As a teacher, I've often had students say that they turned in an assignment, but that because I don't see it, grade it, and return it back to them, that I must have lost their papers/assignments. I tend to be disorganized at times, so it's hard for me to confidently say that I really haven't lost their papers. To make matters worse, I have lost a student paper or two over the years only to find it weeks later.

How should I respond?


  • Many have noted electronic submission. I'm assuming for this question that students turn in something physical that I could theoretically lose. ;-) This also allows this question to be applicable to schools that may not use electronic submission.
  • 18
    What level (high school, university) are we talking about? What you could do is implement some kind of system that let's you retrace such things. So either you have your own list and you write down that you received the paper or every student has a list and you have to sign/stamp it once you got the paper.
    – user64845
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 16:53
  • 6
    One thing that comes to mind is that they sign a list as they turn it in, and you watch as they hand you the paper and sign. This would greatly slow down the process, though. Commented May 1, 2017 at 18:38
  • 27
    Ok, you can tell them "you are allowed to get a receipt when handing in the paper". :P Commented May 1, 2017 at 18:38
  • 22
    @AndreaLazzarotto you jest, but that's literally how exams are done in Portugal. There was a perforated corner on the exam booklets where you put your name and the course and when you hand it in the professor or proctor signs it and tears it off so you have proof of having taken the exam. Commented May 1, 2017 at 19:34
  • 5
    You can't "prevent students from saying [you] lost their paper" when you did in fact loose their papers.
    – Jeff
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 14:05

19 Answers 19


First, get organized.

You need a good defence. Make sure that you are not at fault.

What I've done is to put student assignments in a folder and keep it entirely separate from any other papers I have. When I bring their assignments home, I transport them in a plastic bag to further distinguish them and prevent papers from falling out somehow. For situations where the class turns in lots of assignments and students don't always pick up their graded assignments, papers can get out of order, so I make sure to keep each assignment in a separate folder, or I put all graded assignments in a single stack alphabetized by last name. I know with full certainty that students' assignments are in my "to-grade" folder, or my "to-return" folder, and nowhere else.

Second, respond to the student

If they say you've lost their paper, give them the benefit of the doubt by looking through your stack. If it's not there, you know it won't be anywhere else, short of a devious third-party intervention, and you can tell them so. :-)


  • Use an electronic submission dropbox (e.g. Blackboard, D2L, etc.).
    • You could have students email their assignments to you, but there's always the possibility that it gets caught in your spam filter. If you did this, you should send them an email ASAP to confirm that you received their submission.
  • Keep all papers in a single room: never take them home to grade, etc.
  • Keep a list of students who submitted their work as they turn it in.
  • Scan in assignments, keep an electronic copy and send the copy to students (idea from @MadMyche, in the comments below).
  • 11
    Well, OP is talking mainly about college/university. Every student has an university mail adress (I assume that's the case at every university) and those won't get caught in the spam filter.
    – user64845
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 19:18
  • 3
    A way to avoid false spam positives is to have each student tell you in advance what address they will use to send you the assignment, or perhaps require the use of institutional addresses. Then you can whitelist them.
    – fkraiem
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 4:08
  • 14
    @DSVA "Every student has an university mail adress (...) and those won't get caught in the spam filter." [citation needed]
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:21
  • 8
    @DSVA I completely agree with all your points. I think it would have been better phrased as "(...) and those shouldn't get caught in the spam filter". My comment was half tongue-in-cheek, half warning. As a student in an Engineering School, I've seen... things. i.e. a department policy that sent to spam every email that came from a student who was not enroled in a class by that teacher. The enrolments cache was,of course,arbitrarily updated; and most teachers were not even aware of this filter. From the student council, we managed to get it revoked but boy was it troublesome to discover it.
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:42
  • 8
    +1 for keep a list. Have the list ALWAYS at hand where a student may hand in their paper. Have the student sign the list off. They may still say they turned it in and you didn't have the list for them to sign, but if you stick to that procedure, you have a check for yourself AND stronger evidence on your side.
    – Layna
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:47

Have the students write date, their name and the title of the assignment into the lower right corner of the first page.

