes, it is fair, but only if ) Has someone explained those new users that they can ( and should) attend from day 0 wether they are registered or not, and that their grades will be recorded even if they fail to(register), for the next time they apply? (Then Yes, it is fair.
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 8:18
  • 1
    @Mehrdad So, in other words, there is no accommodation, so in effect they're not really allowed to add classes, the school is just happy to take their money for a class they are doomed to fail.
    – Random832
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 12:57

11 Answers 11


At most institutions, the last day to add a course is set up by the institution, not the professor. We have an obligation to honor that, which means allowing students to enroll, with full full privileges, up to the last day they're allowed to.

Giving 0's for assignments they've missed is inconsistent with that. I prefer to simply ignore previous assignments of the sort you're describing - if their score for that part of the class would have been based on 13 weekly assignments, now it's based out of 11. (Sadly, this can be a little hard to administer depending how you calculate grades.) Alternatively, they can be asked to make up the work; it is the responsibility of students to keep up with the courses they've enrolled in, either by auditing them while deciding or making up what they missed, so it's reasonable to ask them to do the assignment on a reasonably short time scale (I usually like two weeks, which should be enough time to avoid excessive overlap with any other commitments, but one week would be appropriate if the assignments are short and it's not an exam-laden week).

  • 19
    There's actually an easy way to substitute scores for missed grades in a traditional spreadsheet. Take the average of the completed assignments and set the missed grades as the average. So if you have a 87% average in 11 assignments, the remaining 2 missed assignments would both get assigned scores of 87% as well (as opposed to 0% or excluded) This keeps the overall weight of the assignments equal in your spreadsheet.
    – Compass
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:20
  • 30
    Personally, I really don't like corrupting my data records by overwriting actual test scores (or blanks) with other numbers for grading purposes. (Later: Did that student really do assignment 1 or not?) Another option perhaps is to give all students a computed grade of max(avg-of-13, avg-of-last-11). Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 19:39
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    @Mehrdad: Yes, it's unreasonable to ask a student to fully participate in several extra courses, adding a third to a half to their workload, just for the privilege (?) of adding courses the way the school's policies say they can. It's doubly unfair when the request is physically impossible because the courses happen at the same time (or, as Daniel Collins points out, because they may not know which class they'll be assigned to). Joining a class late and having to catch up is penalty enough; starting them with 0s is unfair (to them and to other professors) and serves no educational purpose.
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 23:39
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    @Mehrdad: That's exactly what I mean by undermining policy: demanding that students either do lots of extra work or operate under a more restrictive policy ("commit early"). You're calling for a different policy ("plan ahead") that matches your values and pretending your values are so universal ("That's what adults do") that they justify imposing that policy unilaterally. They don't. If your school's add rules are more generous than you like, you push to change them, you don't pretend that being asked to follow them is some unreasonable demand that you "dance around" your students.
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 1:40
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    At my institution, the official policy is that students are not allowed to attend classes they're not registered for (devpolicylibrary.gatech.edu/student-life/d.-attending-classes). This would make it difficult for a professor to require students to attend classes while on the waitlist. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 4:24

No, it is not. Some accommodation must be made, either in how the grade is generated, or preferably, with an opportunity to make up the work. The latter discourages gaming your calendar.

Three or four weeks, though, is ridiculous. If they were in the class by all but their official registration, they should have found a way, or you should have found them a way, to turn in assignments.


My solution to this is to have a certain number of low or missing assignments dropped from each student's weighted total at the end of the semester, and to have this number be at least as many assignments as in the add/drop period. So then I think it is fair in this case for late-adds to get zero on those assignments; they can still conceivably get top marks for the course, but they're working without a safety net. And the rule and processing is uniform for all students. I don't recall any major complaints after I explain the drop policy to late-adders.

  • 1
    This is my solution to the problem.
    – march
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:49
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    Don't students still complaint that it's not "fair" because they didn't have a choice of what homework to drop?
    – user541686
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 2:34
  • @Mehrdad: No, I've never heard that complaint. Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 3:54
  • 1
    I don't see it that way either, but I've seen other students who do see it that way, because they view this as "this guy had 2 chances to avoid doing the homework he don't like, but I didn't". They feel they don't have a chance to make a decision about not doing the homework in the first place.
    – user541686
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 4:41
  • 2
    content, maybe not, but, from overload of work from other classes? for sure. A lot of people might, at some point, do the maths, and if even missing assignment X and getting a 0 guarantees them a 8/10, it's worth to spend that time in Y assignment due next week that they need to pass that class, instead of failing that class but gaining a small decimal advantage on yours.
    – CptEric
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 8:04

Yes, it is absolutely ethical, if and only if students have access to the necessary resources, including this homework policy, from the beginning of the semester, regardless of whether they are officially registered.

