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Most of my 9-week grading periods ended the same way: Me and one or two students, sitting in my quiet, empty classroom together, with me sitting at the computer, the students nearby in desks, methodically working through piles of make-up assignments. They would be focused, more focused than I’d seen them in months, and the speed with which they got through the piles was stunning.
As they finished each assignment I took it, checked it for accuracy, then entered their scores—taking 50 percent off for being late—into my grading program. With every entry, I’d watch as their class grade went up and up: from a 37 percent to a 41, then to 45, then to 51, and eventually to something in the 60s or even low 70s, a number that constituted passing, at which point the process would end and we’d part ways, full of resolve that next marking period would be different.
And the whole time I thought to myself, This is pointless. They aren’t learning anything at all. But I wasn’t sure what else to do.
For as long as teachers have assigned tasks in exchange for grades, late work has been a problem. What do we do when a student turns in work late? Do we give some kind of consequence or accept assignments at any time with no penalty? Do we set up some kind of system that keeps students motivated while still holding them accountable? Is there a way to manage all of this without driving ourselves crazy?
To find answers, I went to Twitter and asked teachers to share what works for them. What follows is a summary of their responses. I wish I could give individual credit to each person who offered ideas, but that would take way too long, and I really want you to get these suggestions now! If you’ve been unsatisfied with your own approach to late work, you should find some fresh ideas here.
First, a Few Questions About Your Grades
Before we get into the ways teachers manage late work, let’s back up a bit and consider whether your overall program of assignments and grading is in a healthy place. Here are some questions to think about:
- What do your grades represent? How much of your grades are truly based on academic growth, and how much are based mostly on compliance? If they lean more toward compliance, then what you’re doing when you try to manage late work is basically a lot of administrative paper pushing, rather than teaching your content. Although it’s important for kids to learn how to manage deadlines, do you really want an A in your course to primarily reflect the ability to follow instructions? If your grades are too compliance-based, consider how you might shift things so they more accurately represent learning. (For a deeper discussion of this issue, read How Accurate Are Your Grades?)
- Are you grading too many things? If you spend a lot of time chasing down missing assignments in order to get more scores in your gradebook, it could be that you’re grading too much. Some teachers only enter grades for major, summative tasks, like projects, major writing assignments, or exams. Everything else is considered formative and is either ungraded or given a very low point value for completion, not graded for accuracy; it’s practice. For teachers who are used to collecting lots of grades over a marking period, this will be a big shift, and if you work in a school where you’re expected to enter grades into your system frequently, that shift will be even more difficult. Convincing your students that ungraded practice is worthwhile because it will help their performance on the big things will be another hurdle. With all of that said, reducing the number of scored items will make your grades more meaningful and cut way down on the time you spend grading and managing late work.
- What assumptions do you make when students don’t turn in work? I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first started teaching, I assumed most students with missing work were just unmotivated. Although this might be true for a small portion of students, I no longer see this as the most likely reason. Students may have issues with executive function and could use some help developing systems for managing their time and responsibilities. They may struggle with anxiety. Or they may not have the resources—like time, space, and technology—to consistently complete work at home. More attention has been paid lately to the fact that homework is an equity issue, and our policies around homework should reflect an understanding that all students don’t have access to the same resources once they leave school for the day. Punitive policies that are meant to “motivate” students don’t take any of these other issues into consideration, so if your late work penalties don’t seem to be working, it’s likely that the root cause is something other than a lack of motivation.
- What kind of grading system is realistic for you? Any system you put in place requires YOU to stay on top of grading. It would be much harder to assign penalties, send home reminders, or track lateness if you are behind on marking papers by a week, two weeks, even a month. So whatever you do, create a plan that you can actually keep up with.
Many teachers give some sort of penalty to students for late work. The thinking behind this is that without some sort of negative consequence, too many students would wait until the end of the marking period to turn work in, or in some cases, not turn it in at all. When work is turned in weeks or even months late, it can lose its value as a learning opportunity because it is no longer aligned with what’s happening in class. On top of that, teachers can end up with massive piles of assignments to grade in the last few days of a marking period. This not only places a heavy burden on teachers, it is far from an ideal condition for giving students the good quality feedback they should be getting on these assignments.
Several types of penalties are most common:
In many cases, teachers simply reduce the grade as a result of the lateness. Some teachers will take off a certain number of points per day until they reach a cutoff date after which the work will no longer be accepted. One teacher who responded said he takes off 10 percent for up to three days late, then 30 percent for work submitted up to a week late; he says most students turn their work in before the first three days are over. Others have a standard amount that comes off for any late work (like 10 percent), regardless of when it is turned in. This policy still rewards students for on-time work without completely de-motivating those who are late, builds in some accountability for lateness, and prevents the teacher from having to do a lot of mathematical juggling with a more complex system.
Some teachers keep track of late work and contact parents if it is not turned in. This treats the late work as more of a conduct issue; the parent contact may be in addition to or instead of taking points away.
No Feedback, No Re-Dos
The real value of homework and other smaller assignments should be the opportunity for feedback: Students do an assignment, they get timely teacher feedback, and they use that feedback to improve. In many cases, teachers allow students to re-do and resubmit assignments based on that feedback. So a logical consequence of late work could be the loss of that opportunity: Several teachers mentioned that their policy is to accept late work for full credit, but only students who submit work on time will receive feedback or the chance to re-do it for a higher grade. Those who hand in late work must accept whatever score they get the first time around.
2. A Separate Work Habits Grade
In a lot of schools, especially those that use standards-based grading, a student’s grade on an assignment is a pure representation of their academic mastery; it does not reflect compliance in any way. So in these classrooms, if a student turns in good work, it’s going to get a good grade even if it’s handed in a month late.
