Students Late Assignments

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How to Handle Late Student Work

The overarching goal of education is that kids LEARN the material, and let’s face it, not all kids learn at the same pace. I have a unique approach to late work. I encourage students to turn their work in early by offering extra credit incentives. I do charge a 5% penalty to work that is turned in late, but I always accept late work so long as I can grade it before the end of the official grading period. Of course teachers should penalize laziness and irresponsibility, but sometimes that type of behavior can be confused within a struggling student.

I teach heterogeneous classes. My classroom is filled with not just all high school grade levels, but an even broader variety of learning styles and speeds. Some students are very quick in some areas of study, but can be very slow to absorb other aspects of the curriculum. One of my goals is that ALL students learn the curriculum, and giving them an out by making a zero an option is not a sound practice in my opinion. Yes, some students do fall short and will fail to submit all of their work, but those students are the rare exception.

When I assign a major project that will take more that a few days to complete I offer all of the students an early turn in option. If the student turns in their completed project three days early, I offer the 15% extra credit; if two days early, 10% extra credit; if 1 day early 5% extra credit. Then I offer the early birds an addition opportunity to earn points by encouraging them to become a helper. A finished student who helps a struggling student submit their completed work by the due date gets additional flat rate extra credit points.

For students who are tardy in their submission I do charge a 5% late fee. But this fee does not grow with the number of days it takes to complete the work. There are many reasons why students do not turn their work in on time. Only one of those reasons is laziness. Telling a student that they can either turn the work in on time, or not, gives the languid student permission to not complete their work. If they are not completing the work, they probably are not learning, or at least, I can’t tell if they are learning.

I have to admit that assessment is my least favorite part of teaching. I really enjoy reviewing the students work and offering them constructive criticism. But I hate the hours upon hours that it takes to grade, and having to write the same note over and over and over again on multiple students’ rubrics. But assessment is a fundamentally important aspect of education. We need to know what the students need to learn and when they have learned it. Yes, it makes me cranky to grade late work, but my crankiness is less important then the students’ learning the material.


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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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