How to deal with failing a student?



I supervise a student who is working on her bachelor's thesis. The problem is that she has not delivered anything, never asks for any help, and when I offer her some help she claims that she understands and she will work on it. But nothing really happens afterwards. We (me and my supervisor) talked to her multiple times in different 'intervention'-like sessions, with no success. Now it is the end of the semester and she has done no more than 10% of her assigned tasks.

Also, she never delivers what I ask for, even the most basic of things. For example, all students are supposed to hand in their time plan within two weeks of their work, but she has never handed it in, despite my (and my supervisor's) repeated requests. Not only does handing in a time plan help to keep track of one's work, it is also part of our grading scheme. And she knows about that, since we are very transparent about how grading of the thesis works, by giving the students our grading excel sheet before they even sign up for a thesis with us. Nevertheless, she didn't bother handing a time plan in.

All the other students in our institute have their final presentations next week, and even though she knew of it, she was asking for an extension. When I refused that via email (I saw no reason to give her an extension), she just dropped in, claimed that she is not prepared for a final presentation, and that I have to give her an extension and so on. I eventually gave her an extension, because she was extremely stressed and not in normal conditions, was almost breaking into tears, and most importantly made a scene in the institute hall. I played a little tough though, by asking her to give me an exact delivery date within two days.

I have even asked my colleagues and fellow PhD students multiple times if they think there is something wrong with my supervision of her, but they always assured me that there is nothing wrong with that and it's about her personality/character (we have a very transparent culture in our group, so we criticize each other openly). Also, my former students gave positive feedback to my adviser regarding my supervision. I even made my supervisor ask her privately about quality of my supervision, and she gave him positive feedback!

Moreover, she also has an exercise class with me, and she was the only student playing computer games on the lab computer instead of working on her exercise. She knew that I (her thesis supervisor) can see her, but she didn't bother. That, I have to say, was the last nail in the coffin.

Given this background, I already know that she cannot (will not) deliver, no matter how much time I gave her. Thus, she will almost certainly fail her thesis. But on the other hand I feel very bad failing a student in her first big project, especially since if she fails she will probably need to study one more semester to finish her studies.

Now I am struggling with these three options:

  • Wait for two days, and if she doesn't give me an exact delivery date (which she probably won't), just give her a fail grade.
  • Give her an extension for ten days or two weeks, and then grade her based on what she delivers eventually, which most probably is a fail grade anyhow.
  • Give her a longer extension, long enough for her to pass the thesis.

I would be glad if anyone can give me some recommendations on how to deal with this situation.

PS: For all people asking if I was allowed to give her an extension: Of course I was. Otherwise I would have a very good reason for refusing her request. In our university supervisors have lots of freedom in how they want to deal with their students.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 1 195

1Aren't there rules for extensions in your institution? I think I could not just decide to extend the time for a bachelor thesis, the student has to apply for that officially. Well, that for the "technical" part of you question. Practically I just wanted to add some advice my supervisor gave me when I was worried about a student (who did not fail in the end): You gave your best, it is not your fault! – skymningen – 2015-05-29T09:06:52.170

75From the wording of your question, I'm not sure whether you are in part blaming yourself for the failure – don't. You and your supervisor have tried hard to help, but it seems she is simply unwilling to make the effort. The student may be failing, but you have not failed the student. – Moriarty – 2015-05-29T09:37:10.880

19This sounds so much like what I went through. I say cut her off at the next opportunity, I knew exactly what I was doing, I was lying to myself and the school every time I said that I would get it done and because my teachers allowed it I kept it up until I had a complete breakdown. – r_ahlskog – 2015-05-29T10:30:32.613

7If she has already done so little in your class that she is already set up to fail the entire course, why would you consider an extension for her final project? – Zibbobz – 2015-05-29T13:33:23.950

6To an extent I can sympathise with the student - I got a 1st in the end for my Master's dissertation (this was a year or so ago), but I fell short of my supervisor's (very high) expectations, resulting in a long whinge from him, and I was really struggling with the work, partially down to me not enjoying the topic as much as I thought I would and also because I seemed to be depressed at the time.

Has it occurred to you that your student might be suffering from mental health problems or extenuating personal circumstances that may be preventing her from achieving as well as she could have been? – omegaSQU4RED – 2015-05-29T15:48:15.837

5@omegaSQU4RED From the way this student's conduct was described, I wouldn't give them that much benefit of the doubt - they clearly can show up to classes, have repeatedly been offered help without accepting any of it, and made no mention of any extenuating circumstances, which should be mentioned before they become an issue, not after the fact. – Zibbobz – 2015-05-29T17:33:30.973

1@Zibbobz so what does a supervisor/faculty member think of someone like this? Do they regard them as generally incompetent, or someone to whom academia is not well suited? – omegaSQU4RED – 2015-05-29T17:58:39.480