But students still need to learn how to manage their time. For that reason, many schools assign a separate grade for work habits. This might measure factors like adherence to deadlines, neatness, and following non-academic guidelines like font sizes or using the correct heading on a paper.
- Although most teachers whose schools use this type of system will admit that students and parents don’t take the work habits grade as seriously as the academic grade, they report being satisfied that student grades only reflect mastery of the content.
- One school calls their work habits grade a “behavior” grade, and although it doesn’t impact GPA, students who don’t have a certain behavior grade can’t make honor roll, despite their actual GPA.
- Several teachers mentioned looking for patterns and using the separate grade as a basis for conferences with parents, counselors, or other stakeholders. For most students, there’s probably a strong correlation between work habits and academic achievement, so separating the two could help students see that connection.
- Some learning management systems will flag assignments as late without necessarily taking points off. Although this does not automatically translate to a work habits grade, it indicates the lateness to students and parents without misrepresenting the academic achievement.
3. Homework Passes
Because things happen in real life that can throw anyone off course every now and then, some teachers offer passes students can use to replace a missed assignment.
- Most teachers only offer these passes to replace low-point assignments, not major ones, and they generally only offer 1 to 3 passes per marking period. Homework passes can usually only recover 5 to 10 percent of a student’s overall course grade.
- Other teachers have a policy of allowing students to drop one or two of their lowest scores in the gradebook. Again, this is typically done for smaller assignments and has the same net effect as a homework pass by allowing everyone to have a bad day or two.
- One teacher gives “Next Class Passes” which allow students one extra day to turn in work. At the end of every marking period she gives extra credit points to students who still have unused passes. She says that since she started doing this, she has had the lowest rate ever of late work.
4. Extension Requests
Quite a few teachers require students to submit a written request for a deadline extension rather than taking points off. With a system like this, every student turns something in on the due date, whether it’s the assignment itself or an extension request.
- Most extension requests ask students to explain why they were unable to complete the assignment on time. This not only gives the students a chance to reflect on their habits, it also invites the teacher to help students solve larger problems that might be getting in the way of their academic success.
- Having students submit their requests via Google Forms reduces the need for paper and routes all requests to a single spreadsheet, which makes it easier for teachers to keep track of work that is late or needs to be regraded.
- Other teachers use a similar system for times when students want to resubmit work for a new grade.
5. Floating Deadlines
Rather than choosing a single deadline for an assignment, some teachers assign a range of dates for students to submit work. This flexibility allows students to plan their work around other life activities and responsibilities.
- Some teachers offer an incentive to turn in work in the early part of the time frame, such as extra credit or faster feedback, and this helps to spread out the submissions more evenly.
- Another variation on this approach is to assign a batch of work for a whole week and ask students to get it in by Friday. This way, students get to manage when they get it done.
- Other names mentioned for this strategy were flexible deadlines, soft deadlines, and due windows.
6. Let Students Submit Work in Progress
Some digital platforms, like Google Classroom, allow students to “submit” assignments while they are still working on them. This allows teachers to see how far the student has gotten and address any problems that might be coming up. If your classroom is mostly paper-based, it’s certainly possible to do this kind of thing with paper as well, letting students turn in partially completed work to demonstrate that an effort has been made and show you where they might be stuck.
7. Give Late Work Full Credit
Some teachers accept all late work with no penalty. Most of them agree that if the work is important, and if we want students to do it, we should let them hand it in whenever they get it done.
- Some teachers fear this approach will cause more students to stop doing the work or delay submission until the end of a marking period, but teachers who like this approach say they were surprised by how little things changed when they stopped giving penalties: Most students continued to turn work in more or less on time, and the same ones who were late under the old system were still late under the new one. The big difference was that the teacher no longer had to spend time calculating deductions or determining whether students had valid excuses; the work was simply graded for mastery.
- To give students an incentive to actually turn the work in before the marking period is over, some teachers will put a temporary zero in the gradebook as a placeholder until the assignment is turned in, at which point the zero is replaced with a grade.
- Here’s a twist on the “no penalty” option: Some teachers don’t take points off for late work, but they limit the time frame when students can turn it in. Some will not accept late work after they have graded and returned an assignment; at that point it would be too easy for students to copy off of the returned papers. Others will only accept late work up until the assessment for the unit, because the work leading up to that is meant to prepare for that assessment.
8. Other Preventative Measures
These strategies aren’t necessarily a way to manage late work as much as they are meant to prevent it in the first place.
- Include students in setting deadlines. When it comes to major assignments, have students help you determine due dates. They may have a better idea than you do about other big events that are happening and assignments that have been given in other classes.
- Stop assigning homework. Some teachers have stopped assigning homework entirely, recognizing that disparities at home make it an unfair measurement of academic mastery. Instead, all meaningful work is done in class, where the teacher can monitor progress and give feedback as needed. Long-term projects are done in class as well, so the teacher is aware of which students need more time and why.
- Make homework optional or self-selected. Not all students need the same amount of practice. You may be able to get your students to assess their own need for additional practice and assign that practice to themselves. Although this may sound far-fetched, in some classes, like this self-paced classroom, it actually works, because students know they will be graded on a final assessment, they get good at determining when they need extra practice.
With so many different approaches to late work, what’s clear is that there are a lot of different schools of thought on grading and assessment, so it’s not a surprise that we don’t always land on the best solution on the first try. Experiment with different systems, talk to your colleagues, and be willing to try something new until you find something that works for you.
20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half
This free e-book is full of ideas that can help with grading in general.
On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting
Thomas R. Guskey
This book came highly recommended by a number of teachers.