As a state university adjunct I get a fair number of students who start classes are finding themselves unprepared, have unforeseen events (job, home, personal), which impact their ability to complete the course in a timely fashion. I tend to offer an incomplete as a way to permit the student to complete the work, and achieve the best results possible. Normally, I do not ask for "proof" of the excuse.

Recently, I had peers admonish me, with the argument that my approach was reducing revenue for faculty. It was argued that normally, the proper way is to let the student withdraw, and then re-enroll the next term. That way there are two instances of the faculty getting paid to conduct the course.

In my case, the normal incremental work for me to handle an incomplete is rather small, and I have been perhaps a bit liberal in the interest that the students get a good value from their academic experience. I have taught at three universities, and pretty much had the same practice at each. However, I have getting considerable flack, so thought I would get additional input from a diverse community.

How is the assignment of an incomplete grade practically handled at your institution, and what are the thresholds for qualification for that grade? Is it appropriate to offer incomplete grades without requiring a particular level of hardship or requesting proof of that hardship?

Thank you.

Addendum #1 There is no clear cut answer to the question I posed, but there is value in understanding the perspectives of others. And in this case, there is no right or wrong response. However, to add clarity, I will provide two examples of recent incomplete grades, so that the context is more clear.

Before I do that, I will add, with some reservation, additional general details. The bulk of the students I teach are distance learning students. The majority however, are in state. My institution is part of a large state university system, and tends to serve more non-traditional students, and certainly students in non-traditional settings.

The first instance is Beth, who has been a student of mine in the past. Beth works as a clerk in a public institution and is married with a 2yo girl. When I first had her as a student, I was told by her adviser that she was an excellent student. My experience confirmed that. The third term that I had Beth, she was taking four courses, trying to complete her degree soon, working full time, and raising a 2 yo girl. She was taking two advanced level technical courses from me, and our meetings were conducted on the phone. Somewhere mid-term she mentioned that she was pregnant and would be delivering in a couple of weeks, but would make up the work immediately. She probably would, but I told her that she had a lot on her plate, and as far as I was concerned she had a few more important things than her weekly assignments, and that should it make things easier for her, an incomplete would be possible, and explained how it would work. Her words were that she would not need that, but thanks for the offer. I told her that since the end of the term was getting close, that if I didn't hear from her for some reason, unless she objected I would assign her an incomplete in both courses. It turns out she had the baby, underestimated how tired she would be, and the demands of two children. I didn't hear from her until the last week of the term. It turns out that her other two instructors were unwilling to cut her any slack in deliverables, so my two courses took that hit. Fine by me. Within three weeks of the term being over, all of Beth's work had been submitted and was exemplary.

I was chastised by two peers, who pointed out that Beth knew she would be delivering a baby mid-term, and that she could have lowered her course load or even eliminated going to school for that term. I countered that in a job setting, a pregnancy is a medical matter, and I knew of no employer who wasn't expected to give time off for a new child.

Shortly after the situation with Beth, another student, Burt, who was doing good work for the first 4 weeks of the term, contacted me and apologized and said he would have to withdraw from his course. I suggested that we have one more phone conference to discuss things. Burt, like more than half my students, is an immigrant, and is struggling to learn, obtain credentials, get a better job, and well, we all know the stories. So Burt had signed up for 5 courses, and was overloaded (no kidding). But Burt's wife's hours had increased, and she couldn't say no, because he had lost his job, and she was the sole means of support. Furthermore, his wife's sister who had been nannying their kids, had to go back home on short notice. So Burt was suddenly unemployed, working a course overload, trying to make ends meet, and now watching two young children. He was overwhelmed, and didn't think he could get all his coursework done. From my perspective, he had learned a valuable lesson in over-committing. In Burt's course, he had completed the first phase, and the remainder of the course was three research papers and a final exam. I offered an incomplete, explained how it would work, and pointed out that our need to meet, and his need to use online materials was reducing. We could schedule the exam when he was ready, and he could write the three papers and submit them as he was able. The long and short was that Burt finished the other four courses, and received good grades. He completed the work for my course within 8 weeks of the end of the term. He did well in my course, and his papers were well written. He continues to work on his degree, and told me he will never sign up for an overload again.