When you receive a paper, put a stamp/short signature next to that, cut off the corner, and hand it back to the student. It'll serve as a receipt. There are even stamps with an "auto-increment" feature, which produce serial numbers.

Now, no one can claim you've lost some paper which has never been in existence, and no one can use the cut-off corners for a different assignment (you don't even have to collect them when returning the graded papers).

Next step: do not lose papers.

  • 29
    This seems... time consuming. Commented May 1, 2017 at 20:16
  • 8
    Stamping and cutting (or tearing off) a paper corner is not that time consuming; and that's the only time the teacher has to invest. If a student doesn't want to write date/name/title a second time, that's perfectly ok... but she or he won't get a receipt then, and can't claim the teacher has lost something later.
    – jvb
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 20:29
  • 7
    This relies on the signature/stamp not be forgable. As you are handing out reems of samples to duplicate, this becomes tricky to prevent.
    – Yakk
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 20:32
  • 3
    Some kind of receipt system is the only way to improve on simple trust and say-so. Electronic submission includes built-in receipts, which also could be forged. One way to deal with possible forgery is to request another copy of the work when the student claims their receipt is genuine but the teacher can't find the work. If the work was already done and the receipt is genuine, there should be no problem producing another copy. If the forger spent all that time on a forgery, they might not have had enough time to finish the work, so a copy would be harder to produce. Commented May 2, 2017 at 1:34
  • 2
    @jvb The time-consuming part is that the work has to be handed in to the teacher in person, rather than just being left in a pigeonhole or in-tray. Having a stream of students come to me for signatures would be hugely disruptive to my day. It's also hugely disruptive to the students, who would only be able to hand in work while I was in the office, and would have to come back later if I was in a meeting or away for any other reason. Commented May 2, 2017 at 8:57

There are many good answers above. However, for your particular situation (only physical papers, and being realistic) realities of life is that submission within the classroom is rather hectic and you can't check/verify every student submission on the spot.

The way I suggest is simple: you just need to ensure that nothing is/was lost by you. In order to do so:

I place a large envelope (or even a box) on the table, visible enough to ensure no one can take something from it. and require students to place their work in the box/container. All what I need to do is to count the submissions and write down the count before I dismiss the class. If you want even more reassurances, tell the students the count (the latter will have the extra benefit of highlighting how may submissions are missing with out pointing out anyone or spending too much time verifying).

After grading, I know how many I had and how many I graded. If the numbers match, I haven't lost anything.

So, that solution should take you about 60 seconds to implement and no one can possibly claim that their work was lost as long as your numbers match.

  • 2
    Sounds like a very reasonable solution. Instead of an evelope or a box, something like a ballot box (with only one way in, no out) might also be a good idea. Also just have a single place to put submissions will greatly reduce the actual risk of losing something. Commented May 3, 2017 at 10:48

I used to work in a job where I was required to keep a solid paper trail that could be backed up in case something was 'lost'.

The best way to do it is to take a picture of every item that comes in with a cellphone (or digital camera - both super cheap these days!). No need to take a picture of every page, just a picture of the front cover.

You won't need to keep these pictures for long (just until you hand stuff back) and it'll stop it being an issue. Do it as it's handed in, and allow your students to see you do it, in case they're trying to get one over on you as you've lost it before.

If you lose stuff after that, there's not much you can do other than keeping more organised. Have a bag for 'stuff to mark' and 'stuff to hand back'.