15@omegaSQU4RED It's not incompetence, but laziness, that appears to be the problem here. The person is not mature enough to self-motivate for deadlines, even when grades are on the line. In a class, that's grounds for an F. In the real world, that's grounds for firing. This is a reality check. In school, you can retake the class. In the real world, once you're fired, it's over. – Compass – 2015-05-29T18:56:51.003

3Unless the student proactively requested special accommodation (extension) and explained circumstances, I see no reason to give her special treatment. This seems unfair to all the other students who had to abide by the deadline in order to receive a respectable grade. We never know what goes on in other people's lives. Perhaps she is dealing with serious personal/family issues, or depression, causing serious academic difficulties. However, it remains her responsibility to be aware of and address consequences. If there is no effort, the grade should reflect that. This seems fair, if unpleasant. – A.S – 2015-05-29T21:09:37.303

41This is someone who is going to fail repeatedly in life. The best thing you can do for her is to let her fail her thesis, because that might be a wake-up call she needs. If you pass her when she doesn't deserve it, you're moving her one step closer to a real world she isn't prepared for. – user45623 – 2015-05-29T23:20:50.780

3Are you sure you were even allowed to give the extension? I would be extremely surprised to see a syllabus which permits course staff to change due dates on a whim, let alone for a thesis... – sapi – 2015-05-30T01:39:00.817

2"You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink". – Taladris – 2015-05-30T10:58:14.260

5It seems my free 100 rep isn't enough to meet the 10 rep requirement here, so I'll post this as two comments. I was always a problem student, in ways like this. School had always been tremendously easy for me, I'd never really been challenged, and I'd long since learned that I could get away with not trying. I almost never attended courses at any level. I'd manage to get an A in a course anyway, or someone would bail me out in some way, etc. I now have a Ph.D., thanks in large part to professors bending over backwards to accommodate me for whatever reason (my potential, I suppose). – zibadawa timmy – 2015-05-30T21:08:47.167

15... I don't think I've earned that degree and have no confidence in myself or my field. I am gifted by a great intellect, I'm sure, but I simply did not acquire the skills I feel I was supposed to, and I was permitted to get away with this. Most likely I and everyone else has been done a disservice by this, and I suspect I could have ended up better if more professors had taken the correct stance and stood firm against letting me get away with slacking off and under performing. I'm in a long and difficult struggle to overcome these problems I created, now. Do her a favor: fail her. – zibadawa timmy – 2015-05-30T21:12:57.097

8During a class in college, a girl barged in and begged the professor to let her retake a midterm (from a different class he taught). He said no. She gave tons of excuses about how stressed she is, she's overworked, didn't have time to study, couldn't sleep; she even began crying in front of the entire class. He still said no. She exclaimed, "Every other professor has let me do it!" to which he replied "Then they are teaching you the wrong lesson." I'm sure she hated him after that, but every other student really respected him for it. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft – 2015-05-31T23:12:34.390

I have been mentoring some students with time issues (have trouble keeping deadlines as such), similar to dyslexia. Perhaps if this is diagnosable, the university can provide a mentor similar to what I was for some students. – Per Alexandersson – 2015-05-31T23:46:54.870

@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft The thing is, if it happens once it could be a breakdown, which is horrible but it happens to really smart and dedicated people. Where the student you mentioned went wrong was to rely on that multiple times. – kleineg – 2015-06-01T17:56:02.393

3"if she fails she will probably need to study one more semester to finish her studies" - Seriously? Is that the worst consequence she can expect? She will still have the chance to successfully finish her bachelor's? Dang, go and let her fail! And fail hard. Have some of that open communication with her and make clear why she failed. – JimmyB – 2015-06-02T10:57:59.233

1It sounds like you have been very tolerant and fair with her. You've offered to help, you've given her an extension she really doesn't sound like she deserved. In real life, an employer would not be anywhere near this tolerant with her, so you'd be a favour by failing her so hopefully she will learn that you can't get through life without putting much effort into meeting obligations. However, I am concerned that there might be other things going on in her life, addiction, depression, etc., if you could get her to speak to a psychologist, etc. to find out if that is the case it would be good. – Kmeixner – 2015-06-02T21:13:02.153

I don't think it matters which option you choose. 99% chance you are going to have to fail her. Considering this, I would go with the last option. This way when she does fail, you gave her every opportunity and the only one she can blame is herself. Give her a very long extension, maybe another month or even two. Set a date, give it to her verbally and in writing. Make no further attempts to help her unless she comes to you. If by some miracle she does complete it in time. Even if it is perfect I would give her nothing higher than a barely passing grade. – Justin Ohms – 2015-06-03T05:45:48.723


Perhaps emotional blackmail worked on her parents and/or her high school teachers, but I can't see any good reason why you should allow it to work on you. This business of playing computer games one moment and "almost breaking into tears" the next sounds insincere to me, and would cut no ice at all - and butter remarkably few parsnips - here in the world of work.

