Late Assignments In College

Here is my issue with Late Penalties being applied to student work.  If we are going to reduce an entire course worth of work down to one symbol for the purpose of reporting, should we not at the very least ensure that the grade is accurate?  Late Penalties lead to inaccuracy, which leads to deflated grades, which distorts the students’ achievement; their true ability to meet the intended learning outcomes.  In most jurisdictions (if not all) grades are supposed to reflect the student’s ability to meet the intended learning outcomes of the course they are enrolled in. In my 20 years I have never seen a curriculum guide that had “handing in work on time” as a learning intention.  It’s possible that one exists, I’ve just never seen it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for students meeting set deadlines. It is obviously a great habit to develop that will serve students well as they make the transition to adulthood.  I also believe in holding students accountable for deadlines, I just never applied a late penalty.  Like “0”, I was the late penalty guy early in my career; “10% per day” was my middle name. Over the years I saw the late penalty as a waste of time. I’d rather support the student than penalize them.  10% is a nice round number and that’s likely the reason we’ve chosen it through the decades as it keeps the math easy! I am not aware of any educational research that proclaims “Late Penalties” as an effective practice…are you? The threat of a penalty is supposed to motivate students into meeting the deadline. Clearly that threat isn’t working as that threat has existed for decades and yet students are still late with assignments.

Here is my position: Students should be graded on the quality of their work (their ability to meet the desired learning targets) rather than how punctual the assignment is.      Here’s why:

Some students predictably struggle with deadlines. Once a due date has been given, most teachers can predict which students will be on-time and which students will be late. We know that most students will meet the deadlines.  If most don’t, then there is likely a flaw in the assignment.  The few that struggle with deadlines need support, not penalties.  The other aspect is that we already know (to a certain degree) who is going to be late.  Think about that…we can predict they’ll be late, but do we act to ensure the learning and/or assignment is on track?  Most students like deadlines and the organization and pacing they provide.

Quality work should trump timeliness. Would you rather a student hand-in high quality work late or poor quality work on-time? Now I know that in an ideal world every student would complete all assignments correctly and hand them in on time, but I choose quality and I think you would too.  We have spent far too much time in education focusing on the things that sit on the periphery of learning.  Meeting a deadline is a good thing – even a great thing – but it doesn’t have anything to do with how much Math or Social Studies you understand!

The flood is a myth! No, not that flood.  The flood of assignments at the end of the year that you think you are going to get; it won’t happen, at least that wasn’t my experience.  In fact, in every school I’ve worked in where teachers eliminated their late penalties they did not experience the flood. As I said above, most students like deadlines and not having a late penalty doesn’t mean you don’t set deadlines and act when they are not met; just don’t distort their grade by artificially lowering it.

We don’t ‘add’ for early. When I’ve asked teachers who have late penalties why they don’t add 10% per day for early assignments they usually say something like, “I couldn’t do that.  That would inflate their grade and wouldn’t be accurate.” I think they’ve just answered their own question.  The exact same logic as to why adding-for-early is not appropriate applies to late penalties; the logic of inaccuracy.

Behavior & Learning must be kept separate. Inaccuracy comes when we start to include student attributes into reporting.  Not handing in work on time has nothing to do with what they know; it reflects what they haven’t done.

Ken O’Connor writes:

The punitive nature of the penalty is a powerful disincentive for students to complete any work.” 

If I’m a marginal student who barely passes most assignments, why would I even bother doing the work if I’m 3 or 4 days late?   I vote for eliminating the penalty altogether, but here are some other suggestions if you insist on keeping your late penalty.  After all, I can’t make you change.

  • Provide a DUE DATE WINDOW and allow your students to manage their time. Provide a window of a few days or an entire week.  Then, after the window closes consider them late.
  • Spend MORE TIME IN PREPARATION making sure every student is clear on what to do and how to do it.  Students might need exemplars or deeper explanations before they are ready.
  • Provide EXTRA SUPPORT AHEAD OF TIME.  We know some students struggle with deadlines and it would be irresponsible as a teacher to not act upon that knowledge before it’s too late.

Now, if all of that doesn’t work for you, then here is a late penalty I could support; I don’t like it, but I could support it. 1% per day! If you are like most teachers I’ve suggested this to you will have one of two reactions.  One reaction is that, “it’s hardly worth the effort so why bother.” EXACTLY! The other reaction is, “that’s not tough enough!”

The second reaction usually reveals the real motive behind the penalty; that for students to comply with deadlines we need to toughen up on them.  Just like with “0”, the punishment paradigm will never produce the academic epiphany.  Making school less pleasant through artificial penalties has never inspired students to exceed expectations.

I set deadlines, but I negotiated deadlines if students came in advance. I held students responsible for deadlines and reacted NOW if a deadline wasn’t met. I contacted parents if deadlines were consistently being missed or avoided, but I DIDN’T PENALIZE STUDENTS in the GRADE BOOK! I accepted late work, but I never got the flood at the end of the year!

So…enough with the late penalties already and let’s put our focus back on learning!

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I've always been a student that turned in HW late, and it varies widely depending on the professor. In general, I have found the humanities departments the most harsh about deadlines. The natural science classes are more lenient, with some professors clearly stating that they will accept late HW with a deduced grade. Others will accept late HW unofficially before they return graded HWs to students, and yet others will work with you more flexibly. There hasn't been a single professor of mine that hasn't accepted at least some late HW from me.

As a TA, I fully accept late HW, with no deadlines, and likewise return the HWs to students late (you can call it a "suggested deadline"). My teaching principles are fairly libertarian, and my students tend to learn a lot during the semester. That's what I care about. The only time I care about HWs and examinations is to see whether I'm doing an effective job at what the students' pay me to do, which is teach them. It's only fair to examine the students to see if I'm failing them.

It's appalling to see professors demand of their students, who, just in case anyone forgot, pay the professors' salaries, demand of their students to learn a certain way within a definite deadline. Nothing in my experience has been more detrimental to my learning. I've gained the most out of classes that allowed me to turn in HW late.

Just in case anyone thinks that students who fail to "respect" deadlines are intrinsically procrastinators, I declare that it was quite the contrary in my case. The reason I submitted HWs late was to ensure I read the whole relevant text before attempting the HW. I wanted to know exactly what I was doing when I solved a problem, rather than use "ad hoc" methods to get something that resembles the correct answer. Moreover, I would often find a passage in a text that interested me, so I would pursue the topic and do some research. Sometimes this "research" would take a week out of my time, but I learned more from the self-driven pursuits than all the professor-imposed, who was paid by me to teach me, HW combined.

It's time we do away with harsh grading policies and strict deadlines, because I don't know a single person who has ever learned that way.

On the other hand, I do know a lot of wage-slaves, also known as employees at major companies, who rent their bodies to their masters; and the masters certainly will demand of their subjects to have work done on time and subject themselves to meaningless evaluations by authoritarian figures. That isn't the environment in which people can learn and discover; that sounds more like mines, sweat-shops, and assembly line to me. Unless one wants to impose an assembly-line education, which is what's common in USA universities these days, I'd advise against serious deadlines.

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