Turning In Assignments Late

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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While I admire your concern for the students, I feel that ultimately your endeavor is quixotic.

To be sure, I see nothing wrong with making your deadline be at 10 pm. It won't change anything, so you might as well. But I wouldn't expect it to have any notable effect, and I would be wary of the slippery slope that leads to you blaming yourself for the students' errors.

The reason I am so pessimistic is that I don't think procrastination and irregular sleep are caused by deadline timing (unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, ). They are caused by poor personal discipline and bad habits acquired over many years leading up to the present. Regardless of what you do, the procrastinators will still invent ways to procrastinate, because the problem is rooted in their own behavior, not yours. You therefore cannot solve the problem by changing your behavior.

For instance, if you have the deadline at 10 pm, the procrastinator will drop everything that evening to work on your assignment and submit it around 10. Then he will still stay up doing the things he just postponed for the sake of your assignment. Because, recall, this person is not selectively procrastinating on your course only - they have also other courses that have deadlines. Even if all courses had the same early deadline policy, the students would still have their own errands with self-imposed deadlines at later times that they stay up for.

By the same logic that makes you consider 10 pm, we can explore other alternatives:

  • 5 pm is a fair time, since it would presumably encourage students to concentrate their last ditch effort in the typical working day. However, there will also be students who have classes right up to the deadline that day, and if they procrastinate (as some certainly shall) they will now skip class to do the assignment, which is arguably worse than staying up!
  • Noon is another time that sounds like a good idea. Being too early, you might expect that it will make students feel they have no choice but to start working on it early since the morning isn't nearly enough time, and if they can't finish it the night before they can safely go to bed, get some sleep, and finish in the morning. But realistically, the procrastinators who stay up late and hand it in at midnight now will just start working at 1 am and stay up all night to finish it.
  • 9 am can be argued for as a realistic time - it's not like you will start grading at midnight, so there isn't really a point in requiring the assignment by midnight - instead of having the students rush their submission to a deadline just so it could sit in your mailbox for several hours, you could tell them to that you will start grading at 9 am and they should have it done by then. This makes the deadline less arbitrary, since there is now a clear logic to being required to meet it (ie. you will be delayed if they don't do their part). But of course you will again have the same problem of students staying up all night because they procrastinated.

For what it's worth, I think the midnight deadline came about as codification of an unspoken tradition. Often deadlines are given as days, without time - with this, there is always much controversy about what exactly counts as meeting an August 6 deadline: Does it have to be done at the beginning of Aug 6? Does it have to be before the instructor leaves the office? Does it have to be before the end of the day, ie. before you go to sleep? Well, what if you never go to sleep, can you squeeze out a few more hours and still "meet your Aug 6 deadline" by submitting at 3:14 am on [technically] Aug 7?

Even though informally "today" means "until I go to sleep", the convention is that the date changes at midnight, which is also reinforced by how computer clocks show the date. Hence, I think the midnight deadline came about as an extension of this - it's just a date delimiter.

As for the students, since you are concerned about how late they go to sleep, surely you will agree that planning ahead and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education. This, then, the students must learn on their own, you cannot help them by tinkering with deadlines, since indeed the deadline is not what is preventing their learning. In fact, one could argue that you should maximize the negative reinforcement, and set the deadline at the worst possible time - say 6 am: The more misery you inflict on the procrastinators, the better they will appreciate how important it is to learn discipline, and the sooner they will take steps to unlearn their bad habits.

Granted, I'm not seriously suggesting you do the above, since it seems like it could go horribly wrong. Realistically, I could instead suggest the following:

  • Set your deadline at some reasonable, early time such as noon.
  • Secretly (ie. do not tell this part to the students) have the "real deadline" (for instance, the one you lose points for missing) be quite a bit later, say 5 pm.
  • In class, say that it is very important they not miss the deadline even by a minute (don't say why), and they should come talk to you if they feel they won't make it.
  • When they inevitably come asking for more time, be liberal with the extensions, but not before making them explain why they were late and lecturing them on the importance of planning ahead. When giving the extension, explain that they absolutely cannot miss the extended deadline, because then you would not be able to meet your own deadline for grading (whether true or not).
  • If anyone misses the noon deadline (but not the 5 pm deadline), confront them about it to discourage submitting late without asking for an extension (which allows bypassing the social discomfort of asking for more time).

With this, you might create something like a low stakes environment (you don't lose massive points just for being a few minutes late) while still creating a fair amount of social pressure to increase the likelihood of a lightbulb appearing and the student thinking, "Hey, Dr. Ward is very nice and reasonable about deadlines and everything, but maybe it's worth for me to try to stop leaving everything to the last minute?". Furthermore, if you force them into an explicit discussion about their procrastination, they have an opportunity to ask you for advice on how to plan their work.

But all of this requires quite a bit of effort from you (much more than just replacing "midnight" with "10 pm" on your syllabus). So if you are not willing to commit the energy, there isn't really much that can be achieved with quick fixes.

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