– A E – 2015-06-03T15:44:34.510

As much as I would shun giving F on thesis (in my opinion, that's what I is purpose-built for), this one's not gonna pass. Gonna have to give that F sooner or later. – Joshua – 2015-06-05T03:05:37.813

@Joshua While the meaning of an incomplete grade can vary from institution to institution, the general meaning is that the student was unable to complete work essential to the evaluation of their final grade due to situations entirely outside their control (roughly, "no fault of their own", but not being overly pedantic about it). Being hospitalized for a month is a pretty good reason for an incomplete. Being irresponsible for a month is not. A grade of Unofficial Withdrawal may be more accurate here, though if she attended even sporadically then it's not really appropriate. – zibadawa timmy – 2015-06-10T02:26:44.077

1Normally I'd agree with zibadawa here (despite having taken I due to my own error [but F would have been clobbered anyway so it was less pain on everybody]), thesis is not going to be done in one semester and ought to be given as much time as needed so I I I CR (or a letter grade if you assign letter grade to thesis) is the expected sequence. – Joshua – 2015-06-10T02:32:39.110

@Joshua Fair enough, though "as much time as needed" always comes with some caveat. They're not going to give you 8 years worth of tries. And I would want to consult the handbook and department on whether "shows no reasonable expectation the work will be completed in a reasonable amount of time" still warrants an incomplete. I would think not, but I suppose it may be considered okay to give at least the first incomplete regardless. – zibadawa timmy – 2015-06-10T12:12:41.907

Update request: What did you do? How did this turn out? – MDMoore313 – 2015-11-25T00:04:47.267



Wait for two days, and if she doesn't give me an exact delivery date (which she probably won't), just give her a fail grade.

Given that you already agreed to this extension, this is the only option you have. Do this.

Honestly, you should not even have agreed to this extension. I understand that you were under stress when you agreed to it, but students making a scene will happen more often to you in the future, and at some point you will get inured to it.

I feel very bad failing a student in her first big project, especially since if she fails she probably need to study one more semester to finish her studies.

This seems to be your real question. Unfortunately, there is really no way around this dilemma. If someone persistently does not deliver assignments and refuses all offers of help, failing them is the only option. Anything else will make a mockery of the entire system of higher education. (And be sure that other students will notice.)

Look at it this way: if you pass her, and she gets a degree, what will her employer do with her if she continues this way? They will fire her, and quickly so.

It appears that this students needs some serious help and counselling. It appears like you already did all you could do in this regard. I would recommend that you wait for two days, fail her if she does not hand in the date, and write up an explanation like you did here. Send this explanation to her in writing. Explain that it appears she is not ready to take a course like yours. Direct her to any counselling resources available at your institution. Keep a copy of this explanation for your file, in case she escalates this to your department head/dean/whatever.

Then do not enter into any further discussions with her, unless she retakes your course.

Stephan Kolassa

Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 26 156

61+1 It is much, much better for her to take an extra semester over her bachelor's degree and learn that she does have to do projects, than for her to get fired from her first job. – Patricia Shanahan – 2015-05-29T09:50:10.360

41+1 right.. As a student I can say that I get irritated when this kind of people get good treatment. She was playing computer games, not caring, and then she complains about not having time? While I am doing hard work to graduate? Just grow up, will you? Retake the course and learn a lesson. It's really, really frustrating when this happens, as Stephan said in this answer, this will mock the entire system of higher education. (I wrote this comment because this is how I would feel in such a situation. I believe many other student would feel the same way) :-) – Ant – 2015-05-29T10:37:41.537

15+1 When I was studying we had a guy in our class who sounds like this, and was absolutely useless. I was glad when he failed to graduate with us, because if he had passed it would have negated my education and hard work, and made my degree feel worthless. (I could have done his year-long "Honours thesis" experiment in an afternoon and written it up over a weekend better than he did.) – Laura Wentworth – 2015-05-29T11:55:25.423

13I would suggest assembling the evidence and taking it to your chair or the dean now - they should have your story so they aren't blindsided by the student. Get their agreement now. – Jon Custer – 2015-05-29T13:18:02.740

16+1, but I would emphases "Direct her to any counseling resources available at your institution" much more. You may want to give your institution student medical care or other suitable service a notice about your student, so that they seek an appointment with her. Obviously, what is wrong here is not for a professor to fix. – Benoît Kloeckner – 2015-05-29T20:33:24.693

Thanks for your answer. It covers all the aspect I was thinking about. Specifically, I was wondering whether I should contact any student counselling office regarding her care. Your answer, as well as other's, made it quite clear. I totally agree that I shouldn't give her an extension in the first place, but the circumstances did not allow for that. But still, maybe I should learn to be more assertive in dealing with such situations. – A.Lee – 2015-05-30T07:44:16.853

I agree with your conclusion but take issue with several of your points. "Making a mockery of the entire system of higher education..." probably not. The system of higher education will probably be just fine, and I think we should be more worried about the individual than the institution, which is perfectly strong. "Her employer will fire her". Maybe, unless this really is extenuating circumstances like death/serious illness in the family, and regardless I'm not sure that's relevant. I agree that "there is no way around this dilemma", but your answer seems too single-shaded – en_Knight – 2015-05-30T21:02:41.020