  • 4
    This is so much faster and harder to forge than any other method mentioned. Almost everyone has a camera on their phone and the photos will carry date an time information in the meta data, so they can be easily sorted out to show what came in on a given day.
    – Clumsy cat
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:53
  • 2
    I might add: have the student also take a picture at the same time. Otherwise don't put it past someone who accuses a teacher of losing their paper to also accuse a teacher of deleting the photographic evidence.
    – OhBeWise
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 18:03
  • Good point OhBeWise - although they could also delete/lose that picture and claim the teacher lost it. I'd suggest a sign in register where you both sign in the work - if their signature is on it and yours is, then it's hard to disprove.
    – Retro
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 0:15

Print a big spreadsheet of names

Just my grain of salt: at my high school, they have a list of students supposed to pass a given test. When we give in our copies, we have to sign it. This serves as proof of work.

You just supervise if they really have signed their work in as they fill it in, and you can log even more info, such as date (or time), number of sheets etc...

This way, you close off many loopholes, and because the students are the ones filling it in, they know they can't cheat this way and won't even try.


I see two alternatives:

(i) When it seems within the realm of reasonable possibility that you've lost a piece of student work, apologize and allow the student to resubmit it. It is by the way a good idea for students to keep copies of the work that they submit. Current technology makes this pretty easy independently of the format -- e.g. by taking cell phone pictures of handwritten work.

(ii) Get more organized, so that when a student claims you've lost their work, you can be confident and convincing that you haven't.

As for me, I mostly go with (i) for things like written homework (which tend to pass through a grader's hands before they get back to me; lots of opportunities for loss there), but I favor (ii) for exams: I have never lost an exam, and I would happily stare down a student who said I did.

  • 1
    I would +2 if I could. The simple solution of trusting the students telling the truth. And for those who are worried this courtesy might be misused: (1) If you get organized and are sure you haven't lost anything, you will deny the claim. (2) If someone tries the same stunt twice, it won't work. In fact, it's extremely unlikely that a person would try this stunt twice - it's risky and draws to much attention/scrutiny.
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 8:52

Electronic submission is the best. I couple this with simultaneous printed submissions. If they give it to me in print, it's on time but I expect an electronic copy ASAP and likewise if it's in online, I'll expect a print copy ASAP. (I personally wouldn't mind printing them, but the way our LMS works it can take me a solid minute or two to print each, and that's an hour or two wasted).

On test day, I take roll and ensure that I got each person's test (this is as much for the students as for the instructor, to make sure no stray tests will be floating around before everyone in a multi-section class has taken it). Students can see that literally the moment they walk out and that means no one can claim otherwise.

For anything handed in on paper, I also binder clip them together AND put into a manila envelope. Haven't lost anything yet, although I probably overkill it a bit.

  • 1
    Electronic submission is not always possible.
    – jvriesem
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 17:58
  • 2
    @jvriesem then the rest should apply (although I'm curious how it's not possible, I figure at this point every university has a mostly functional LMS/email system) Commented May 1, 2017 at 18:00
  • 1
    @guifa. It might not be possible for certain artistic classes.
    – TRiG
    Commented May 1, 2017 at 19:22
  • 2
    @Carol Your students would actually be well served by being required to typeset their work in some way (it doesn't have to be LaTeX). I audited a math class a few years ago where submission of homework was only accepted in PDF format via e-mail. Most students used a word processor with an equation editor (available in the school bookstore or as a cloud service at a student discount) and it wasn't a problem. I taught myself LaTeX very quickly and enjoyed that a lot. Anyone going to graduate school or working in the field would be really helped by having the skill of typesetting in some way. Commented May 2, 2017 at 1:40
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox The students would indeed be well served by learning LaTeX but, for most people, typesetting mathematics in LaTeX takes much longer than writing the same stuff by hand. I really don't think that's a good use of a student's time. My experience with teaching mathematical classes with electronic submission is that about half the students would typeset in some way and the other half would scan their hand-written answers. Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:00

You could ask students to save copies and that you might lose papers. Then be liberal in letting students turn in work late.


The best way to prevent students from saying you lost their paper is a) not losing them, and b) keeping a record of the submitted assignments. If you're sometimes disorganized, find a simple, even better: automatic way of record-keeping and stick to it. For example you can achieve a) and b) by accepting only digital assignments that students send by email or upload somewhere. This way, you will also have a time-stamp.


