You had good reasons for dropping your class. You were encouraged to stay. What do you do now that your concern about what would happen… happened?

(Last week, I wrote about an “Incomplete” grade versus failure, based on a student question. Here is a slightly different situation, also along the lines of an incomplete. What do you think?)

Dear Ellen,

I thought I did everything right in communicating with my professor this term. I did not do well on my first exam and my professor took me aside and said he/she was concerned. We agreed I needed more study time. I faced a terrible injury three weeks after the exam and went to the prof again to explain what was going on. We discussed whether or not I should stay with the class. I was told that I should.

I took my next exam and was told I was barely passing due to absences related to the injury and that test. I asked if I should withdraw and retake the class, but the professor said, “No, you will be fine.” After my third exam, I was still barely passing. The prof said, “You have three more weeks to bring your grade up.”

My adviser suggested I ask for an incomplete, but the prof refused. I offered to do whatever it would take to finish the class, but suddenly, there were no options. By this point, it was too late to withdraw.

I don’t understand. I kept in touch with my professor, openly discussed my concerns, and I was encouraged to stick with the course. Now this feels like a mess and I’m very upset.



(Before my response, what do you think about this situation? I know I have encouraged students to stay with a class–situation-dependent, of course. If I believe a student should stay, then I feel it’s my job to have a Plan A, B, and even C in order. The student must agree to each plan and its potential ramifications. If there is no hope, I try to be realistic about that, too. These are incredibly hard decisions to make.)

Dear Student,

It sounds like you have had a very stressful term, both physically and emotionally. I am sorry that you have had to deal with this. I’m impressed that you kept such close communication with your professor. Here are my thoughts:

Since the prof encouraged you to stay with the course in just about every conversation, an Incomplete seems completely justifiable to me. Based on my experiences, if I advise a student not to withdraw, I often have this option in my back pocket.

I can see this issue from both sides. Often, students self-select their withdrawal. Many students tell me, but some won’t. Depending on the situation, I actually wish they would to see if there is something else we can do. When faculty need to help students make this decision, it’s a tough call. I recently had a student who was doing very well in class, then diagnosed with a serious illness. We came up with three possible outcomes. One of those included an Incomplete, which I was fully prepared to give.

Had the student not been doing well, I might have recommended withdrawing the course so he/she could focus on the medical situation. Even if it meant a lower grade, student really did not want that option because it would delay graduation. My point here is that we were both prepared for several realistic possibilities.

In your case, the encouragement to stay was hopeful, but lacked a concrete plan. Therefore, I would ask again for the Incomplete. Say, “I really appreciate all you’ve been doing to help me this term. Obviously neither of us realized how much my injury would affect my performance/attendance in class. However, at every turn, I kept asking about my status, if I should stay with the class or leave, and as I understood, you believed I would be fine. Now I am facing a failing grade and having to retake this class. I respectfully ask that you reconsider an incomplete based on medical issues.”

Here is another thing you can offer: Re-joining the classes you missed next term. This would show that you are committed to digging in and finishing. Then, you and your prof can collaboratively choose a date to submit your final work.

Before you make the request, please think about this: Do you want that incomplete? If you were my student, your existing points would be averaged with points earned via the incomplete work. Will you be satisfied with that grade? If yes, then go for it. Otherwise, starting over may be best.

If the prof is unwilling to do anything, that will be unfortunate. You could enlist your adviser’s help or, of course, take the matter higher up to a department/division chair. Before you do that, I would circle back with your professor for one more conversation. I only suggest this because it sounds like you had positive interactions.

Say, “In our numerous conversations, I thought there would be a contingency plan based on my medical issue since I was encouraged to stay. I was mistaken not asking this earlier, but what did you think my options were when we had these discussions?” This will hopefully remind your professor that not every student is meant to stick with a class if there are mitigating circumstances, unless there is a clearly agreed-upon plan for completion or exit.

It sounds like you had early intuition that this course was not going to work out with the medical issues. I can see how listening to that voice would be challenging if someone is telling you “things will be fine.” If this occurs again (hopefully it won’t!), press for what happens if “fine” doesn’t pan out.

I wish you the best. I’ll be interested to hear an update.


(I have an update on this situation and will post it in the next blog. Once again, what do you think?)