Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Last Week, Dropping a Class. This Week, 'Pausing' a Class: Behind the Scenes of the Incomplete

My father unexpectedly died just three weeks before I finished a fall semester at my former community college.

My father was 51. I was 21.

I was extraordinarily close to my father, even though we no longer lived together at that time.

His death sent me to my knees.

I was a good student. Then this happened.

Then I became an unfocused student.

I tried to continue with my two classes, but I couldn't. Even with only three weeks until the end of the term, my motivation died with my dad.

I went to see my Public Speaking prof, who was appropriately empathetic. The prof supported me dropping the class. 

I recall that the History prof had been out ill, so I was unable to meet with him.

Like some students I've now had over the years, I simply faded away from that term... and college.

Little did I know that I wouldn't go back for six--yes, six!--years.

When I returned to college at 27, I was serious about it, once again. I had a mission that I didn't have when I attended earlier:  To get the degrees I'd need to become a community college prof. 

I got into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's Post-Secondary Education program (a Bachelor of Science degree). At the same time, I returned to my community college to pick up some inexpensive 100 and 200-level classes that I still needed.

What was waiting for me at the community college?

Not one, but two Big. Fat. "F"s.

My transcript told the tale from those classes that I abruptly left!

The "F" in my Public Speaking class? No problem. I happily retook that course.

History 102? Not so simple. There were other courses to fulfill the core requirement and scheduling issues made that particular course impossible.

The "F" was going to be a big problem for my GPA. On top of that? The prof had retired, so there was no easy way to get him to reverse the grade.

I'll fast-forward to say that everything worked out. I had to jump through some administrative hoops, but my GPA ended up back to its healthy self.

The main point here is that there was another option, one not presented to me at the time:

I could have taken an Incomplete.

What's an Incomplete?

I'll give you an example: Let's say you are watching a movie on your DVR or on a Netflix DVD.

You hit the pause button.

You go to the bathroom.

You go grab some Mountain Dew, maybe some Doritos--the new "Naga Viper" flavor that dissolves 1/3rd of your tongue.

(Just joking about that last part, but really, what's left to create in the Doritos franchise?)

You settle back in to watch your movie and the phone rings. It's your long-lost friend from 3rd grade! You have a million years to catch up, so this call will take a while! The movie will have to wait for tomorrow... or a week from now... or six months from now. Doesn't really matter when you get back to it. Your DVR has plenty of memory; Netflix won't charge you for being late.

Taking an "I" for a class is just like your experience with this movie (but you get to keep your whole tongue):

-You essentially "pause" your term.
-Your grades and work remain (temporarily) intact.
-You sign a contract with your prof outlining the terms of the work left to complete.
-You discuss a timeline for completion.
-You do not re-pay for the class.
-You do not attend class again (although some "I" contracts will require you to sit in on a class or two, depending on the work you missed and the agreement with your prof).
-You do not fail the class.
-Your transcript grade is an "I".

You might be thinking, "Hey, what a fantastic solution! I'm crapping out on a class and all I have to do is get my prof to give me one of those 'I's so I have some more time."

The "I" isn't all good news. You can't keep it on your transcript forever. In fact, in most cases, colleges will give you up to one year to reverse it. Other colleges may require you complete the "I" by the very next term.

What happens if you don't complete the incomplete? Very simple:

You fail.

(In other words, your grade reverts back to what it would have been if the prof would have submitted your grade with your unfinished work).

Here are some official incomplete policies from a few institutions:

University of Arizona 

and the first college I taught at: 

College of Southern Nevada

and just for randomness, the University of Toledo (Ohio!)

Important disclaimer: If you are already failing the class, don't even ask for an Incomplete--the Incomplete is not for redoing work, but simply having an extension to do more good work in addition to the good work you've done.

So what's the communication lesson?