In both the case of Beth and Burt, I did not feel that I had students shopping for incomplete grades. I did feel the students were financially strapped, time limited, resource limited, and that by offering incompletes, they were able to convert a situation which would probably cost them more tuition, cause their degree to take more time, and have an element of discouragement to their academic efforts.

The relationship between educators and students can be a special one. Kind of like a doctor-patient relationship. Or it can be a rather quantitative relationship of assignments, rubrics and graded outcomes. Having worked in the scientific and aerospace community for four decades, I have had a large number of relatively new hires working for me. Many come ill-prepared for work in industry. So in my courses, I have exercises which are similar to what they might encounter in industry. While I don't have specific exercises for how to treat people, I figure that a certain percentage of them will be supervisors, managers and leaders, and I want them to have developed judgment and experienced being "human." So I try to set an example and treat them as I would a valued employee.

  • 3
    This question can not have a generic answer which would fit all universities. Each university has its own regulations. The question should add further details (without disclosing univ. name) to get an answer.
    – Coder
    Jun 20, 2017 at 14:31
  • I'm a bit surprised that you find your work for an incomplete to be small. For me it's the opposite; a student who can't attend at the end usually also "ghosts" me when I try to schedule makeup work and/or exams. It almost always turns into a lot of wasted time on my end, such that I'm now very loathe to give incompletes. (I will note I had other procedures that worked when I was an adjunct, that didn't scale when I became full-time.) Also, it's a trap for students, who usually do much worse on the final months later than if they'd taken it at the end of the course. Jun 20, 2017 at 15:28
  • 5
    "the argument that my approach was reducing revenue for faculty" - I could see some arguments for fairness or academic rigor (i.e., it's unfair to give out incompletes without due cause when other students are making sacrifices and weighing different requirements against each other to complete their courses in normal time), but this particular argument struck me as...unusual. I'm a bit concerned about a situation where the faculty feels benefited by students failing a course.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 20, 2017 at 19:38
  • 1
    This question as currently phrased isn't really the type that we look for on this forum, as it will simply yield a list of "here's what my university does" answers, which you can look up yourself on different websites. Maybe consider refactoring to a "what's best practice" question? Not sure how to best fix this one.
    – eykanal
    Jun 20, 2017 at 20:07
  • 1
    @mongo Oh I understand why they feel that way. I'm just surprised and a bit appalled by that approach.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 20, 2017 at 20:57

6 Answers 6


Recently, I had peers admonish me, with the argument that my approach was reducing revenue for faculty.

It is you who should be admonishing your peers, not them you. Your responsibility in deciding whether to give a student an incomplete grade is to do what in your estimation will lead to the best educational outcome for the student, subject to practical constraints on your time, availability etc. No other considerations should play a role, certainly not the desire to maximize the institution's revenue even when that goes against what you perceive to be the interests of the student. Frankly, I find your peers' argument to be blatantly unethical, and their willingness to not only admit to such an attitude but to even admonish you for not having it yourself to be quite disturbing.

How is the assignment of an incomplete grade practically handled at your institution, and what are the thresholds for qualification for that grade?

At my institution, the criteria for an incomplete grade are described as follows:

According to Academic Senate Regulations, the grade of Incomplete ('I') may be assigned when a student’s work is of passing quality and represents a significant portion of the requirements for a final grade, but is incomplete for a good cause as determined by the instructor; good cause may include current illness, serious personal problems, an accident, a recent death in the immediate family, a large and necessary increase in working hours or other situations of equal gravity.

The key phrase is "as determined by the instructor".

Is it appropriate to offer incomplete grades without requiring a particular level of hardship or requesting proof of that hardship?

Yes, it is appropriate (at my institution at least), though perhaps not wise, depending on the situation and the nature of the hardship claimed.

Finally, I should add that in my own experience, giving someone an incomplete is usually not the big favor they think it is, and in fact often ends up being a disservice to the student. Count me in with those who think incompletes should be given very sparingly, but for educational reasons rather than those cited by your colleagues.


At my institution, a part of the University System of Georgia, a grade of incomplete is allowed "only when the student has done satisfactory work up to the last two weeks of the semester, but for nonacademic reasons beyond his/her control is unable to meet the full requirements of the course."

Both the "last two weeks" part and the burden of proof required are at least somewhat subject to interpretation by the professor. The worse the non-academic event, the more liberal I'd probably be about timing. We do have a hardship withdrawal process for truly difficult circumstances.