1Good answer, but I'd be careful about sending her an explanation in writing. She might use some less than perfect sentence in it to sue for a passing grade because you were prejudiced against her or something. Even if that's unlikely to be successful, just save yourself the hassle. – Sumyrda – 2015-05-30T21:05:32.067

1I could imagine she just needs a boot in the arse. But I could also imagine that she has serious problems. Playing computer games in class can show contempt - or she could be so deeply frustrated with not being able to solve the exercises that she needs to do something else or she would break down. I know both kinds of people. So the course of action needs to be hard enough for the former to learn, without destroying the latter. – Nobody – 2015-05-31T22:38:02.670

As a previous grad student who has worked with other non-performing students, I am in favor of this as well. One student in particular passed a number of classes while almost completely neglecting core activities, team work, receiving bad reviews, etc. Regardless of her reasons, it really made me feel like my efforts towards degree completion were somewhat trivialized, and the degree itself was not representative of any particular exceptional effort. While there are strong disincentives for failing people, you have to draw the line SOMEWHERE. – Alex Pritchard – 2015-06-01T19:07:10.707

2@Ant We had someone like that in my course, never did work, playing games all the time, utterly clueless about the material, even attempting to cheat incompetently but the disability support service was dragging him bodily through the course no matter what. The lecturers were under pressure to allow him through so he couldn't fail anything (even when he handed in a copied assignment in which every hyperlink was a link to the wikipedia on plagiarism). It really hurt class moral especially when he got graded higher than some people who'd done real work. – Murphy – 2015-06-02T15:50:46.557

+1, Anything else will make a mockery of the entire system of higher education. (And be sure that other students will notice.) – MDMoore313 – 2015-11-24T23:59:16.193


Sometimes a student's failure is a teaching success.

The lesson is just not the one you wished that you were teaching.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 133 347

2Could you elaborate on why the students' failure is a "teaching success"? Who has learned what? – Moriarty – 2015-05-29T14:13:04.943

29@Moriarty: In the long run, if it causes the student to change her ways, it's a success. – aeismail – 2015-05-29T14:16:43.987

9@Moriarty The lesson is that the actions that she is taking (or not taking) is not the path to success, or at least not a passing grade. – Aura – 2015-05-29T14:25:23.153

5I agree that it is a good lesson for a student to learn. I think, however, that the answer should state as much, rather than relying on an intuition leap from the reader. – Zibbobz – 2015-05-29T14:27:57.310

1This is very true. I was taken out of a high school competition my senior year by my physics teacher because my grades were slipping and he indicated he was very disappointed in me. I respected him a lot and looked up to him even more. His being really disappointed in me hurt in a way I'd never experienced. I started studying like crazy and I ended up demolishing his final exam (highest grade by far). I've never let my grades slip since then and I've worked my butt off to keep a high grade in all of my courses. It's not fun punishing a student but sometimes you have to do it for their sake. – Cameron Williams – 2015-06-02T18:11:54.400

1This, I got straight A's in high school without ever really needing to try very hard and then when I went to university, I still didn't try, my grades got slightly worse every semester until I failed a few subjects. This really opened my eyes and taught me the most. It helped me to focus on actually doing work. – Aequitas – 2015-06-03T01:46:11.780


I agree with failing this student, and here is some other advice:

  1. As mentioned in other answers, make sure you have collected e-mail correspondences in case she files a grievance.
  2. If you need to write to her, write as little as possible. Simply state the fact in a couple sentences. Do not put any evaluation or judgmental statements in the e-mail. The more you write, the more she can later pick on.
  3. Once she misses the ultimatum, simply submit the grade as soon as you can. If she comes to talk to you again, tell her that it's been in the formal record and out of your control. Refer her to the registrar.
  4. If possible, do not meet with her with just you two. Invite at least one supervisor, registrar, or other relevant person to be there. Desperate students can potentially make up a lot of delusional accusations; having a third person can avoid the "you said, I said" confusion.
  5. Just give the simplest explanation, repeat that if you may. Even if she presses for more explanation or justification, always go back to the simplest explanation. And feel free to tell her there is no more you can say. If she explains with a learning disability, accident, or hurricane, do not join the discussion. Say again that the decision has been made and it's out of your control. Refer her to the higher-up.
  6. Get the next in the line involved. It can be the Dean of Students or the Dean of the Department. Let them know you may refer her to see them if she requires to have her plead advanced.