Another form of receipt.

You prepare them outside the test.

The first is a document which contains for each test and each student a randomly selected long number, e.g. 17289346983. This paper is stored at home and never in the office.

Then you print out for each test:

name of the student / number

as a receipt and sort them alphabetically to find them fast. Do that in a copyshop with a cutting machine, it's quite fast.

The students give up their test and get in return their receipt. Any given test without receipt are invalid, so the students will not conveniently "forget" to get their receipt.
Using random numbers that you only know prevents fakes or forgery and is not so work-intensive like signatures (which can be still be forged).

Do not let pressure you for shortcuts or many students demanding them at the same time. Many students => queue. If they coming up with "important reasons" and "no time", their problem. But the students themselves will not really fight the system because you are already known as the professor losing papers (sorry to be blunt, but such blunders will be communicated through the grapevine without mercy).

Otherwise I can only reiterate that you need to get organized one way or the other.

  • 2
    "You prepare them outside the test." I think we're talking about homework assignments, here. Commented May 2, 2017 at 9:02

One strategy I used is that I gave them a sheet of paper with an encrypted confirmation code for each assignment, that was unique to each person and each assignment. I declared if I lost their homework and they had the receipt, they would get full credit. This worked for a small course, and I was very organized to know everyone's name and kept them in a mini filing cabinet that I would take to the course. I forced them to turn everything in by hand to me directly. It is the only thing that has worked with 100% success for me.

This is not a tractable solution for a large course.

  • 1
    QR codes would be a highly valuable tool in a case like that - you can put quite a bit of info in one. Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:33

Well, easy, and has always worked for me: Have a simple table for the assignments. The students hands you an assignment, you make a checkmark in the table. The table is simple: one line per student, one column per assignment. For instance I have a table for checking the attendance anyway, so I would make it one table: the ones handing me an assignment are the ones present; if someone is present but does not hand an assignment, I'd have a special mark for it. Make it clear that it is the student's responsibility to wait for you to note the assignment in the table by the checkmark!

Now, the student can say that you made a second version of the table and omitted this one checkmark. However, that pushes the student from saying you made a mistake to saying you made a deliberate action against the student; this would be a very hard and a completely different blame.


Place the burden of proof on the user.

This involves giving them a receipt. Yes, this can be a physical receipt, which you hand out when they personally hand the assignment to you. The receipt could simply have a number on it. e.g., 631453 for assignment 6, period 3, desk 14, if they have a 5 page document, turned in on Wednesday (the third weekday).

The reason they make this claim (even if it is true) is usually that they don't want to be penalized for lateness. So give them the full benefit of the doubt if they produce a receipt and you can't use that receipt. But if they can't produce the receipt, then regardless of how true their story is, they will not get the points.

Clearly what is described above seems cumbersome. Electronic submissions would be nice. However, you can also customize this process as extensively as you like. For instance, you don't need to hand out a receipt to every student; just the ones who request it. Then, IF they make a claim that you lost things, you can rightfully say that they had a known process to be able to protect themselves from this very issue, and they won't have a foundation to be able to insinuate that their lower GPA is due to something that is your fault and out of their control.

  • Mmm, after I just re-read some of the other articles, what I wrote is a bit more redundant. I suppose the most unique point I make is reducing the instructor's workload by making the proof process optional, as initiated by the student.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 0:38
  • Even though it might seem weird, I find it useful if you are really worried to have such problem.
    – Masclins
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:40

In my teaching jobs in the past, this is what we did, and never had the problem regarding lost work:

  • Remind the students that it is their responsibility to make and maintain a backup of their work.
  • As the student submits their work, they sign and date a master class sheet.
  • I always have the work stored in a labelled document folder (or small box depending on the size of the submissions) - placing each submission in as the students submit it. Ticking each of the names off.
  • Immediately store the document folder in a filing cabinet, with other assessment folders - this is on you to maintain this organisation.

