“I am failing. Is it too late to get an Incomplete? Should I retake the course?”

Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 7 comments

Failing a class? Should you go for an ‘Incomplete’ or will you hit ‘Restart’ and try again?

(Aaaaaaand… student write-in questions are back! With many terms winding down, I am receiving letters that include various levels of frustration and failure. You’ll see themes of them over the next several posts. Hopefully, the discussions will be helpful to anyone facing a similar issue.)

Hello Ellen,

Thank you so much for doing what you do. I wish I had known all these lessons as a student before I put myself in this situation.

I think I’m failing a class. I e-mailed my instructor about possibly taking an Incomplete, but I haven’t received a response.

I really have no excuse about my situation. I stopped going to class due to anxiety, which resulted in missing more classes. I can’t withdraw from the course, so without the Incomplete, I have to face failure.

Do you think it is better to fail the class and repeat it the following semester?




Thank you so much for your kind words. Let me see if I can help, based on my experiences with Incomplete grades.

I hope your professor e-mails you back so you can hash out this situation, or you can talk to the prof in class before your term ends. Here is my advice in the meanwhile:

I would be very honest with your professor since it sounds like you know exactly what led to this outcome. Honesty is the only way that you’ll have a shot at resolution.

Say, “I stopped coming to class due to anxiety and the problem kept building. Here is what I’ve done that I feel went well (show examples of any successes you had). I am wondering if failure is the only option, or if there is any way that I can take an Incomplete for the course?”

You’ll also need to say, “I have a concrete plan so this doesn’t happen again.” Then lay out your concrete plan. Of course, if you are very close to the end of your term, then there won’t be time to implement a big plan and your professor will know that.

Here is my history with an Incomplete:
-Every school’s policy differs. At my last college, you could only receive an “I” for a non-academic matter and you had to finish a certain percentage of the course successfully. At that school, an “I” would only apply to a student with a medical or life emergency that prevented continuation of the course.
-Other colleges are far more liberal with their Incomplete policies; the justification is completely left to the professor. Know which way your college goes before making the request.
-When you get your Incomplete contract, there is usually a list of what you still have left to do and a date you need to finish. At my current college, students have one year to turn around an Incomplete. Otherwise, the grade reverts to what it would have been without the Incomplete.
-Historically (finishing my 14th year of teaching), less than 1% of the students I’ve worked with actually finish an Incomplete. They end up retaking the whole course because the lingering work becomes an afterthought.

If you feel that you have enough assignments that will “count” and you can truly salvage your grade, try for the “I” (based on your school’s policy, of course!).

If you’d be better served by a fresh start, then retaking the course is the right thing to do.

I would talk to this prof, even if you don’t ask for the Incomplete, particularly if he/she would be your professor next time. You’ll want to discuss your plan of attack for another go-around.

If you will not take a course with this professor again, by all means, talk to the new prof early. Say,“I took this course once before and failed it. Here is where I went wrong, but I have a solid plan to do things differently this time (then mention those things). Is there any advice you can offer for someone retaking this course?”

There is no shame in starting over and there can be many benefits to having a feel for the material walking in. A completely clean slate does give you that benefit.

One thing that I want to ensure is that you get some support for the anxiety you’ve been experiencing. Please talk to your adviser and someone in Counseling Services, at the very least. There are mechanisms on campus to help you deal with anxiety so it doesn’t hinder your academics. If your class is the source of the nervousness, they can help with that, too.

I wish you luck and would love to hear the outcome!



  1. I failed a philosophy course, might have already told this story. The first time around we only looked at one text. It felt like a grad school course, very specific and very tough analytic questions.

    Got a D.

    I re-took the course with a new professor. This time the syllabus was full of many different perspectives on the topics. It was a general overview. Loved it and got an A. Used to have some fun debates with the teacher’s assistant and it was a lot of fun to come to class.

    Love the advice in this post Ellen! A great help for students struggling with this problem.

    • Hi, Susan,

      I haven’t heard this story! Thank you for sharing it and bravo for making that decision. I wish I would have taken your lead with an Environmental Science course that had a horrible format. Instead, I suffered with a lower grade and walked away. I didn’t think I could stomach the subject again!

      Thank you so much for writing. I have another post coming quickly on another Incomplete issue.


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  2. Ellen,
    I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to entertain my question.

    I am a masters of computer science major at a university. This is my second semester, and I have 2 more semesters to go. I am about to drop one of my CS classes. From what I hear on camps the professor is the only professor who teaches the course I am now taking and many people have problems understanding him and understanding his homework and tests. But there’s almost no way of getting around taking him because he is the only professor teaching the course and I have to take the class.

    I already spoke to my financial aid counselor and she said if I drop the class then financial aid won’t pay for anymore of my classes until I make up the 3 credit course which means I will have to pay for the next course out of pocket. We are about a month into the semester and the first homework grade I received was 42/100 and the second was 52/100 and the third I couldn’t do. I went to office hours to get help from the instructor. He explained to me how to do the problems but I still could not do them right.

    I study day and night literally. I don’t sleep. I have been taking energy drinks so I can stay up and study. Sometimes I don’t sleep for days because I want to study. I also quit my job to have more time to study. My boss said i can come back anytime. but I still failed the homework. I am already burnt out. Even though we haven’t even taken any tests or midterm I feel I should drop the class and get a grade if W before its too late.

    Any advice?

  3. Hi,
    I’m a freshman in college and will soon be in spring quarter. I’ve always wanted to major in Bioengineering, I can’t really see myself in any other major. I failed my general chemistry class and have tried getting into that class again but it’s full. I have only up until end of Sophomore year to meet my prerequisites to get into the BioE major. I got extremely LOW grades on my chem exams and I also still haven’t taken math courses yet. I have to be at a certain math level/class by the end of Sophomore year.

    I feel so dumb and unworthy of obtaining an education and going to college. I’m starting to find it crazy that someone like me would want to major in Bioengineering if i can’t even pass a GENERAL chem class. I’m too embarrassed to have a talk with my advisor because I’m doing so poorly.

    My GPA is now like a 2.5. I’m also unfortunately a huge procrastinator but I also don’t know how to study for anything; I will do practice problems in my textbook but the questions on the test are set differently!

    I just feel like I am running out of time and will not become a bioengineer or anything else for that matter. I process concepts much more slowly than other students. And it’s only going to get harder from here and I’m just so scared and anxious!

    I can’t sleep at night because I stay up thinking about how hard everything is. I feel like I’m not going to get in a BioE major, there are so many other smart students, why would they choose me? I’m between an average- below average student, and i know there will be geniuses applying to that major.

    • Hi Myra,
      I’d love to give you some advice ( which you can feel free to take or or leave

  4. Helllo i am an eigh grader ànd i just shifted to a new school..and i hate this school..its a goverment school my exams r next week and my work is a incomplete i dont want to attend my school wat should i do


  1. "My prof encouraged me to stay. I thought I should go. I failed. Now what?" - [...] week, I wrote about an “Incomplete” grade versus failure, based on a student question. Here is a slightly different ...
  2. #IOLchat Report: When Should Students Drop an Online Class? - Online College.org - [...] I’m failing. Is it too late to get an incomplete? From Ellen Bremen, The Chatty Professor [...]

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