Remember to chill out. Failing students is in no way a pleasant experience. However, it's our job to give objective evaluations. The student lacks fundamental cognitive input and basic professionalism; to me, it's a one-way ticket to the Fail-land.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 17 559

15Normally I would jump down your throat about dismissing a learning disability, but that is the sort of thing a student has to tell an instructor at the start of class, not the end of it. So in this specific case, the student has no recourse. In fact, any inability to meet deadlines should be brought up before the deadline passes. – Zibbobz – 2015-05-29T17:29:49.027

4@Zibbobz, thanks! Learning disability can still play a role and I did not mean to dismiss it specifically, more so, I meant to advise dismissing every sort of excuses and insist that the best informed decision has been made. Regarding learning disabilities, the "report at the start" rule works most of the time, but there are exceptions such as students thinking they can tough it out, ashamed, diagnosed recently, or even was having depressive disorders causing them not to report at the start of the course, etc. These are worth reconsidering, but it should no longer be the OP's job in this case. – Penguin_Knight – 2015-05-29T17:57:21.597

5Try not to pass the buck and blame something seemingly out of your control. Just state that you submitted the final grade and will not change it. No need to make some other person's life miserable by making her think she can go complain to them to get things changed. – Eric – 2015-05-30T02:45:26.070

Good practical points! Thanks a ton. – A.Lee – 2015-05-30T07:37:55.437

-1 For being dismissive regarding a learning disability. If that claim is made - while she should have mentioned it to begin with, it still merits consideration. But not immediately and not by OP. OP should suggest she get an official diagnosis, and that if that is presented, you would discuss her case with the Professor in charge of the course or what not. In such a situation she might be in need of certain special arrangements or counseling in order to actually make deadlines - and just failing her may not be the best solution. – einpoklum – 2015-05-30T13:11:08.270

1@Eric: It's not about passing the buck, it's about making the student understand that the deadline is not a personal agreement between the OP and the student that can be debated away, but a restriction imposed and enforced by the whole university, a deadline that will not just postpone itself if you let it pass. Quite in contrary, I think it is adviseable to distribute control over the issue to as many people as possible, who will, if it comes to that, deal with the student on their own and (if the case description is accurate) come to the same conclusion. On the one hand, it provides a .. – O. R. Mapper – 2015-05-30T17:49:04.887

... chance for the student to realize the OP is not the only one who she might get in trouble with for her current attitude towards deadlines, on the other hand, it should help the OP with their current qualms if they see that the other colleagues the student approaches have the same impression of the case. – O. R. Mapper – 2015-05-30T17:50:35.470

3You have to remember your obligations to the cohort as a whole. Failing this student is your act of fairness to the students who performed at the desired level. If a disability is uncovered later it ought to be up to the board of examiners (or similar) whether any allowance apply retrospectively. And document EVERYTHING. I keep contemporaneous notes of any student meetings either by emailing the student to confirm the meeting content or by emailing myself, this timestamping the note through my university's server. – ctokelly – 2015-05-31T08:05:58.737

1@einpoklum even if I am presented with an official diagnosis, I am in no position to evaluate how much this actually hurts the student, and how to fairly compensate. Plus, after systematic failing to deliver progress and dismissing the work, it seems like the student is not even trying. – Davidmh – 2015-06-03T08:22:27.660

@Davidmh: It may seem to you like that, but not actually be the case; or maybe she really isn't trying, but then - why is she even enrolled in the first place? At any rate, indeed, it's not for you to evaluate, and in the case she has a learning disability, a person with relevant professional experience on these matters should be consulted, regardless of her grade in your course. You never know, she might even have some chemical imbalance which prevents her from focusing attention, and she's explaining it away with other excuses. – einpoklum – 2015-06-04T09:08:53.277


I'd like to contribute with a bit of personal experience, and perhaps isn't the advice you're looking for, so let downvotes ensue. A few people here mentioned possibility of a learning disability, so here goes.

Six or seven years ago, I was exactly this student. I switched majors twice in my undergrad and ended up taking extra classes to catch up with the curriculum. I was taking over 20 credits every semester including summers and running on less than 4.5 hours of sleep on an average night. This lasted for three years -- including summers. It ruined my health, my motivation, my looks, my relationships, my hygiene habits and more. I was completely lost and wasn't even looking for advice at that point. If I told my family I was going to graduate late, I'd be in big trouble.

By the end of this whole thing, I was so depressed, worn out and physically ill that when I asked to take a final on a different day (I had three back-to-back) and got rejected, I got drunk all by myself for the first and only time in my life. Something really broke in me that day, and the next semester I just couldn't force myself to do work.

If I knew then what I know now, that I could probably go and ask someone for advice, seek professional help or at least counseling, I would have certainly done that. Some professors knew something was wrong, because I was very interested in the subjects, and was ahead of most students in theoretical knowledge, especially mathematics, but I would never submit my homework assignments and lab reports. They sincerely tried helping me, but everyone missed the point that I drove myself into a state of serious mental illness. I would find myself sitting in rooms staring for hours at a single point, I couldn't force myself to sleep, I had bad social anxiety and constant panic attacks. But I didn't realize for a very long time that I was ill, that this was a real tangible thing that had a name, a physiological basis, and methods of treatment.