I've had an "adding late does not excuse missing homework" policy in my syllabus for years, partly as a defense mechanism against the long waiting lists my classes usually start with, and partly to avoid students missing important early material that they will need later in the course. Moreover, I prioritize the waiting list by the initial homework scores, and I actually remove students from the waiting list if they don't submit homework.

In short, if you want to add my course late, you must demonstrate that you have engaged with the early course material, because otherwise, you're going to be totally lost later.

But to make sure this is fair, I release all my homeworks on the public course web site (not behind some stupid password-protected LMS), along with lecture notes and recordings of the actual lectures. Moreover, the TAs and graders do not know which students are officially registered; they grade everything that is submitted. The additional work is a minimal burden on the course staff, which quickly fades out as registered students drop out and active students take their place in the official roster.

Being officially registered for a class is a mere administrative hurdle. It has no bearing on the students' ability to do the work.

  • 4
    @Mehrdad You don't need to release the homework publicly — True, but it's much simpler than the alternative. I don't have time to deal with 100+ students coming to my office to get an extra copy of the homework.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:46
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    @iheanyi You say that like requiring profs to post course materials publicly would be a bad thing.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:47
  • 1
    @JeffE: It is indeed, no doubt about that. But some LMS allow you to add students who aren't in the official roster, so you don't have to print it for them or something. So if you don't feel like releasing it publicly (many don't), you can just ask for their names at the first few lectures so you can add them.
    – user541686
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:47
  • 1
    I actually think it is a good thing to post materials publicly. But, I'm pretty confident (based on my personal limited experience at 3 different schools and anecdotal reports from friends at a few others), that this is not the norm. So, I was criticizing your answer since it's based on an assumption, which I feel is critical to your answer, that's not safe to generalize.
    – iheanyi
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 23:11
  • 2
    So you have 100 students on a wait list, who for all intents and purposes take the course, but don't get time allowed for it in their schedules? Sounds like you basically reject the notion of "adding a class late", which is fine as long as the university doesn't create the opposite pressure. You can't add late, but you can start the course and then drop out at the point where the university informs you that the list is closed and there's no prospect of getting any credit for it. Are you in fact teaching a MOOC with a small sideline in university credits for a select few participants? ;-) Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 17:03

In general, I would say "no", it isn't fair. Further, you may be promoting the appearance that you are penalizing someone for wanting to take YOUR class, even though that might not be your intent.

The school policy, apparently, allows students to add classes late. Your policy makes it appear you are contradicting the school policy.

In general, I believe this policy makes you appear unreasonable. Students will come and go, but you will remain and so will your reputation.


Yes, it absolutely is. Assuming this is a taught course, students who join three or four weeks late have missed substantial instruction. In the U.S. four weeks is more than a quarter of a semester.

However, you must set the date of the first assignment at least a couple of days later than the official drop/add date. Students who join during drop/add may have to scurry to catch up, but they ought to expect that.

Of course, I've made the assumption that there is an official drop/add date, and that it is reasonable compared to the duration of the course, e.g. seven days for a 16-week semester. If not, that's a large problem, and one to take to the Faculty Senate or a similar body. Having students join a class at arbitrary times during a term seriously compromises the quality of instruction for the entire class and abuses the instructor.

If there is not an official drop/add date or the drop/add period is long compared to the duration of the course, then you must make accommodation for students who enter late. As Scott Seidman has already written, that should be to allow time to make up the work, not by changing the grading plan for those students.

  • 16
    I strongly disagree. At my institution (and possibly OP's), the add deadline is three weeks into the semester; it would be unreasonable to delay regular assignments for weeks because of that. Indeed, I would argue that one should prefer to have returned at least one graded assignment prior to the drop deadline (assuming the timing and nature of the course make that possible) so that students underprepared for the course have more warning.
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 13:40
  • 1
    @Henry In your circumstance, I agree with you on both points, and I have edited my answer to reflect that agreement. I work with a 7-day drop/add deadline. In my case, it is impossible to return graded work before the deadline for large classes, and reasonable to make the first assignment due shortly after drop/add. (I also have to say that a three week period seems unreasonable to me.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 13:53
  • 1
    My undergrad institution actually had a three week add deadline out of ten weeks (though even the students understood that this was extreme and that joining a class you hadn't been auditing after three weeks was an unusual and risky choice). My views on the importance of following the add rule are influenced by the professor who wouldn't let me add a course because I'd missed the first day and felt that allowing any additions would mess up his teaching style. In retrospect, this was unfair not only to me, but to his colleagues who had to pick up his slack by teaching students he wouldn't.
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 14:10
  • 1
    @Henry I agree that professors should follow the institution's drop/add rule. In fact, before your comment, it never occurred to me that one wouldn't. I'd have an unpleasant chat with my department chair if I tried that.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 14:32
  • Consider also the following situations in which a student may add late: 1) being waitlisted because the class was full, 2) changing majors shortly after semester start, 3) replacing a class they dropped to maintain full-time status, 4) changing sections due to unforeseen scheduling conflicts
    – Tristan
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 16:21

