On Late Work and Penalties

Not long ago, I mentioned my school’s late work policy in passing on Twitter, and someone wanted to know more, suggesting I write about it here. This week, I’m putting on my teacher hat, and I’ll focus my twitter time on teaching resources (some related to late work, some not).

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Brief History of a Policy, Or:
Why We Got Rid of Late Penalties (Mostly)

We began developing our policy about two and a half years ago, when I served on an Assessment Committee that was looking at our assessment practices and goals more broadly. At the time, our Late Work Policy was straightforward: students received a 1/3 letter grade deduction for every day the assignment was late. Weekends did not count, or perhaps counted as one day, and I believe we had some slight variations over school breaks.

Although I don’t have data to back this up, my impression is that the vast majority of our students only ever experienced a 1- to 3-day late penalty. Occasionally, you’d have something more, but in my own experience this was rare. In the 5 years I taught before we changed our policy, I can think of perhaps two or three instances (with my own students) where students faced significant penalties from late grades. In some of these cases, the student had mitigating circumstances that led to the problem. This generally meant working with administration to ensure late penalties did not destroy a student.

In short: late penalties worked in theory to hold students accountable, with the threat of punishment if you didn’t do what you were supposed to do. The general idea was, “well, you have to turn things in on time in the ‘real world,'”.

During the 2016-2017 school year, our assessment committee began to look closely at this policy, and other practices we had. In the process, we affirmed (as a fully faculty) our belief that grades should reflect learning. More particularly to late work, I’d add on the idea that while there is a place for working with student dispositions (behaviors, practices), when we say “grades should reflect learning,” we mean that grades should reflect what a student has learned about the subject matter – not about dispositions such as turning something in on time.

Creating a New Mindset about Late Work

With this philosophy in mind – that grades should reflect learning – we began to refine our Late Work Policy, and it’s something that has taken us the last couple of years to evolve. Here’s the basic gist:

In our handbook, we stress that we expect students to hand in work on time so that they can receive timely feedback – that feedback, we believe, is crucial to student growth. (As a history teacher, it certainly matters to me: I want my students to get writing feedback before the next paper!) But when a student cannot complete work on time, then we follow the Late Work Policy:

If a student does not submit their work by the deadline, the teacher communicates that the work is late, and then we have a procedure for getting the work turned in. The goal is to get the work within about 48 hours (in general), although there are sometimes exceptions to this. Usually, it means that a student has to report to your classroom by a specific time you designate (or agree upon), and the student has that time to complete and turn in the work. This generally means that a student will be told to report to x spot at this time, and that they will have 45 minutes to complete the work. They get graded on whatever is turned in.

Note: students can ask for and negotiate extensions. When that happens, the Late Work Policy does not apply until and unless the student does not fulfill the negotiated arrangement.

Does this mean students can still face a penalty for failing to turn something in? Absolutely. At minimum, reporting to a teacher’s room for late work can feel like penalty enough, but if a student truly hasn’t completed the work, that 45-minute-or-less period to complete the work may mean the student may not complete their best work. We’ve also kept the 1/3 letter grade penalty for school breaks (winter break, spring break) to ideally minimize the number of students who try to take advantage of the breaks and use that time.

On the whole, the policy has worked well. We watch for chronic offenders, but most students seem to only encounter the late work policy occasionally.

Removing the grade penalty has been largely beneficial, and given us a better sense of how a student is truly engaging with the material. I’ve been told (but don’t have figures on this) that it’s helped boys in particular, many of whom don’t yet have the executive function skills and found themselves victim of our old policy more than they should have been.

That’s a Wrap

Lately, I’ve thought about this policy a lot, and I’ve thought about how far I’ve come in my own response to late work. I’m someone who does well with deadlines, respects them, and has a panic attack over turning in anything late (the fact that I’m writing today’s post on Monday night instead of much earlier feeds into that!)

In my mind, having punitive practices – like lowering a student’s grade due to lateness – becomes a way to underscore some sort of emotional superiority or to justify a negative response to students. I’d be lying if I said I never get frustrated when students turn in assessments late, and I’d bet that many people have felt that emotion. When that happens, a punitive late policy can feel like “aha! Now you’ll have to face the music!” – but that’s not why you get into education. The goal of education is to teach, to help make people better and to help them learn. Rethinking how we respond when students don’t get it right the first time is an important part of being an effective educator.

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