So what I'm asking you to consider is whether she's overall a bright individual. Does she seem to have previously done reasonably well? Is this a change in behavior? Clearly, she's gotten herself this far, so what's happening now? If you find that this is a recent development, refer her to counseling. Most universities have such services. She may not realize that she may have a problem. Most people in these situations don't.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 898

12Thank you for posting your story. It will be valuable to help academics think more clearly about the situations their students find themselves in. I am glad you took the time to write it. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 – 2015-05-30T09:25:09.973

I don't think you'll get any down votes. You're not, as far as I can tell, recommending that she be given a long extension or other extraordinary academic favors, but that she be referred to professional mental help. Perhaps even a mental health professional intervention? – Wayne – 2015-06-01T01:12:57.137

4You bring up an excellent point. I agree that the behavior of this student points to a mental problem - not simply laziness -, and the advice to refer her to counseling services is excellent. I have seen this happen to a person I was very close to, and your story resonates. – Floris – 2015-06-02T03:31:32.217

1Been there, done that. The OP’s student does indeed sounds like she could benefit professional help. Inability to work for some reason, which lead to shame, angst and anxiety, which in turn lead to lack of communication. At the same time, guilt makes you refuses any kind of help. Recipe for a vicious circle. I believe supervisors would benefit from learning to detect these behaviours early on. – Édouard – 2015-06-06T15:22:58.323


Unless your course specifically allows for extensions on deadlines, you should not have offered one to her - this is unfair biased treatment based on coercion on her part. It also de-legitimizes any student who would come to you with a reasonable excuse for a deadline extension.

Knowing the position your student was in, you should have told her, upfront, that she had already done too little work to pass your course, and that extending the final deadline would not help (unless the final is somehow greater than 65% of the course grade, but even in that case, she has not shown any indication that she would meet even an extended deadline).

Now that you have offered this to her though, you Must allow her the opportunity to propose a new deadline as you've said you would. Be extremely strict about this. If she does not deliver on time, she has wasted her one opportunity for an extension and has failed your course.

At this point, you have done all you can for your student. You have reminded them of the consequences they will face numerous times, you have attempted to help them and reminded them of necessary coursework several times, and they have listened to none of your advice, done none of the work you requested, and still expect a favor from you in the end.

Do not feel guilty about failing her. Do not feel guilty even if she manages to get her thesis in. Unless it is perfect and your grading rubric actually does allow for more than 65% of the grade to be based on her final, do not pass her on that alone, and even if it does weigh that heavy on her grade, do not feel pressured to pass her on a less than perfect thesis.

She will complain. She will say terrible things about you. She may even throw a fit in the middle of the thesis defense or in the faculty office hallways. Do not give in.

If she can afford to slack off for an entire semester, she can afford to pay for another semester and do it right.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 2 192

13As an aside: Do NOT accept any offer from her to hand in 'all the late work' at once. She may be mistakenly thinking that this is acceptable practice at the college level: It is not, and you have reminded her about the deadlines she had many times in the past. – Zibbobz – 2015-05-29T15:05:52.317

5'If she can afford to slack off for an entire semester, she can afford to pay for another semester and do it right.' Well said! – A.Lee – 2015-05-30T07:54:31.470


You are not failing her... she has failed. You are only acknowledging this fact.

I had a similar situation with a student in a software development class who came within one percentage point of a passing grade... and I refused to give her any slack at all because she never showed any interest in actually learning the material, never asked questions or otherwise participated in class, and never approached me or anyone else for help.

By all means, keep your word and allow her the extension. However, you have every right to expect that she keeps her word as well and gives you a new date, and then delivers on or before that date.

It's an unfortunate situation, but I can't see where you could have done anything to avoid it.

Terry Lewis

Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 380


Since you have agreed to two day extension it is the only proper thing to wait for this time period, but not more.

One of primary goals of Bachelor's degree or Uni in general is to qualify you for work. And that also includes being able to live with the consequences of your action.

If after 2 days the delivery date (Which if she provides, should be short not long in my opinion) then fail her until she improves. It can be even multiple times if she still doesn't learn.

After she learns to do the work properly she should be a person more appropriate for working environment and will be beneficial for her in a long term. Which means you were successful as her supervisor.

Matjaz Trcek

Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 344


There is a reason that you give a student a PASS or a FAIL: it's because not every student is worthy of a PASS. In this case, the student is obviously worthy of a FAIL. I wouldn't give it much more thought than that.

Lightness Races in Orbit

Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 2 730


I guess you should let her go... it's a university, you tried everything. She's an adult now, if she refused your help but complaining about she needs more time to present something, I think you can't do nothing.

Let her fail. Of course she will hate you and she will think that this whole thing is because of you, but it's not true. She should understand that there are rules that can't be changed because of her.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 201

1I don't think she will hate you. She might complain loudly hoping you get emotionally involved and let her pass, but inside she knows what's happening. She wants to get away with doing absolutely nothing, I'd be surprised if she really believed that slacking off is the best way to pass. – Stefano Sanfilippo – 2015-05-30T11:35:45.243


If she made through university to her bachelor thesis, and cannot get any work done on it, then the problem is very likely not academic but elsewhere. Could be depression, could be severe family problems. Which means that although you are willing and trying to help her, you can't.