It was suggested to me that if possible, make a photocopy of the submission (or have the student submit a second copy with their original copy) - but this was never necessary as nothing was lost.

Following these steps, I never had the problem of lost work, nor had I been successfully accused of losing work.


I would just ask for an additional copy, either physical or digital. I had an undergrad class where each semester the professor would have a two binders, one to be graded and one for record keeping/reference. You'd personally have to put your hole punched paper into the binder rings, after the class he'd zip the binder close and put in his office. When someone challenged him on having lost a paper he'd just pull out the binder and ask them to find there paper. A majority would "remember" that they didnt turn it in after flipping a few pages.

It was also helpful as future classes could see other project ideas that were presented, page layouts, etc.

  • "etc", not "ect". It's short for et cetera. Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:57
  • You do need to tell people in advance to retain a second copy, though, otherwise they'll say "I don't have one".
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 23:26

Simple is best

The simplest solution is by far the best: Keep an 'attendance sheet' on you for them to sign whilst they give you the assignment. If they don't sign the sheet, the assignment was never submitted.

  • 1
    What if the attend but do not hand an assignment?
    – yo'
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 16:07
  • 2
    The sheet will be signed ONLY when an assignment is submitted. Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:23


Make a list of the students in your class. Make copies of this for all assignments, papers from this class. Leave space for a heading. eg: Math Assignment May 2nd 2017.


Have four columns next to each student name - two for your signature, two for students signature. When the student submits the paper ask him to sign the sheet. When you receive a paper both of you sign. When you give him back the graded paper, again both sign. This way its impossible for the student to lie. Ensure that everyone signs so that no one can say they didn't sign.

Also while handing out graded papers always give them one by one. Leaving graded papers on your desk is a good way for papers to be lost.


  • In many cases, graded papers will be confidential between you and the student. You can't just leave a stack of graded papers on the table for them to collect, because that allows them to see other students' marks. Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:56
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby In my university we do not have names on the papers. Only registration numbers. Unless it is a registration number of someone you know you won't be able to guess who scored what mark. And generally when a teacher leaves a stack of papers, the students all rush to get their own paper; rarely leaving time to see someone else's marks. Also depends if marks are confidential or not. Here, the marks are displayed on a notice board after evaluation- so does'nt matter anyway. Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:22

How about using a low-tech, old-fashioned receipt book? Requires no electronics,a and all your receipts will be in one place. Students hand in assignment, and can fill in the "from" and "for" spaces in your book. You sign them all toward the end of class, and hand out their copies as they leave. receipt book

  • 3
    Your proposal is that the students all hand in work then, later, all get a receipt. Unless you spend a lot of time cross-referencing, you can't be sure that a student claimed a receipt without actually handing anything in. Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:48
  • The real magic isn't really in claiming the receipt as much as logging that the assignment was turned in. The receipt is just a bonus (like a claim check in a coat room) for the student.
    – Xavier J
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:50
  • 5
    There is no magic: your protocol is completely broken. Your proposal is that the student hands in their assignment and logs the fact that they have done this; later, you sign the receipt and give it to them. If you do not check that the work was really handed in when you sign that receipt, then you might be signing a receipt for work that was never handed in, so the protocol is worthless. If you do check, it would be far less time-consuming to do the obvious thing, which is that the student hands in the work, you log that they did this, and you immediately sign a receipt. Commented May 2, 2017 at 23:55

For dispute resolution without the time involved in a formal receipt process, set up a dashcam, and record the physical submissions.

  • 12
    -1 for promoting surveillance which, IMO, is kind of totalitarian and uncalled for in an academic setting (or anywhere really).
    – einpoklum
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 8:49
  • 4
    I have seen this done, once, in my undergrad days - the teacher was in a world of trouble, as this behaviour could very likely contravene the rules of the institution (and the law)
    – user70612
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 22:06
  • I've seen this done before - in China. And I don't think that's the way we do it over here... Commented May 6, 2017 at 12:33
  • @PatricHartmann: Where is "over here"?
    – user111955
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 14:18

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