95 days to fall: Incomplete grades

I’ve been doing an awful lot of thinking lately about incomplete grades. Namely, this: How many incomplete grades can and/or should an instructor award before it becomes excessive?

As I started thinking about this blog post a few days ago, I did some Googling around to see if there were other like-minded academics mulling over this question. I didn’t find much (if you’ve written something, or know of something, please let me know!!), but I did find this utter delight of a blog post from Steve Krause, “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” (Personal aside: Steve, I’m especially charmed by the prolific swearing. Huge fan. HUGE.)

But in general, apart from a glut of college policies (written for students) about what an incomplete grade is and how to resolve it (generally with rather heavy-handed, threatening language around what happens if you don’t resolve the incomplete within a certain timeframe), I just couldn’t find much about the use of incomplete grades from the faculty member’s perspective.

What I did find by way of research study was … jarring. A 2015 article in the Journal of Education and Practice, “Reducing Unnecessary Accumulation of Incomplete Grades: A Quality Improvement Project,” left me feeling a bit … edgy. The author asserts, “When many students are not accomplishing their requirements on time, it reflects a negative attitude needing correction.” (emphasis added)

Does anyone else cringe when thinking about student attitudes that need correction? ‘Cause I know I do.

Sidebar: That time I requested two I’s

My first year in a graduate program, for which I’d relocated to a new state with my then-husband, life unraveled fairly quickly. By the time finals came around, it was clear our marriage wasn’t going to survive the move, and I found myself needing to find an apartment, move my stuff out of our shared residence, and figure out how to find enough money to support myself in graduate school when I had been depending on his professional techie job to pay for most of our shared expenses. In short: It was chaos.

A lifelong model student, I was loathe to ask for special accommodations, but the experience taught me much, including humility; I simply couldn’t muster the focus necessary to write my final research papers and projects that semester, so I begged my professors for more time (i.e., incomplete grades) and, once I’d moved out, hustled out of town to lick my emotional wounds at my parents’ house the next state over.

Those I’s stayed on my transcript until it was time for me to take my comprehensive exams. At that time, I finished up my research papers (and did well on them, I might add) and felt the tidal wave of relief wash over me.

Had I not been able to petition for incompletes and had the time (about 18 months) to resolve them, I honestly would have taken it as a sign that graduate school wasn’t for me and left. Given that I’m now living my Very Best Life doing the job I know I was born to do? I’m really glad I did not then, and do not now, live in that alternate reality.

Incompletes should be rare … or should they?

I think most higher ed faculty believe that incompletes should be rare events, bestowed upon those students who are in dire life circumstances (as I was, back in 2008) and who’ve already demonstrated the ability and persistence to complete a large chunk of the course’s work. This is true for most of my colleagues, and it was true of me … until roughly May 2020, when it was time to compute and submit final grades during our first COVID semester.

The mantra of our school during that first pandemic semester, repeated constantly in meetings and emails, was simple: “Give one another grace.” I translated that to mean, for my students, “If you need an Incomplete, for any reason whatsoever, let’s chat about that.” It felt like the “give students grace” thing to do; honestly, I never questioned the impulse, one I’ve maintained throughout the pandemic.

I’m not sure I’ve ever allowed more than one or two incomplete grades in my 15+ year teaching career, until COVID. But over the last year? I’ve probably allowed roughly 15-20% of my students, every semester, to opt for the I instead of what would be a failing grade.

As my college and my colleagues start returning to a mindset approaching “normal,” though, I’m feeling some pressure to return to the status quo of the rare incomplete.

(Aside: As I write this, I cannot stop thinking about the way many talk about abortion: “It should be safe and rare.” I know there are very real differences between abortions and incomplete grades, HUGE differences, but it does strike me that the impulse in both circumstances is similar. In both cases, we’re talking about making policy that dictates another person’s future life == so in both cases, we’re hoping to create policy incentives that shape the behavior we wish others to engage in == so in both cases, we’re essentially trying to control someone else’s behavior without knowing the particulars of their life circumstances. While our impulses might be benevolent, is this really what we intend to do? Ok. End of digression.)

Why do incomplete grades need to be rare?
What tangible learning outcome is served by saying to a student, “You’ve done half of the coursework, which is not enough, so go back and start at the beginning?”
Who decided incompletes were bad?

As higher education faces down the demographic challenges ahead, and as we attempt to bring people back into our classrooms in a hopefully-post-COVID world (because right now, the numbers are BLEAK, y’all), we must be innovative and meet our students where they are even more than we already do. In my state, Western Governor’s University is a viable alternative to bricks-and-mortar colleges like mine; there, students pay a flat-rate tuition for six months at a time, completing as many courses as their life will allow. My college simply cannot compete with that if we’re militantly wedded to the notion that incomplete grades should be vanishingly rare.

I’m not saying that I think a fifth of my students, in perpetuity, should be getting incomplete grades in my classes. I’m also not not saying that’s okay by me.

If higher education is meant to be focused on helping our students reach their goals, and if sometimes those students need more time, and if learning is all about making mistakes, trying again, and persisting until we master something hard … WHY must students pay to take the same class multiple times? Why must they start each new attempt with a clean slate?

Over the last few years, I’ve invested in some personal development courses that have been life-changing — Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Facilitators Training (for women who want to conquer their apprehension about playing bigger in their lives; totally amazing and highly recommended) and Irene Lyon’s SmartBody SmartMind program (for those who want to understand and better master their nervous systems; also totally amazing and highly recommended). In both instances, I paid a flat fee, and I’m allowed to join (as an alum) future iterations of the course — even after it’s been revised! — at no additional cost. These savvy business women recognize that having alum go through more than once serves several functions:

  • You learn more on a second exposure. Allowing alums to work through the programs a second time generates deeper learning.
  • Alumni can help guide and coach newbies. And as faculty, we know that when you can help someone else learning something, you deepen your own learning.
  • Giving alumni a chance to continue their relationship with you makes them feel more invested in your programs, your services, and your brand. And while as faculty we might want to shudder at anything that feels like marketing, the fact is, we could all do (in this tough economic landscape for higher ed) with higher brand satisfaction/loyalty.

So what am I saying?

I’m challenging my higher education colleagues to step back and ask themselves: Are incomplete grades really such a bad thing? Maybe they are. But I think this is one cultural norm that’s due for a closer examination.

Come back soon for more installments of the #100DaysToFall series.

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