November 20, 2019

Is There a Perfect Late Work Policy?

by Kaitlyn Dupuis, PharmD, PGY-1 Pharmacy Resident, North Mississippi Medical Center, Tupelo, MS

When it comes to teaching, there are several logistical issues that people often overlook — like dealing with students who do not turn-in assignments on time.  When assignments are submitted late, it often creates additional work for the teacher and inequities with other students who did not have the benefit of extra time.  It’s difficult to develop a completely fair and consistent “late work policy.”  Some teachers choose to accept late work within a few days of the assignment’s due date for full credit.  While others will accept late work with points deducted. And still others do not accept late work at all.  Some teachers believe that if the work is assigned, it is important to the student’s education. Therefore, they accept late work to encourage students to complete all assignments.

The majority of teachers understand that there are certain circumstances when students simply can’t finish their assignment by the due date.  Sometimes things pop-up in life that nobody has control over.  While some excuses are valid, there are times when students lie or use excuses that really did not prevent them from submitting their assignment on time.  It’s very difficult to determine which excuses are valid and which excuses just don’t “add-up.”   While teachers want to be compassionate and understanding, it is also in their job description to prepare students for the future in a world where deadlines matter and there are consequences.

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In a recent article posted on the Faculty Focus website entitled A Headache-Free Late Work Policy by Dr. Laura Schisler, the author proposes a “make-up day.”1 The “make-up day” allows for students to turn-in they missed assignments throughout the semester on the make-up day to receive partial or full credit.  This removes the need to determine the validity of each student’s excuse.  This provides everyone the same opportunity to submit missed assignments, no matter the reason.  This policy makes it harder to miss multiple assignments, because students must turned-in all assignments on the predetermined make-up day at the end of the semester. The student either has to complete the assignment near the initial due date and hold-on to it until the end of the semester or complete the assignment at the end of the semester when there is typically an overwhelming number of tests and assignments.

In her essay entitled It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines, Dr. Ellen Boucher writes about her experience with a rigid late work policy.2  She states that early in her career students would lose one-third of their grade for an assignment for every day that passed without turning in the work.  In her experience, because the consequences were so severe, students were turning in work just to say that they were turning it in.  Other students would not submit anything and simply disappear because there was no way to pass the class.  Dr. Boucher began to realize that anxiety and burnout were a problem, so she then adopted a policy where students could submit their assignments two-days late for full credit.  Even after the two-day grace period, she would allow the student to meet with her to discuss a plan to turn-in the assignment.  Dr. Boucher saw that her students were working diligently to turn-in quality assignments rather than turning-in assignments simply for completion.  Dr. Boucher saw the level of anxiety and burnout decrease and felt this compassionate approach benefited her students. While it is true that anxiety and burnout are on the rise among students in both college and high school, allowing students to freely turn assignments in, beyond the deadline, can teach students bad habits.3,4

While researching late work policies, I came across a few articles regarding “No zero policies.”  There are several schools that are transitioning to policies that don’t allow grades lower than 50%.  If the student refuses to turn-in his or her assignment, they still receive a 50%.  The philosophy behind this approach is that a zero is simply impossible to “bounce back” from.  One zero in a semester can cause a student to fail the entire class.  People in favor of the “no zero policy” argue that punishing the student with a zero is not actually assessing their knowledge.  While some people are very much in favor of a no zero policy, some people think it’s ridiculous.  The article cites a Facebook Post called “Is Our Grading System Fair” that asked 300 members Edutopian Innovative Teachers of English to comment.  Many people disagreed with the policy, simply because it requires students to do very minimal work in order to pass a class.3 

I think that late work policies should vary, depending on the student age and nature of the course.  When teaching elementary school kids, late work policies should be more lenient.  Children in lower grade levels do not have control of their home life and aren’t always responsible enough to get their school work done without parental guidance.  I believe that it is appropriate for teachers to allow students to turn-in late work with minimal consequences when they are in lower grade levels.  As students age, they should become more responsible and should know that school is a priority. While life can still get in the way of older students, I believe that there should be consequences for late work the majority of the time.  Of course, there should be exceptions for unforeseeable life events, like an serious illness or death in the family, but students must learn that there are consequences in life when things aren’t done by their deadline. College professors should have a more stringent late work policy.  I know that burnout and anxiety are very real, but deadlines are deadlines and the consequences should be bad enough to create strong incentives to turn assignments in on time.  Indeed, a study done at Illinois Wesleyan University actually showed that students think that late work penalties are fair.5

There probably is no perfect “late work policy.”  I believe that there are times that deadlines should be extended — so I disagree with “zero tolerance policies.”  I also believe that students should meet deadlines.  While I agree that teachers should be compassionate and understanding, I also believe that they are doing students an injustice by allowing them a two-day grace period on every assignment or by giving them 50% even if they fail to submit anything.  I really like having a “make-up day” at the end of the semester.  This allows for students to still receive credit for missed assignments but doesn’t require the teacher to create a policy about "acceptable excuses" for late work.  The “make-up day” is usually during a very busy and stressful point in the semester which should encourage students to turn in their work by the due date.  The major drawback to a “make-up day” is that it signals to students that it’s “ok” to not meet deadlines.  Important life skills are learned in school and one is time-management.  If you fail to meet deadlines in life, you will find yourself without a job … and maybe without electricity.

  1. Schisler L. A Headache-Free Late Work Policy. Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus - Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. August 22, 2019.
  2. Boucher E. It's Time to Ditch Our Deadlines. ChronicleVitae for higher ed jobs, career tools and advice. September 2, 2016.
  3. Minero E. Do No-Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students? Edutopia. July 3, 2018.
  4.  Center for Collegiate Mental Health. 2018 Annual Report (Publication No. STA 19-180).
  5. Lui M and Nillas L. Late Work Policies: Their Impact on Student Achievement. John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference, 2015. Abstract 8.

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