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What To Do When Students Turn In Incomplete Work

phil roederBy Heather M. Stocker

It’s like looking at a photograph where only a small bit of the picture is discernible, but you can’t tell that what you’re actually looking at.

This is what happens when students turn in incomplete assignments. Incomplete assignments only give a partial snapshot of student ability. We might only see their ability to answer surface questions and not see that they are capable of probing the deeper nuances of a given content area–literature, world civilizations, or the scientific process. The biggest need for any teacher is having a clear view of what students can and cannot accomplish. This knowledge is our guide and signpost for helping our students.

So, how can we get that data accurately when students aren’t completing the work? When students come to you with incomplete work there are a couple of options you have:

  1. You can simply take the work. (I did this for years and found myself getting frustrated with students’ lack of care. Yes, I took it personally sometimes).

  2. You can reiterate why you need the work completed and leave it up to the student whether to do it or not. (I also tried this. Most of the time, kids chose not to do the work and then I would feel the same feelings I experienced in number 1).

  3. You can hand it back for completion.

I’ve found the most effective of these three techniques is the third strategy. Of course, I reiterate why I need the assignment, but handing the assignment back for completion with the express understanding that the grade remains a zero until I receive a completed assignment motivates kids to complete the work.

It’s one of those holy grails in education that had me wondering why I’d never done it before—what took me so long? Once students hand you half completed work and you hand it back immediately for completion, and this happens a couple of times, an amazing thing happens: students learn not to hand in incomplete work. I say, “I can’t accept incomplete work.”

The key here is to hand the assignment back immediately. I quickly scan what kids turn in to me as they turn it in and can catch the assignments that need more work. It’s not a perfect system and kids do periodically fudge their answers just to get the work in, but I’ve still gotten more out of them than they were initially willing to give.

Ultimately, incomplete work doesn’t really give us anything. It’s important to keep the dialogue open with students about why you’re doing what you’re doing and to have a clear understanding of expectations. I tell my kids all the time that I want a complete picture of their abilities and most of the time they’re willing to give it.