An Incompletes Guide for TAs

Helping students from previous semesters resolve their incompletes is one of the more overlooked aspects of running a large class. One philosophy to incompletes I’ve heard is that students are responsible for completing the class on their own, which means they’re not a huge burden on staff. While this is certainly a valid approach to granting and resolving incompletes, I think it fails to properly serve struggling students who are most in need of our support. When managed properly, I believe that incompletes can be a powerful tool to reduce student stress and improve course equity, and as with all the efforts to improve equity that we talk about on this site, I think incompletes should be treated as an integral part of the class, rather than an afterthought.

What makes managing incompletes hard?

First reason: every student’s incomplete is unique. There are so many variables that you’ll pretty much never get two incompletes that look the same:

  • What was the student’s original semester?
  • What assignments does the student still need to complete?
  • Does the student have any special accommodations or extenuating circumstances?
  • How does the student’s broader school career or life interact with their incomplete? For example, they might need to finish the class to graduate this semester, or they might be unable to work on anything this semester because they have a full-time job.

Second reason: Incompletes inherently span multiple semesters. Between semesters, the class and its staff can change, and reconciling that can get really tricky really quickly.

  • If the student takes an exam in a future semester, how do we account for the course content potentially being different?
  • If the student is working on an old or obsolete assignment, how do we support that?
  • What were the grading policies in the original semester?

As a result, managing incompletes requires a unique skill set that intersects with pretty much every aspect of running a class, including:

  • People skills to emphathize with struggling students and offer each student personalized support unique to their specific incomplete situation.
  • Infrastructure/software know-how to make sure the student has access to the necessary class software across semesters.
  • Solid understanding of course material, possibly across different iterations of the class.
  • Detective skills to track down buried information from old semesters.
  • The persistence to navigate the web of bureaucratic red tape and fill out paperwork for all the weird edge cases associated with incompletes.

I’ve never met anyone who has all these skills, but luckily, there should be TAs on staff who specialize in each of these things, so perhaps communicating with other staff members is actually the single most important skill for someone managing incompletes.

With that in mind, what are some best practices to help streamline the process of managing incompletes?

Document everything

It’s extremely easy to lose information between semesters. Even when I managed incompletes for multiple semesters, I would have trouble locating information from old semesters. Keeping a record of everything that persists across semesters saves everyone the trouble of doing detective work on old buried spreadsheets and contacting long-graduated TAs for obscure pieces of data.

My best recommendation here is to create a central resource (e.g. Google Drive shared drive) for incompletes, using an account that all future staff members will have access to (e.g. a shared access account like Some examples of things that might be worth documenting:

  • DSP accommodation letters for students taking incompletes.
  • Grading policies in each semester (e.g. grading bins, exam averages for scaling purposes, any rounding or shifts that were applied).
  • All email communication from students taking incompletes. As an aside, this is also where a shared access account can be useful; you could direct all emails there, which avoids important information getting buried in someone’s personal email.

Grading worksheets

In my mind, the ideal way to hand off an incomplete to future semesters is to create a worksheet listing all of a student’s completed work and grades so far, as well as all the work the student needs to complete to resolve the incomplete. This worksheet should also provide an exact mathematical formula for calculating a final grade, so future staff can simply plug in numbers from the completed assignments. “Take the student’s project 3 grade out of 100, multiply by 0.1, add it to 74.5, and if the result exceeds 78, the student gets an A.”

Well, that’s easier said than done. Grading policies and assignments change across semesters, and often we have to get creative with blending work from different semesters. One recent example I can think of: Fall 2021 61C had 11 homework assignments, but Spring 2022 61C compressed the same questions into 10 homework assignments. How do you reconcile this for students who completed some assignments from fall and some assignments from spring? (Maybe we’ll put up a future post about how to deal with these kinds of assignment and content inconsistencies.)

Also, there unfortunately isn’t a great universal tool for streamlining calculations like this, especially when we have to get creative with them. For now, we’ve been using Google Sheets, but spreadsheets can get complex and buggy very quickly.

Although we usually can’t create perfect grading worksheets, I think it’s a useful way to provide transparency for staff and students. Students get a clear breakdown of what needs to be finished and how it affects their grade. Staff have all the grading information readily available and can either directly follow it, or use it to make an informed grading decision.

Communicate with students

In our incompletes guide aimed at students, we stressed that communication with staff is the best way to ensure an incomplete gets resolved smoothly. This is true in the other direction as well; responsive staff can help the student stay on pace to finish their incomplete and resolve all the tricky logistical questions associated with taking the class across different semesters.

It’s not required, but I think it’s ideal for staff to proactively check in with students to make sure things are going smoothly. Also, staff are in a better position than the student to preemptively point out any potential differences in the class between semesters and how to navigate those differences.

Student communication and documentation go hand-in-hand; as we talk more with the student to learn more about their specific situation, documenting that information can be helpful for resolving the incomplete later down the line (e.g. if resolving takes more than one semester).

Offload logistics from students when possible

Finishing a class while dealing with differences across semesters and extenuating circumstances is hard enough without all the logistics and bureaucratic red tape associated with incompletes.

Academic advising is probably the best resource for navigating policy-related questions, but as staff managing incompletes, we’ve accumulated a bit of experience with incompletes policy as well. A student might not know offhand the policy behind incompletes lapsing to an F or how to extend an incomplete lapse date, but as a TA who’s submitted dozens of petitions to extend incompletes, I’m pretty familiar with the process. Being able to proactively offer this information to students is another way to help them streamline the process and avoid any difficult, last-minute problems that might arise from not knowing policies ahead of time.

This point also ties into documentation; as incomplete management duties transfer between TAs, building a knowledge base of incompletes policy (e.g. common mistakes, what to do in unusual situations) can make things easier for everyone. I’m hoping that posts on this site are a first step toward building a more sustainable knowledge base for incompletes!

See also: An incompletes guide for students.