January 18, 2018

Putting Your Term on “Pause”: How to Talk to Your Prof About an Incomplete

Putting your term on pause - photo copyright 2011 Rick Sherrell

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

Instead of finding out what my options were, I simply stopped going to classes and I ultimately failed those classes. Had I gone to see my profs, I could have learned that there may have been another option available for me:

The “Incomplete” or “I” grade.

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:

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 do you do next?

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).

About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Julie B says:

    I Actually need help in making some decisions. I have missed a lot of my Biology class due to a knee injury. The day the injury happened i notified my professor and let her know from the get go of what i was facing..MISSING CLASSES!!! We met on three occassions only for her to tell me each time we met that i was barely passing , After the second meeting with her telling me i was barely passing which was the middle of the semester . I asked her if it would be a better idea if i withdraw from class, “OH no she said you will be fine .” So i continued to miss classes due to my injury but keep up on the lecture and miss mostly the Labs . She again waits until after the the third exam to haul me into her office and tell me i was close to failing . I again asked ,”What do you suggest i do?” She said oh you will be fine don’t give up . keep studying… So i missed a full week after that due to my knee injury,, I finally spoke with my adviser, he said ask for an Incomplete, So i did , She refused because i missed to many days. I feel like i have been blocked and made to accept what she decides , After i tried to work with her and work tings out , i was willing to do anything even take the class over , She said no thats not necessary??????????I am confused i need insight . All my other classes prior have been Bplus….

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