Assignments: better late than never?

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and told her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Angry instructor

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.”  [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cutting flowers for Rose Bowl Floats

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.

Interested in learning more about what to do about late assignments? See this post.

Save

17 thoughts on “Assignments: better late than never?

  1. George Haber

    I’ve been teaching at four-year colleges in the New York area for more than 20 years. I tell students they may hand in assignments late, but if they do, I may not read them and I may not grade them. I tell students I will only possibly read and grade late assignments if I feel I need them to assign a final grade to the student. I don’t believe in “penalizing” a student by downgrading a late assignment….I believe an “A” paper is an “A” paper whether it’s handed in on time or a month late. The opposite is like saying a grilled bronzino with vegetables is “worth” !8.00 if served during the “early-bird” time, but it’s worth 28.00 if served after. Makes no sense!

    Reply
  2. Laurana

    That sounds so logical. I still got penalised as a student, for missing the deadline because I was horribly sick from chemotherapy and brain surgery. Lol teacher did not want to be unfair to other students… well, get brain cancer first and then let’s talk about fair.

    Reply
  3. Aristote

    I wanted to submit my final essay at school today which is going to be due in 2 business day.however the whole campus is claused because of thinks giving. I didn’t know that the campus would be claused the day after thanksgiving and all my documents are saved on the campus’s computers. Is there any way to help me out ?

    Reply
    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      In planning ahead, think of this motto: “something is either early or it’s late.” No such thing as “on time.” If you plan your life as if you can always submit stuff “on time,” bad stuff will happen, sooner or later.
      In this case, you’ll have to throw yourself on the mercy of your instructor, claiming ignorance of school policy. Good luck.

      Reply
  4. Melinda Worfolk

    My attitude toward late penalties has changed considerably since I first started teaching nearly 20 years ago. After taking some workshops on learner diversity and First Peoples Principles of Learning (http://www.fnesc.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/PUB-LFP-POSTER-Principles-of-Learning-First-Peoples-poster-11×17.pdf), this last semester I finally eliminated all mention of late penalties from my syllabi. I wanted to see what would happen. And you know what happened? Exactly what you described! I’m done with late penalties.

    Thank you for articulating all this so well in your post.

    Reply
      1. Howard Aldrich Post author

        It is true that people must learn that their actions have consequences, but that is a very generic kind of learning. People must also learn to recognize the contingencies that affect the conditions under which they apply one rule rather than another. For instructors, I would say that “actions have consequences” is something that parents should teach their children, rather than waiting until the kids get to college. By then, they know that general rule. What instructors need to consider are the conditions under which a harsh penalty is appropriate & when it is not.

        Reply
  5. Yulia

    I’m working on my masters degree, I’m a family nurse practitioner student. One of my classmates and I turned our papers about 20-30 minutes after deadline (midnight). I simply thought that my instructor is not going to read this paper at midnight anyway and my classmate couldn’t do it because her computer was updating. We both got zeros on our papers. I want to talk to my instructor about giving us at least some credit, but I don’t know how I can convince her. I would appreciate an advice from you.

    Reply
    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Yulia, sorry to hear of your troubles. First and most important: what is your instructors stated policy? Was it written in the syllabus that late papers were not accepted? If that is the case, then your instructor will argue that you knew the rules and she can’t make an exception. That’s when you can use the arguments that I raise in my blog post. Second, if there was no stated policy, then I think you have a stronger case for at least having the instructor accept the paper and grade it and then perhaps deduct something from the grade because it was “late.” There’s a big difference between getting a zero on a paper and a C or even a B.in the case of no stated policy, I would make the argument that you did the assignment and the instructor should grade it, for otherwise you’re in the same boat as somebody who didn’t do the assignment at all. That doesn’t seem fair. Third, you could send the link for my blog post to your instructor, to give them advance warning of the argument you will make.

      Reply
  6. Sam

    Hi Howard,

    I read your article with great interest, but from my experience, I must disagree with a lot of your points.

    I teach college English composition courses. My syllabus is ironclad and I thoroughly cover everything in the syllabus on the first day of the semester. I don’t accept late work unless there is a death in the family, or they have a medical reason for missing class. Students are required to upload their assignments via Sakai. They are always given a fair amount of time for each writing assignment, so they’re never rushed to finish a project.