Ask your prof about an "I" grade the minute you have a situation that warrants it. Here is what you should have in order to start that conversation:

-A copy of your college's official "I" grade policy (your prof likely knows what it is, but good for you to investigate yourself)
-Your current grade standing, either hard copy or expert knowledge of it if you ask the prof to bring it up on his/her computer to look at it in the course management system
-A list of the work that you have left to complete
-A date or schedule that you will complete the work (I'll get back to this one later--the words are bolded for a reason!).

Say, "I have had an unexpected crisis. I do not want to drop this class. According to my records, I currently have a B-average. I see that I have assignment X, Y, and Z still due. I would like to ask for an 'Incomplete' so I have a little more time to finish this work. I have a proposal for the dates that I can finish this work."

Making your case in this way sounds so, so much more professional than what profs usually hear at the end of the term: "Guess I'm going to fail!" or "What can I do?" Your professor will be impressed that you are taking responsibility for your actions and approaching the situation in an assertive, fact-based manner.

Let's talk about the prof's perspective for a minute, particularly if that person isn't doing backflips over your request.

Why the lack of love for the "I"? In my personal experience, for all the work that goes into drawing up the contract, keeping track of the student's grade possibly two terms down the road, here's a fact:  Less than 3% of students actually do the work to reverse their "I" grade!

Again, just my experience (Colleagues reading, weigh in?). I have submitted very, very, very, very few grade changes over the years to reverse an "I". The idea seems like a life-saver in the moment, but students mentally move on and forward. Or, sometimes they decide to retake the class anyway. Or forget about the class entirely and keep their F.

Regardless of the prof's perspective, the "I" policy is there for a reason. And, I was a student for whom the "I" could have made a big difference. You might be one of those students, too.

So, I say, pose the question and listen to what your prof has to say.

Then, commit to a schedule to finish the work so you can reverse the "I"!

(Hint: You usually have a break right after your last day of school. You asked for an extension:  You could finish your work over that break and then be done with it, submitting it to the prof right when you both return to school.)

One other disclaimer:  If your prof refuses to entertain the "I" and you feel you have a strong case, you might have to take the situation to your prof's division chair for an outside perspective. You don't want to play this card unless you have to, but sometimes it is necessary. Your prof may refuse for a valid reason--such as that he/she will be on leave for the next term or academic year--and the division chair might be able to find someone else to take the "I" over. It may be uncomfortable, but you can say to your prof: "Can you and I take this to the division/department chair for more help with my situation?"

My heartfelt wish for all of my students is that they don't go through a loss like I did when I was in college. I'd much prefer that a student take a hiatus for a happy event, like the birth of a baby or a loved one coming back from deployment.

Regardless of the reason, if life thwaps you upside the head while you are trying to "do school," an Incomplete may save your hard, almost-earned college credits.

(Addendum:  For my situation where I failed both classes, "Academic Renewal" was another option. Academic Renewal--may be called something different at your college--erases an entire term from your transcript. Look into the official policy at your college. There are usually some pretty tight rules around it and the ramifications may not be as pleasant as the idea, but something for you to know).


  1. I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago and I love it! I think I will post it in the links section of all my course websites this fall. You hit the right tone on professional interaction and personal responsibility not only for students, but even for profs.

    You've pointed out a common issue here I think. Many students do not know about the "I", or for whatever reason they don't come to talk to their prof about an "I". Or they think an "I" is a redo button that can give them a second chance to do the work that they didn't do in the first place.

  2. Alexis, I can't thank you enough for these comments. They totally inspired my morning! I agree with you--the few students who know about the "I" and seek it out often want a do-over. And then, of course, we'd have to offer it to everyone. Oh, perish the thought: 28 "I" contracts--no!!!! Thank you, once again!!! Ellen

  3. I think that I'll be posting this entry to my students in the future, also. Thank you so much for writing it!

  4. Thank you!!! I just wish more students completed their "I's"!!! :-)

  5. So i got the incompletes 2 as a matter of fact but i cant finish the work on time i may pull out one but not two without more time.. I too suffered a loss my 32 year old daughter died of a heroine overdose afer i was started in a graduate program for 6 weeks im still not really functional is there any hope for me? They already gave me the maximum time, what are my options?