If you are convinced that she has no chance getting her bachelor thesis delivered (and that seems to be the case), there is nothing you can do from a professional point of view to help her. From a human point of view, it would be excellent if you could direct her towards someone who can help her; and possibly turn things academically so that she doesn't end up with a failed thesis but as if she had never started with the thesis (which is more or less what happened) so she can come back in a year or two when her problems are fixed - obviously only if that is something that you can do without problems, and if it is something that would help.

(I suppose there is a point up to which she can abandon a thesis as if she had never tried to write it, but have no idea where that point is).


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 1 154

3I disagree that the problem needs to be a new non-academic issue. If all examinations so far did not involve single-person long-term projects, it is not unlikely that the student is the type that always starts working at the last possible moment and got this far by relying on all-nighters and supervisor leniency. I know of several students who never learnt time management and the respective self-discipline before their bachelor thesis. Given the extent of the issues described in the question, this is probably still a problem deserving professional help or similar, but it need not be new. – Wrzlprmft – 2015-05-29T21:02:05.113

That is actually the conclusion that me and my colleagues came to. – A.Lee – 2015-05-30T07:56:07.137

"If she made through university to her bachelor thesis, and cannot get any work done on it, then the problem is very likely not academic but elsewhere." - I doubt the validity of this assumption. What @Wrzlprmft said might apply, but even otherwise, curricula often intentionally feature several times the same type of courses/milestones. Like this, students who may be lucky once and somehow manage to talk themselves out of failing despite not quite living up to the expectations will have a hard time to avoid failing like this several times during their major. – O. R. Mapper – 2015-05-30T18:15:38.700


There is a lot of great advice here. I just want to point one thing out, which will help when considered and applied with the other strategies.

You spent a lot of time in this question defending yourself and your performance. You, or at least part of you, feels that her failure is your failure, and you're trying to convince yourself that this is not the case.

It is a fact--that is, it is accurate that her failure is not your failure. You did not, in any way, fail to do everything a reasonable person would have done. However, you do not yet believe this (or at least you did not at the time you were writing the question). The answers here should help you, as anyone who is an objective observer, looking at this evidence, can tell that the student failed herself, 100%, no question.

But you have something to learn here, too, which is:

Do not internalize the failures of your students.

You seem to care a great deal, and there is nothing wrong with that--in fact it is a very positive quality in a supervisor. But it is going to degrade your performance if you consider it a personal failure every time someone who is under your supervision fails. It is not good for the other people that you supervise, it is not good for the people you work with, and it is not good for you.

That's all--I just wanted to bring out that point because it's something you (or anyone else in the same situation) might be missing about yourself, and it's something you can ponder and learn to recognize and hopefully overcome (or at least strengthen your defenses against) over time.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 2 116


Your experience is not at all uncommon. I have had similar experiences with graduate students at my institution. At first I "felt bad" about giving a bad/failing grade to a student or not granting extensions, but over time, I have learned not to let my personal feelings get in the way.

I sympathize with your concerns:

  • Yes, it is frustrating when you care more about your student's progress/success more than he/she does
  • Yes, it is easy to believe that the student's failure reflects your own failure as an educator, especially if you have counseled the student multiple times with no results...
  • Yes, "things do come up," and you should be flexible given extenuating circumstances
  • Yes, it is difficult to refuse extensions to the student, because we are socially conditioned not to hurt people's feelings or be a "mean" person


  • At university, the student is an adult, and you cannot "force" them to do the work
  • At some point, the student needs to learn to take responsibility for their own work and respect deadlines. They need to develop this kind of maturity to be successful in the real world, and by being too nice, you may actually be doing the student a disservice
  • From your account, the circumstance did not seem extenuating. You counseled the student multiple times and she blew you off until the last minute
  • It is not fair to the other students who are, no doubt, just as busy as that student but still managed to get their work in on time
  • You, as an educator, have a personal responsibility to ensure that people who pass your class/capstone requirements/thesis have fulfilled the requirements to pass, be it all the course assignments or the thesis. Not only would the student have to "turn in something," the quality that something has to be up to standards. If the student is unleashed on the real world with zero skills and zero knowledge, it reflects badly on the program and may affect the employment prospects of other students that come out of the program. If the person has to stay an extra semester, so be it.

Now to answer your question:

Now I am struggling with these three options:

  • Wait for two days, and if she doesn't give me an exact delivery date (which she probably won't), just give her a fail grade.

  • Give her an extension for ten days or two weeks, and then grade her based on what she delivers eventually, which most probably is a fail grade anyhow.

  • Give her a longer extension, long enough for her to pass the thesis.