Personally, I am very sparing with grades of incomplete. The last one was several years ago, for a deaf student who didn't tell me he was deaf, so I did not arrange accommodation for him.

I expect students who start a class unprepared to withdraw; a student who is failing at mid-term shapes up or fails the course.

  • 1
    I have to say, I like that they spell out conditions for the incomplete. Even if an individual professor might be more liberal, it at least establishes some nominal starting point. I've done it a number of times, but always for serious illnesses, with the idea that (a) they'll finish up and get the grade I expected them to get, (b) they'll not finish, it converts to an F and then (b1) they take a retroactive medical/hardship withdraw making the F disappear or (b2) just take the F (long explanation, but regrettably sometimes this is preferable to the withdrawal) Jun 20, 2017 at 15:00
  • I also like that you have the "last two weeks" threshold spelled out; my institution is more ambiguous, which can be frustrating. Jun 20, 2017 at 15:28

The Associate Dean called yesterday, and this topic came up. The guidance I received was that he recognized the effort I made in assuring favorable outcomes for students, and encouraged me to take all liberties within policy to do so.

He went on to state that the institution incomplete policy left the decision solely with me, and that he supports and agrees with my decisions.

Furthermore, he stated that while some faculty may have opinions as to how students who encounter difficulties should handle matters, the fairness and benefit to the student should tilt any actions. He acknowledged that he had received "a couple of" complaints, and that he dismissed those, and encouraged those to work harder at student outcomes. He went on to state that student retention is more important than an additional "click" of tuition.

This isn't intended as a competing answer, as I am merely reporting an outcome at my institution.

  • 2
    I'll say that this is usually how the opinions point on this matter. The dean's budgetary concern is to the institution as a whole ("retention" being code word for "ongoing college revenue"). The faculty's budgetary concern is to their courses. Jun 22, 2017 at 15:01
  • I think the standard for "update" posts is to put them in a comment or edit to the original post, never as an answer (StackExchange is quite protective over what exactly an answer is).
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 22, 2017 at 17:13

I tend to follow your general idea. We don't have a specific "incomplete" grade at our university, but students can be "lawfully absent" on an exam and can take that exam later on. This is especially for people who get ill during the exam period or who have serious life events like the departure of a loved one.

But there is an important difference in our approaches: I do request at all times proof for the circumstances. Otherwise any student who didn't feel like studying and fears he/she isn't going to make it, will attempt to get an incomplete. So I reckon part of the slack you get, is because you appear pretty naive in your approach. I can guarantee you that students know those things, and students will try to get an incomplete because they know you give one easily.

So that would be one way of dealing with the criticism while still giving your students a fair (and not overly expensive) shot at getting a grade.

On a sidenote: I teach in an advanced masters course, so many of our students are already on the job market. Therefor we also give all students a chance to change the date of their exam to a more suitable one well before the exams actually take place. Again, the point is to facilitate the students, not to give students without proper commitment another chance.


At my previous university, two similar departments put together online masters programs. From my understanding the programs were launched with the goal of teaching people that are currently have a 9-5 job and want to do school part time. But, these online programs were also launched under the guise of being highly profitable for the departments, as similar online programs had been. I'm not sure of the perspective of your peers, but they could be thinking that the goal of the program is one of profit not necessarily student success.


At my institution, a grade of Incomplete indicates that the student has received an extension from the dean of their college to complete final exam or other requirements of a course. Individual instructors cannot give Incomplete grades directly. Instead, the student must submit a petition to their dean, with the instructor's signature indicating their approval, and the dean makes the final decision.

In practice, approval for an Incomplete requires serious extenuating circumstances (like Beth's pregnancy or Burt's family crisis in the original post). Poor performance in the course is not sufficient.

Incomplete grades automatically become Fs after the eighth week of the following semester if the student is still enrolled, or after one calendar year if the student leaves the university.

However, faculty also have the ability to request a grade correction, and these requests are routinely granted—even years after the course has ended—as long as the new grade is higher than the old one. Thus, there is an informal mechanism for instructors to offer extensions and/or makeup work beyond the end of the course (or the eight-week deadline for clearing an Incomplete). In practice, at least in my department, very few students exercise this option.

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