    I don’t budge on not taking late work for several reasons. Deadlines are deadlines. Students are supposed to learn the responsibility of becoming an adult and part of that is getting tasks done on time. Punctuality shows initiative, and what so many fail to teach students at the college level these days is time management. Yes, being a college student is a major adjustment. It’s a balancing act. They need to learn how to schedule the proper amount of time for each project. Most don’t. We should not reward procrastination, which is what most students minor in. =)

    Deadlines are important in the real world. To apply for graduate school, a student must submit an application on time, as well as get letters of recommendation, apply for grants, etc. After graduation, the same holds true. If submitting an application for a particular job is expected by a certain date, the student needs to realize that the “day after” is too late. Often, for employers, they are looking for future workers who are punctual and have the ability to get their work done by the deadline.

    Allowing a student X number of days beyond the deadline is unfair to those who did their work on time. What’s the point of even giving a due date, if it’s going to be dismissed afterwards? I’ve also discovered that students hold a higher level of respect for the instructors/professors who set standards and keep them.

    Point 2, you state: “By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment.” Most students I have are never ‘assignment-free peers’. They start working on another assignment. The ones who turned their work in on time had to forgo other things they would’ve enjoyed, and from my experience, the ‘struggling’ students forwent doing their assignments by doing something they enjoyed instead. Procrastination is commonplace, and cellphone addiction is a conversation for another day. Sadly, the distractions prevent students from focusing on the more important objectives.

    Again, I enjoyed reading your article and your view. Very enlightening to see a different perspective. For me, it would never work. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  7. Howard Aldrich Post author

    Sam, thank you for your thoughtful disagreement with my points. Your comments reminded me that I probably didn’t put enough context into my argument so that him readers could see the setting in which I was able to use these techniques.

    My policy regarding late assignments is not a stand-alone policy, divorced from the overall framework in which the course is organized. The course is embedded in a much bigger philosophy of teaching and learning that enables me to use this specific policy, along with many others. The larger perspective can be glimpsed, I think, by looking at my other blog posts and the many papers and postings I’ve made on teaching and learning over the past decades. (See my “Teaching Resources” webpage.)

    The first thing to note is that I get almost no requests for permission to turn in assignments late. From day one, I behave as if I don’t expect late assignments and I emphasize ways in which students can complete their assignments on time. (For those sociologists reading this, I truly believe in the “social construction of reality.”) If, early in the semester a question ever does come up about late assignments – – which is extremely rare – – my reaction always is to say that the course is organized so as to make it possible for people to do their work on time. I ask people to let me know as soon as possible if they are having difficulties and to come and see me. If students persist and ask “yes, but what penalties will I get if I’m late?” I just reply, in mock surprise, “Are you aware today that you’ll be late for something a month or two from now?” And then, in so many words, I tell them that will cross that bridge when we come to it. And the path almost all students follow hardly ever takes them across that bridge.

    Second, my now retired colleague, Joe Lowman, who wrote a very good book on college teaching(Mastering the Techniques of Teaching), used the same policy during his 40 years of teaching in the Psychology Department here, and with the same results that I have experienced.

    Third, you make an excellent point regarding students needing to learn about deadlines and time management, and I spend time on that in class. My syllabus and calendar, on Sakai, are structured to emphasize punctuality and timeliness. For example, see my blog post on using small wins in creating milestones for students.

    Fourth, I take the deadlines extremely seriously, which is why I spend so much time creating milestones to make certain that students will be prepared to meet the deadlines.

    Fifth, in almost 50 years of teaching, I don’t recall a student ever saying to me that they felt cheated or treated unfairly because another student received a little extra time to complete an assignment. (Recall again that in my classes, I almost never get late assignments, and so this may not be a very fair test.) I try to build a culture of trust in which I hope students assume that I will use my discretion in a just way.

    Six, I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding cell phone addiction and the presence of other distractions in the lives of our undergraduates. I wish I had an answer to that question! I can tell you that I don’t allow cell phone use or laptop use in my classes. Students keep them off unless I direct them to be turned on for use in classroom assignments. Some students even seem relieved to be unburdened of that distraction for 50 or 75 minutes!

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and for an alternative perspective on my proposals.

    Reply
  8. Ariam

    Repeat on of the learning principles Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions. When you create an assignment and you establish a deadline to complete the assignment, what is the consequence for not doing it on time?
    What if that student that has been trained that late papers are just fine becomes a doctor and it is late for an important surgery of your family member?
    What if that student that has been trained that late papers are just fine, is late in one maneuver and crashes the airplane with you inside or your family members?
    There are cases that are exceptional cases in which late assignments can be accepted without penalty, but to make that a rule is dangerous.

    Reply
    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Actually, nothing I do is ever strictly rule-governed. Life is full of too many contingencies! Instructors have a huge amount of power over their students & they need to learn to exercise it in a nuanced & humane way.

      Reply
  9. kimberly genereux

    In my experience, the working world, especially people working for the government, was comprised of painfully mediocre people whose best talent was being on time for everything.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.