Getting Students to Complete Work: What Works?

If you want to have fun when you're with a group of teachers, just ask them how many students turned in their most recent assignment.

It's a riot.


Like, not in the funny knee-slapping "that's a riot" kind of way.

I mean it in the way where your best bet is to run as fast as you can before someone flips a car, lights it on fire, and then mounts their coat on a stick, waving it and shouting some sort of battle cry.

I don't mean to make light of the situation. It really is maddening as a teacher to spend hours developing a unit to ensure students get the most out of it, only to find out that hardly any of them actually did anything of value. If there's ever a time where every teacher thinks about throwing in the towel, it's almost always just after a due date.

How we respond is absolutely crucial, though. A negative, "why me?!" approach to missing work does nothing to benefit anyone. It can absolutely crush a classroom culture if you blame the students entirely, and it can completely ruin your year if you dwell on it without actually doing anything.

And let's be clear, while whining and bemoaning the situation might feel good for a bit, it doesn't count as actually doing something about the problem.

Instead, think about some of the barriers to students getting their work turned in, and try to solve the problem. Even some of the big, systemic issues can be approached in a positive light.

Here are some ideas to move us from a state of despair and anguish to a problem-solver with a never-say-die attitude:

1. Parental Involvement

Raise your hand (okay, don't really...people will look at you and wonder why you're raising your hand while staring at your computer) if you've heard the following explanation for why students don't turn in work: "The parents don't even care. They don't make them do their work."

I would bet almost everyone would have raised their hand.

Is it true that some parents don't push their kids as hard as others? Definitely. Does that give us an excuse to just give up? Definitely not.

My question is this: Do the parents of your students know what they should be doing at night?

If your answer is no, I want to make a couple suggestions.

1. Remind - Remind is an app that lets you send messages to phones without actually sharing contact information. Students and parents can easily sign up, and then you can send out a message to both parties to make sure they know what's coming up, reading they should be doing, etc.

2. Google Classroom's guardian feature - In the student section of a Classroom, you'll notice a spot for guardian's emails. If you do that, parents will get notifications about what their student is working on in class.

Both of these solutions take hardly any time, but they can make a big difference.

2. Public Accountability

Remember back in elementary school how there were always posters on the wall with your progress marked. Why did that stop?

We know that public accountability dramatically increases engagement with tasks, so when a student just has to turn in an assignment online and nobody but the teacher knows, guess what happens to that engagement...

A quick and easy solution for this is to use a project or unit progress board. This could be either digital or physical, but it really doesn't need to be complicated. Either put all of the assignments up on board or the different steps in the project, and then you or the student can mark it off when they're done. 

This holds the student publicly accountable for work ethic without displaying information about academic performance that could stigmatize academic failure in a way that would be detrimental to that student. 

Here's an example of one I used during a writer's project. (I used conditional formatting so that I could just add a period to shade in the cell.)

Does this solution work for everyone? Obviously not, but I saw a marked improvement in completion rates for projects when I began implementing this.

3. Task Design

Students today have access to more entertainment than they could ever know what to do with. As teachers, we will never be able to compete with that. If we are expecting students to do something that they completely don't want to do, then there's no hope. While I'm not saying everything in our classes should just be fun and exciting, I am saying that we should check our tasks to see if they include some of the different elements that we know increase student engagement. I've written about this before, so I won't go heavily into detail during this post. Nonetheless, if you want to read more about this, check out this blog post.

While these three different elements won't result in 100% turn-in rates for every assignment in your class – wouldn't that be amazing?! – they're a step in the right direction. 

So, next time a due date passes and a large percentage of your students don't complete their work, do the following steps:

  • Step 1: Whine and complain for like three seconds.
  • Step 2: Reflect, reflect, reflect.
  • Step 3: Research, research, research.
  • Step 4: Implement new strategies.
  • Step 5: Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Hang in there. I know it's frustrating, but don't give up. If your turn-in percentage goes up even the tiniest fraction after you try out one of these strategies, celebrate it.

Then go through the steps again. 

And again. 

And again.

Because the beautiful thing about teaching is that even though it's a neverending journey, as long as we're always moving forward and making progress, it's one hell of a ride.