Failing a class? Should you go for an ‘Incomplete’ or will you hit ‘Restart’ and try again?

(Aaaaaaand… student write-in questions are back! With many terms winding down, I am receiving letters that include various levels of frustration and failure. You’ll see themes of them over the next several posts. Hopefully, the discussions will be helpful to anyone facing a similar issue.)

Hello Ellen,

Thank you so much for doing what you do. I wish I had known all these lessons as a student before I put myself in this situation.

I think I’m failing a class. I e-mailed my instructor about possibly taking an Incomplete, but I haven’t received a response.

I really have no excuse about my situation. I stopped going to class due to anxiety, which resulted in missing more classes. I can’t withdraw from the course, so without the Incomplete, I have to face failure.

Do you think it is better to fail the class and repeat it the following semester?




Thank you so much for your kind words. Let me see if I can help, based on my experiences with Incomplete grades.

I hope your professor e-mails you back so you can hash out this situation, or you can talk to the prof in class before your term ends. Here is my advice in the meanwhile:

I would be very honest with your professor since it sounds like you know exactly what led to this outcome. Honesty is the only way that you’ll have a shot at resolution.

Say, “I stopped coming to class due to anxiety and the problem kept building. Here is what I’ve done that I feel went well (show examples of any successes you had). I am wondering if failure is the only option, or if there is any way that I can take an Incomplete for the course?”

You’ll also need to say, “I have a concrete plan so this doesn’t happen again.” Then lay out your concrete plan. Of course, if you are very close to the end of your term, then there won’t be time to implement a big plan and your professor will know that.

Here is my history with an Incomplete:
-Every school’s policy differs. At my last college, you could only receive an “I” for a non-academic matter and you had to finish a certain percentage of the course successfully. At that school, an “I” would only apply to a student with a medical or life emergency that prevented continuation of the course.
-Other colleges are far more liberal with their Incomplete policies; the justification is completely left to the professor. Know which way your college goes before making the request.
-When you get your Incomplete contract, there is usually a list of what you still have left to do and a date you need to finish. At my current college, students have one year to turn around an Incomplete. Otherwise, the grade reverts to what it would have been without the Incomplete.
-Historically (finishing my 14th year of teaching), less than 1% of the students I’ve worked with actually finish an Incomplete. They end up retaking the whole course because the lingering work becomes an afterthought.

If you feel that you have enough assignments that will “count” and you can truly salvage your grade, try for the “I” (based on your school’s policy, of course!).

If you’d be better served by a fresh start, then retaking the course is the right thing to do.

I would talk to this prof, even if you don’t ask for the Incomplete, particularly if he/she would be your professor next time. You’ll want to discuss your plan of attack for another go-around.

If you will not take a course with this professor again, by all means, talk to the new prof early. Say,“I took this course once before and failed it. Here is where I went wrong, but I have a solid plan to do things differently this time (then mention those things). Is there any advice you can offer for someone retaking this course?”

There is no shame in starting over and there can be many benefits to having a feel for the material walking in. A completely clean slate does give you that benefit.

One thing that I want to ensure is that you get some support for the anxiety you’ve been experiencing. Please talk to your adviser and someone in Counseling Services, at the very least. There are mechanisms on campus to help you deal with anxiety so it doesn’t hinder your academics. If your class is the source of the nervousness, they can help with that, too.

I wish you luck and would love to hear the outcome!