Giving zeros to late-joiners is only fair if you have it stated in the syllabus (or otherwise communicated it in a way accessible to them).

A better solution, balancing fairness to the student and the professor, is to give them the same amount of time to complete all overdue assignments starting with the enrollment cutoff. For example, if four one-week assignments have been graded and a fifth is announced at the start of week 5, then give all new students one week to finish all five assignments and be caught up.


Even if there are no problems at all and all students do all the assignments and sit the exam as planned, it's not 100% fair, because assignments and exams are an inaccurate way to assess students' capabilities. So, the usual system is already a compromise, but it's the only practical way we can teach and evaluate how well the students have mastered the subject. So, we must not pretend as if any particular system we use for assignments and exams is the perfect gold standard such that upholding that gold standard becomes the main goal. This mistaken attitude leads to this whole idea that you could give students zero points for missed assignments, even if missing the assignments was beyond the control of the students.

The students are there to master the subject, the Prof. is there to teach the students. The system of assignments and exams exists to help facilitate this, we're not there to religiously uphold the rules, to make the rules the main issue when fixing problems. If there are problems with the assignments, you have to go back to basics and think about how you can best assess how well the students are mastering the course.


In the light of students being able to exploit the late entry to avoid having to do assignments, it sounds fair to the rest of the class who had to actually do the work, that late entries be given zero.

Trying to find the middle ground, e.g. having the due date after the late entries cut-off date, or handing out the assignment to the new students with a few days to get it done, sounds like a good idea.


I'm not instructor, but I am a recent student so I'll throw my opinion into the ring.

Based on the following:

  • Whether or not students are physically capable of attending the class is case by case, and may (almost certainly will) depend on factors outside of your visibility or the student's control
  • Students trying to take high-demand classes will often wait for slots to open post-kickoff because of enrolled students dropping the class, and it's not usually reasonable to expect students to do classwork for several extra classes while waiting for such a chance to appear
  • I don't think I have ever met anyone in my entire educational career who waited to register for a class in order to deliberately get out of doing the early assignments
  • Since it's before the add drop date, it may be out of your hands anyway, check university policy or ask other instructors
  • It doesn't really reflect life after school. Most companies' hiring processes are agnostic to concepts like application windows
  • As an instructor it's your job to teach the students the material, and judge them fairly based on how well they know it, so from that perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense to penalize otherwise possibly bright students for missing some sessions before adding the class.

A compromise is your best option. If they miss a very small portion of the class assignments, less than a few percentage points, perhaps just drop those grades from their average. If they miss a larger amount of work, consider allowing them to complete those assignments (or similar ones that cover the same material) for some amount of credit.

Anecdotally, when I was taking classes, most of the instructors with large class sizes (often the physics and mathematics courses, which are required for many majors and where there were sometimes 100+ students per instructor) had just such an alternate version of each homework assignment planned out in advance for just the occasion of students missing work due to circumstances outside of their control (late add, emergency travel, etc)


It's not fair to allow new students to add a class but then penalize their grades; you need to give late adds a reasonable chance to make up the work that they have missed. (In addition, this will let them catch up on learning that they have missed.)

Another answer suggested that students should do the work speculatively while waiting to be formally added to the class, but this may not be feasible: if I'm on the waiting list for 9 different classes I'm not going to do 9 different assignments just in case. (This is especially problematical if I'm on the wait list for multiple classes in the same time slot -- I can't even sit in on all of them.)

If there is critical work that students will have missed if they add the class at the deadline then ask the university for an exception to the late add policy, and be prepared to have your request denied.

  • If you're on the waiting list for nine classes, it sounds like you've got other problems. Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 10:30
  • @PhilipSchiff at a large university it would not be uncommon for a student who wanted to take a popular class to get on the waiting list for every section that fit in their schedule, or for a student to get on a waiting list for a variety of classes that meet a particular graduation requirement. (This is not always just a matter of poor planning, either -- when I was in school there were required classes in my major that filled up the day that registration opened.)
    – arp
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 15:04

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