Why I Don’t Do Late Penalties

A recent commenter asked me to address my late paper policy (mentioned briefly in another post), so I’m going to do that here. I just want to be clear, however, that this is MY late paper policy. It works for me and my class, but I am not going to sit here and insist that it will work for everyone. If what I describe here sounds like a nightmare to you, then simply ignore it.

The short version is that I don’t penalize students for turning in papers “late.” I provide a schedule with recommended deadlines for the submission of first and second drafts, and I refuse to take papers after a set date during exam week, but I do not take points off for lateness. I used to. For the first three semesters in which I taught my own classes, I took a letter grade off for each class day that a paper was past due and then tried to grant “grace” extensions where I felt they were warranted. The reason I changed is because this policy caused more problems for me than it prevented. Having to listen to every student’s emergency and determine which ones were real and which ones merited an extension made enforcing this policy more trouble than I felt it was worth. It felt arbitrary, and I was not comfortable with it. But that’s just me. I know plenty of instructors who have no problem enforcing a late paper policy like this, who believe that it does, in fact, make their lives easier. I’m just not one of those instructors.

The way I see it, paper deadlines and the late policies that accompany them are designed to do two things:

1) Provide the student with a reasonable timeline for completing assignments.

2) Divide up the instructor’s grading load into manageable, predictable chunks.

Most people who defend the “one letter grade off” late policies cite managing their own workload and teaching the student valuable lessons as reasons for why they enforce it. I often hear things like “in the real world, their boss isn’t going to listen to their excuses.” I think that’s perfectly valid, but here’s something to think about: in the “real world,” unless the future graduate is juggling between 4 and 6 separate jobs, in which their supervisors do not communicate with one another, they are unlikely to encounter the sorts of deadline “perfect storms” that students often encounter in college. In most “real world” situations, there will be opportunities to delegate, collaborate, and negotiate deadlines in order to deal with unusually high workloads. Furthermore, time management isn’t always about meeting deadlines at any cost. It’s also about managing commitments and figuring out how you can produce work of high quality within the constraints that you are given. Since my assignments are designed to foster reflection and revision, I want to emphasize those other aspects of time management.

The key to the wording of the late policy on my syllabus is making the twin goals of late policies transparent and working the logic of incentives to help students understand why the schedule is there and what the advantages of following it are:

Papers are to be submitted online by midnight on date indicated on the syllabus. There are no grade penalties for submitting a late paper. Providing deadlines, however, ensures that I can grade and return papers to the class in a timely fashion and that you get the full benefit of a “process-oriented” approach to writing instruction. I regard the due dates listed on the syllabus as a contract with you, the student. If you meet your end of the bargain, then I can promise that all papers submitted on the scheduled Thursday will be returned on the following Thursday with extensive feedback to assist you if you choose to revise. However, if you submit a paper late, then I am not obligated to return your paper to you until the next time I grade, and I always grade in batches, so you may have to wait until the next major deadline. Papers submitted after May 6 (the last day of class) will receive little (if any) feedback due to time constraints unless you specifically seek me out during office hours.

This late policy works best in the context of unlimited revisions. Students are usually quick to recognize the importance of timely feedback in allowing them to improve lackluster paper grades. In the three semesters that I have implemented this new policy, the majority of students have hewed pretty close to the schedule, though even my very strongest students have gushed with appreciation over the opportunity to spend a few more days working on a paper that isn’t yet as good as it should be or to focus on the four exams they have that week and address the paper the next. In truth, I would much rather read papers that the student had taken an extra day on than something that was hammered together in a caffeine-induced fugue state at 3:00 in the morning.

I still get to schedule my grading exactly as I would like. I grade on the weekends that papers are due and usually check to see if there’s a chunk of late papers or revisions on off weekends. The advantage is that I no longer feel compelled–as I did under the previous model–to grade random late papers in the middle of the week in the name of getting it back to the student in a timely fashion. It’s possible that I’m the only person on earth whose brain works like that, but there it is.

Now, there will always be a couple of students that take advantage of this policy in the worst possible way by waiting until the absolute last day to turn everything in. These students come in two varieties:

1) The graduating senior who has sort of checked out or is preoccupied with something bigger (like an honors thesis) but is nevertheless so advanced that she can turn in outstanding, A-level work even at the last minute. My standards for an A are so exacting that these students are like unicorns. I have never actually seen one, though a couple came close (they got B’s). I would just let it go. This student doesn’t really need to be taking the class anyway, so if they did not breach my attendance policy, turned in daily work, and did well on reading quizzes, I’m not going to begrudge them the grade their work merits.

2) The slacker with zero time management skills. I have this student every semester. In the Spring, there’s usually two of them. Here’s the thing, I had these students even when I was enforcing a late penalty. These students rarely even pass. Both of mine failed this semester, due to turning everything in but the final paper. What having no late penalties saves me is the agonizing late semester negotiations.

And here’s the thing: grades rarely motivate these students. They sort of know that they are supposed to care about grades, but for whatever reason, they really don’t. One way I try to motivate them is through the threat of public embarrassment. All students sign up to have a paper workshopped in class at one point during the semester. If they do not show up with a completed paper on that day and have not made arrangements to reschedule, I announce it to the class. Furthermore, at mid-semester, after the first major essay has been turned in, I require each student to have a 15 minute one-on-one meeting with me about that paper. It is stunning how quickly papers start appearing in the online submission system once these conferences approach. In some ways, the an awkward conversation is more intimidating than a reduced grade.

My husband, who uses a similar policy with his advanced high school students (he teaches biology) has his students sign a slip of paper that says that they know they missed a paper deadline and understand what the possible consequences of doing so will be. In practice, it’s actually pretty evil. There are also ways to use positive reinforcement to encourage students to follow the schedule, such as giving a prize to the first student to turn in a first draft of every writing assignment.

All in all, I’m happy with this policy. The lazy students who put things off until the last minute still do poorly. The good students aren’t arbitrarily punished for having a single bad week. I still get to grade according to my own schedule, and I earn capital with my students for appearing benevolent and reasonable.

7 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Do Late Penalties

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I like your policy, and I can appreciate the rationale behind it. I may borrow some of these ideas as I revamp my courses for the fall. 🙂

  2. “…in the ‘real world,’ unless the future graduate is juggling between 4 and 6 separate jobs, in which their supervisors do not communicate with one another, they are unlikely to encounter the sorts of deadline ‘perfect storms’ that students often encounter in college.”
    So, so, SO true. I’m a college student and this is what drives me nuts about my lifestyle. Not that there’s anything I can do to change it…

  3. Thanks for explaining this in more detail. I think I will test something like this in one class next year, to see how it goes for me, but will first work on grading more effectively and using minimal marking. I tend to get too caught up in marking every comma splice, incorrect subject-verb agreement, and random capitalization. (What is the deal with random capitalization?!? So many of my students submit papers that look like they were forcibly wrestled out original drafts written in German.)

  4. This is pretty unrealistic and creates so much extra work for an instructor, plus doesn’t teach the students self-discipline. It probably makes the author’s course evaluations higher, though! As for the “real world” comparison, in a real world job you DO have to juggle 4 to 6 projects at once–so trying to claim you are juggling 4 to 6 jobs isn’t a valid comparison.

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