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Developing Policies for Late Assignments

In one of our Wednesday open threads a couple of weeks ago, George mentioned my policy for handling late assignments.  I’ve written about it on my personal blog before, but I thought I’d expand on it in a PH post since it’s something people have told me they find useful and even provocative.  Keep in mind that I mostly teach writing.  Even when a course is not specifically a writing course, almost all of my assignments are writing assignments, and that shapes my policies in general.  In terms of late work, I try to keep things clear and simple.  I will take any essay up to a week late without a grade penalty, but I will not offer any comments on that essay at all.  Since I usually offer students the chance to revise all of their major assignments (except at the end of the semester), the lack of comments puts them at a significant disadvantage.  I always offer to meet with students in my office, but there is a pretty big difference between having a concrete set of specific comments on a draft and a series of notes taken during a office visit.

I developed this policy after reading What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, a book that has been mentioned now and then on this site.  I can’t remember if he mentions this policy specifically or if I thought of it on my own after reading his book, but this policy works for me because it relates to one of the key principles Bain raises throughout his text: policies need to align with pedagogies.  In other words, the policies we create in our classes should clearly support our teaching goals.  As a writing specialist, I want my students to recognize that they are writers who make choices.  They must decide where to put commas, how to frame a piece of evidence, or what font will provide them with a particular ethos.  I feel like my late policy aligns with what I’ve come to call “choice pedagogy” because it gives students an option without forcing them down a particular path.  They must recognize, however, that their choice comes with consequences. In this case, those consequences directly affect their writing because the lack of comments will make revision choices more difficult.  Some readers may argue that grade penalties still allow students to make choices, but I feel like the goal of a penalty is to push students to turn in their work on time.  I feel like my version shifts the emphasis from the grade and to the writing, which is where I want their focus to reside.

In my department, some of my colleagues have argued that a grade penalty is more important because deadlines in the business world are rigid, and students need to get used to working with such rigidity now.  There’s a lot of logic to that, and it’s a fine reason to enact such a policy.  But my professional experience with deadlines has been different (experiences that have had no connection to the corporate world, I should add).  Often, I’m pretty good with deadlines, but sometimes I haven’t been, especially early in my career on the tenure track when I would let anxiety and workload get the best of me.  Luckily, I encountered many editors who were willing to let me get something to them a few days or even a couple of weeks late with no ramifications.  That’s a big reason why I started rethinking how I handled deadlines in my own classes.

Of course, no policy is perfect.  In the comment to which I linked above, George mentions students who might turn in everything late.  That can happen, though it’s been quite rare in my classes; plus, if they do turn in everything late and always miss out on comments, then that is their choice.  Often, students will turn in the first essay late and then realize what they have missed, so they never do it again.  Last fall, I did have a few students who did not even turn in essays within a week after the deadline, and they wanted to revise.  I asked them how they could revise something that had never been drafted.  They complained, but I reminded them that they had an entire week to get something to me late.  They simply chose not to do that.  The best examples of this policy benefiting students come from the few times really good students have been swamped with work.  Perhaps they had exams in other classes at the same time or other pressures.  Knowing they could turn in work for me late without asking and without penalty has been a positive option for them.  Some students benefit from a brief respite, and I’m happy to build that into my courses.

In no way do I intend to be seen as arguing for readers to adopt this policy for their classes across the board.  One of the benefits of diverse policies in our classes is teaching students to handle shifting expectations when, say, supervisors change once they have a job.  I do think that faculty need to be able to articulate why they have enacted the policies they have, though, and I do think that policies and pedagogies should align clearly.  How do you handle late assignments in your classes, and how do those policies support your teaching goals?

(Photo by Flickr user apesara and licensed through Creative Commons)

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