MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 3
December / January 2004
Financing MIT
Vest to the Faculty
Our New Look
The Search for a New President
Assigning a Final Grade When Some of the Work Has Not Been Completed
Identifying My Father
A Child's Chore
The Laboratory for Nuclear Science
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
LBGT Issues
Trans at the Institute
Making the Most of E-Mail: Popular Services, Recent Changes
OCW as Knight Errant
Individuals Appointed to the Faculty
1985 to Present
Printable Version

Teach Talk

Assigning a Final Grade in a Subject When Some of the Work Has Not Been Completed

James Kirtley, Jeff Meldman and Mary Callahan


The grades of I (Incomplete) and O (Absent) are sometimes used in a way that is inappropriate, which unduly and unnecessarily complicates the academic progression of a student and causes administrative difficulties. In many cases an ordinary letter grade is more appropriate. In this note we remind the faculty on use of the grades of I and O .

One of our most important functions is grading of student work. On occasion we find that, by the end of the academic term, we are not ready to issue a final grade.

This may happen because a student has not managed to finish the work for the term. The Faculty has established mechanisms for handling these circumstances. However, these mechanisms are often misunderstood and sometimes misused. In this memo, we seek to give guidance as to which mechanism to use and under what circumstances.

The Options

The instructor has three basic options when a portion of the assignments in a subject has not been completed:

  1. Assigning the grade of I, which stands for "incomplete,"
  2. Assigning the grade of O (the letter O), which stands for "absent," or
  3. Calculating a final grade using appropriately low scores for the missing work.

The Grade of I

The grade of I, or "incomplete," should be used only when a student is missing a minor part of the work in the subject. The Rules and Regulations of the Faculty states this requirement as follows (sec. 2.62.3):

I Incomplete . This grade indicates that a minor part of the subject requirements has not been fulfilled and that a passing grade is to be expected when the work is completed.

To help the registrar, the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP), and the student's home department to understand the circumstances of the I, the instructor is required to complete an "Instructor's Report" to accompany every grade of I submitted. This report asks for four highly pertinent pieces of data:

  1. Percent of work completed (minimum: about 80%),
  2. Estimated grade in the completed part of the work,
  3. Default grade, assuming no more work is done, and
  4. A due date for completion of the missing work.
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These reports reveal problems in reporting of incomplete grades:

  • In a bit more than half of the cases in which incompletes were assigned last year, less than 80% of the work was reported as complete.
  • In about one quarter of cases in which an incomplete was reported, no explanatory form was submitted.
  • In a smaller but still significant number of cases no due date had been arranged.

These reveal situations in which the grade of Incomplete is being used inappropriately.

Minor Part

The phrase "minor part" should be understood to mean not more than about 20% . An I might be appropriate, for example, in situations in which a student has missed a minor assignment or has misunderstood the assignment for a final paper and has not written that paper to the correct standard. In a lab subject, an I might be appropriate if the student has completed the final project but has not turned in the report. Missing an exam is never the same as missing a minor part of the work . If more than a minor part of the work is missing, an appropriate letter grade (e.g., D or F), or perhaps the grade of O (see below), should be assigned and reported.

Default Grade

In response to students' letting incompletes "hang" for long periods of time and then eventually abandoning the subjects altogether, the faculty decided that no undergraduate can graduate with any unresolved incomplete on the record. This has led to students petitioning the Committee on Academic Performance for very late drops of subjects that they do not need to graduate. A similar problem can arise when the student is willing to complete the missing work, but when the subject's former instructor and his or her records are no longer available. Since the CAP rarely grants petitions for late, retroactive drops, we sometimes see the spectacle of students begging departments to change their I grades, even to Fs if necessary, to enable them to graduate. To obviate this problem, instructors who use the grade of I are now being asked - in advance - for a default grade that represents the grade that the student would have earned using appropriately low scores for the missing work. The default grade should reflect only what the student has actually completed by the end of the original grading period and should not have any optimistic projections. The default grade should always be lower than the "estimated grade in the completed part of the work" (item 2, above) because it is the grade to be used if the missing work is not completed.

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The Due Date for Completion of the Missing Work

The due date is important, too. The Faculty Regulations continue:

The work should normally be completed before Add Date of the succeeding fall or spring term; however, the faculty member in charge, in negotiation with the student, has the right to set an earlier or later date for pedagogical reasons or extenuating circumstances.

For example, if certain facilities, such as a lab or machine shop, are required and will not be available before the next Add Date, then a later date may be set. In such cases, it is important that this later date be set (and hopefully agreed to) before the incomplete grade is reported. The later date, and the reason for it, must be included on the "Instructor's Report" that accompanies the report of the I grade.

Instructors and students should expect that, if the work for a subject in which an incomplete was reported has not been completed by the due date, the default grade will be applied. If this happens and work is subsequently completed the instructor can change the grade in the established fashion (this requires approval of the department head).

The Grade of O

If a student does not complete work at the very end of the term, it may be appropriate to report a grade of O or "absent." This is the right action to take if a student is absent at the final exam or does not turn in a paper due at the end of the term, but only if the student has been performing satisfactorily up to that point in the term. The Rules and Regulations of the Faculty define the grade as follows:

O Absent . This grade indicates that the student was progressing satisfactorily during the term but was absent from the final or was absent from the last two weeks of the term, or both . An O grade carries no credit for the subject. Unsatisfactory performance because of absence throughout the term should be recorded as an F.

This grade would be appropriate, for example, if a student has been receiving satisfactory grades in assignments, class participation, etc., during the term, but does not finish a term paper or a final project in a lab subject or misses the final exam. The grade of O is equivalent to the grade of F in its contribution to the grade point average. Unlike an F, however, an O can be converted into the grade of OX, and then possibly into a passing grade.

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A student receiving an O can explain his or her late-term absence by visiting the Dean's office (Counseling and Support Services). If the explanation is satisfactory, the counseling dean will convert the O to an OX, which stands for "absence excused." This OX can then be completed by the student, for example, by taking a make-up exam during the next final examination period, or by turning in the missing term paper. The Faculty Regulations continue:

OX absence satisfactorily explained to and excused by the Dean for Undergraduate Education in the case of an undergraduate student or by the Dean for Graduate Students in the case of a graduate student. The Faculty member in charge of the subject will be notified when an O is changed to an OX. An OX carries no credit for the subject. However, the Faculty member in charge must provide the student the opportunity to receive a credit-carrying grade. This may be done with or without the instructor requiring a postponed final examination or other additional evaluation procedure.

There are good reasons for using an O rather than an I in some circumstances. If there are external problems that have contributed to the student not finishing the work for the term, the process of getting the absence excused (conversion of the O to an OX) gets the student into the Dean's office where the counseling staff can do some good. If the student chooses to not complete the work the O or OX can remain on the record. Unlike the grade of I, an OX will not prevent the student from graduating (unless the subject is a curriculum requirement), but it will serve as an unmistakable marker of the student's progress.


If neither the grade of I nor the grade of O is appropriate, it is important to report a grade calculated by using appropriately low scores for the missing work, even if the final grade is a D or an F. Instructors sometimes do not realize that turning in a Grade Report Sheet with a missing grade - or holding back a grade sheet because of a missing grade - can cause serious problems for the registrar, for the CAP, and for students' home departments.

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