Let’s talk about late penalties

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not always the best student.

In the midst of a global Pandemic, I completely forgot an assignment that was due for the graduate class I’m currently taking. When I realized it was due (read: the same day it was due), I was in the midst of preparing for the first week of e-learning for the college course I teach, and a week away from starting to teach my high schoolers online. My motivation was low, and I made the professional decision to use my energy on preparing for my students.

I turned in the assignment – a NGSS aligned lesson plan – a week late. I took that week to create a lesson that not only aligned with both NGSS and CSTA Standards, but one that was digital. I created something that I could actually use in my classroom during this time.

The feedback I got from the instructor was that the lesson plan was extremely well done, and scored a 100% against the rubric. Unfortunately, because it was late, I would receive a 75%.

Turning in one assignment one week late in the middle of a global Pandemic lowered my overall course grade 5% – half a letter grade.

And look – I’m an adult. I made the professional decision to choose my students over my grade. I’ll likely still earn an A in the class, and even if I don’t, I know that I’ve mastered the material. Despite my internalized desire to earn A’s, I know that grades are largely subjective and rarely communicate the full picture of a student’s learning.

But it got me thinking: if we, as educators, believe that grades should reflect content mastery, how can we justify taking off points for lateness?

Whether or not work is turned in on time has nothing to do with mastery of the material and everything to do with compliance.

I should probably be completely transparent and share that if I had my way, we’d throw grades completely out the window for an ongoing feedback structure that supports rather than stifles intrinsic motivation. As a public school teacher, I understand that grades are the structures in which most of us still operate, and I still give grades to my students.

So even if we accept that we must give grades (at least for now), it is our duty to be critical of the decisions we make with regards to grades.

I don’t penalize late work. When students turn in an assignment, I grade it as if it were on time. If they request an extension, I grant it. I’d rather they turn in high quality work past the due date than rush to turn in lower quality work on time. If our goal is mastery, we should care less about WHEN mastery is attained and more about the mastery itself.

One of the arguments that people give for penalizing late work is that it teaches students that it is important that their work is on time. They share that this is reflective of the “real world.”

But in the “real world,” hard deadlines have purpose, and they’re only used when turning in work late matters. Newspapers have deadlines because they need to go to print. Retail employees need to be on time to their shift because otherwise, the store can’t open. Lawyers need to complete their briefs so that trials can proceed in a timely manner. In each of these situations, there is purpose to being on time, and being late has actual negative impacts.

In the classroom, we’re choosing to motivate students with points, rather than teaching them why timeliness matters. Honestly, late deductions are the lazy way out, and ultimately result in us missing an opportunity to empower students to build intrinsic motivation for timeliness.

Instead, we should focus on articulating why each deadline matters for students. Is it because it’s part of a larger assignment and serves as a benchmark to ensure they’re on track? Does the work contribute to future learning? Is it so you can give them feedback so they can continue to grow in their mastery and improve for the next time?

Will some students struggle at first without the extrinsic motivation of losing points? Yes. But longterm, our goal as educators is to adequately prepare them for the real world. And in the real world, they won’t get promoted for submitting half-hearted work by the deadline… they’ll be expected to do high quality work. They’ll need to know how to communicate when they need more time to deliver their best.

And if we can’t communicate why work should be done by a specific day/time? Well then, maybe it’s on us to reconsider why we set that deadline in the first place.

Published by Jen

A political science major turned computer science teacher, I am passionate about inspiring a love for learning through authentic, real world experiences. I blog about education: ways we can help students succeed, how to innovate within the classroom, and my own quest to never stop learning.

One thought on “Let’s talk about late penalties

  1. Hi Jen,

    Last year, I came up with this system for late work. This is from my syllabus – “If your project is late, you need to submit an extension request explaining the reason for the delay and when you will submit the project. If your work is submitted after the agreed upon due date, half credit will be given until one week before the end of the marking period. After that date, NO CREDIT WILL BE GIVEN for work assigned in that marking period.”

    I teach a high school CTE Computer Science class and thought about what happens in a real world work situation. If a project is late at work, the employee needs to contact their supervisor or customer and explain the delay. Writing a letter to explain the delay shows accountability and professionalism. I gave my students this as as example. https://www.wikihow.com/Sample/Letter-Asking-Teacher-for-Extension

    Thank you for sharing your work! I love it!



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