I vote for Option A (wait for two days, and if nothing then fail). Again, the student is an adult, and it is not your place to hound this person for her work. You are investing too much time in someone who cares less about her own progress than you do, and the end result can be disappointing. For example, early in my doctoral program, when I was still "nice," I had a student who kept on making up "legitimate" excuses for not turning in his mid-term exam on time ("I was doing HIV testing at X Festival this weekend," "I overbooked myself with Z"). I e-mailed him several times asking him to turn in his exam, and when he finally sent me his exam ~2 weeks after the due date, the accompanying e-mail read,

Haha Sorry!

Just being honest: I'm sitting in a house that I'm renting on the beach in ________, Mexico right now... It's difficult for me to concentrate!!!!

Granted, your student may not be sitting on a beach house in Mexico, but my point is that your emotional investment may not be worth the reward.

This is just the first of many experiences you will have with students. It is important to be able to emotionally detach when the situation calls for it to avoid burnout. There are a couple of ways to remedy this for the future:

  1. Set a strict deadline and deduce points for late work except for extenuating circumstances. In grad school, I had a prof who took off 10 points for every hour the assignment was turned in late starting at 10 minutes past the hour. He announced his policy the first day of class. I also worked for someone who made it a policy that the highest grade she would give for late assignments was 80%. The latter is a bit tricky, because if you set the maximum grade too low, you might trigger a "what's the point" reaction, so tread carefully.
  2. If you allow extensions, have a clear extension policy that can be applied universally. I understand that sometimes students are embarrassed or shy to ask for extensions, but if you go over the policy you have written on the syllabus in the beginning of class, and encourage open channels of communication, this may save you frustration in the end.
  3. If it is possible to break the huge assignment down to small deliverables at regular intervals, this may add some structure to the process, and the multiple deadlines may create a sense of urgency among the students. For example, ask them for an outline by the second week of the semester so that you can give feedback in a low-pressure environment regarding the viability of their research endeavor. Then ask for an intro section 1 month after that, methods 3 weeks after, etc. You can also catch students who are lagging behind before they get too far behind.

I am sure the three suggestions I provided above, which I copped from former profs, were all developed as a result of the profs' having faced similar situations during their doctoral training.

EDIT: One other possibility is that the student may have ADD or a learning disability. Maybe you can talk to her about undergoing tests for ADD and other disabilities, which may be covered by student health insurance.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 457


You are obviously a caring educator. I tip my hat to you.

When I was an academic advisor, I used to remind my students of something very important. It is up to the student to complete the assigned work in a manner that fulfills the instructor's requirements - all while meeting the posted deadline. The instructor only fails the student if she or he does not fulfill their end of the student/instructor agreement.

A student earns their grade. Please allow me to repeat that. A student EARNS their grade. A grade is not (hopefully) arbitrarily assigned by the instructor. A student who completes work as assigned, before the posted deadline, and with few to no errors will earn a passing grade. It's a simple concept. A student who ignores deadlines and submits an assignment that is riddled with errors cannot reasonably expect to pass. That student has not earned a passing grade.

As long as you are living up to your end of the student/instructor agreement, you are not failing the student. In this case, the student is on her way to earning a failing grade.


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 180


I would be glad if anyone can give me some recommendations on how to deal with this situation.

It is clear that you have done the right things and the advice you got from others is mostly correct. An important thing to learn is how to deal with this in the future. I would be more proactive than requiring that "all students are supposed to hand in their time plan within two weeks of their work".

In my experience even graduate students do not necessarily have good time management skills, although some do. I prefer to err the other way: give them a time plan, and make it aggressive: 1/2 the semester length. After all the inevitable excuses and delays, my class still finishes its projects before the others. I never tell them this is the real reason for having an advanced time plan - just that that's the way it is!


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 161


Like everyone else, I would say that you should give her a failing grade. Everyone else has expounded brilliantly on why you should as it relates to her performance and manipulation of your good intentions. I write this answer, not to reiterate what others have said but instead to offer one more piece of advice about why giving her the grade that she earned is the only appropriate course of action.

  • If you give her extensions, you have lied to every other student in your class about expectations and grading.
    • and therein you begin to erode the confidence of those who have worked hard and met your expectations.

In a similar situation when a student was asking me for an extension, I asked the student if he/she realizes that - if I do - then they're asking me to lie to every other student just so they can have more time. When I asked that student if they actually wanted me to lie to the rest of the class, he/she understood, and said 'no.'

In the end, it is a great disservice to those who have taken you at your word and trusted your educational authority. It is those students who have worked hard to meet your deadlines and expectations that will lose faith in you, your class, and the subject, if they see that the ones who don't take class seriously get more advantages than they do.

Good luck in decision making. Do the thing that is best for your whole class and know that what you do for one student, you have to do for all students.

Let us know how it goes!


Posted 2015-05-29T08:47:41.277

Reputation: 211

Eh, students generally have the understanding that they can ask for extensions and maybe get them. – None – 2015-06-02T18:02:55.027

Not where I've taught or gone to school. It wasn't unheard of, but a request needed a verifiable reason in order to make it authentic... especially for a final presentation. – Andrew – 2015-06-02T18:20:19.077