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The Value of Not Accepting Late Work
Having loose policies actually encourages people (and students) to disregard the rules.
I had an amazing thing happen this semester: every student turned in every assignment on time. I don't think that happened due to the caliber of students or the time I was teaching the course, for those things didn't make that big of a change in other dimensions of the course.
The reason why it happened is that I changed my policy on late work: I simply stated that work not received by the deadline would not be graded and given a "0" for the assignment.
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Before I go on, though, and given the lively discussion and cries of unfairness from students (who never actually were in any of my classes), I let students know about the policy in the first lecture of the course and also made sure that students with disabilities, students from disadvantaged communities, student-athletes, or students with extenuating circumstances (disabled children, elderly parents, military service, and so on) knew to discuss their situation with me well before anything was due so we could co-create accommodations and solutions that supported them.
My wife had started the very same policy a couple of semesters before I had and she found that she significantly decreased the amount of late submissions. Keeping up with students turning things in late, trying to figure out how much to dock their projects, remembering to get those late submissions with the batch of others, etc. proved to be a pain in the arse. That alone proved to be enough of a reason to implement such a policy.
But there are at least two other really good reasons to do this. The first of these deals with the individual student. Having loose late policies actually encourages students to disregard the given deadline for the course. Why? Because, given all of the other hard-deadline items that students have to contend with, it's more practical to study and/or cram for that Calculus exam that must be taken on Wednesday rather than on that Philosophy (in my case) paper due on that same day but that can be put off. Their efforts in cramming and studying will likely have more impact on their Calculus grade than the negative impact that they'd receive on their paper would have on their grade, depending on the policy.
When I was a TA, I had a professor that had us dock something like a third of a letter grade for every two days late the paper was submitted; weekends counted as one day, as well. Their papers were generally due Friday, and it worked out that they could turn something in on the second Monday after the paper was due and still only have one letter grade docked from their paper. That late submission policy caused me loads of headaches. Given that I tried to have papers graded and turned back out two weeks after they turned them in, it was not at all uncommon for me to be turning back (what I thought was) all of their papers only to have a handful or so trickle in, causing me to either batch them with the next slew of papers, or redo my plan for the week to do those papers. If I chose the former, not only would I have to worry about their grades being consistent with their peers', but it took me considerably longer, because generally I'd have to reread what we'd covered previously to make sure I understood what the students were saying.
Granted, I could have emailed or caught every student in class who didn't turn in their papers to see who was turning it in and who wasn't, but we're not in high school anymore. My stand on that is that it's the student's responsibility to make those arrangements. Furthermore, with roughly eighty students, I wasn't about to go chasing people down who didn't turn in their papers, even if I could remember off the top of my head who they were. So, if, while recording scores, I noticed a student didn't turn in a paper, there was always that lingering question of whether they'd turn it in. Simply put, all the brainpower that I spent keeping up wondering about all of this and tracking papers down was better spent on developing better lectures and providing more in-depth feedback to students who did turn in their assignments.
It was commonplace for me to hear students discuss with their peers that they'd just turn their stuff in Monday since they'd probably do better by working on it over the weekend rather than during the week. (Students have a hard time understanding how easily sound travels in classrooms--or they understand all too well and love airing out the lurid details of their escapades for their instructor's amusement.) What really sold the fact that something was wrong with the policy was when students told me to my face that they turn things in late because the penalty is pretty much non-existent.
The second good reason to impose a hard deadline on students is that doing so prepares them for the real world. There is a creeping concern that higher education is no longer preparing students for entry into the non-academic worlds for which they supposedly go to school to prepare for. Not all business institutions have hard deadlines for policies, I'm sure, but if there is a significant effect for the business if Order X does or does not go in a given day, I don't see many managers being pleased with their employees if they drop the ball. In such stakes, there is no late submission policy. The students we issue forth, degree in hand, have been trained to turn projects in late, and often rewarded for it. We do them no favor by encouraging this.
The beauty of the policy was the ease of its application. Not a single student asked if they could turn anything late. In those cases where they couldn't turn it in on the day it was due (student-athletes on tournaments), they took the initiative to turn it in ahead of time. I didn't have to strong-arm, coddle, or remind people to turn their projects in, and yet, every project was turned in on time. (Note: For this to work properly, make sure you're explicit about the time it has to be turned in, too.)
And, in case you're worried about such things, it didn't alter my evaluations--they didn't make me out to be a bad guy out to get them or anything silly like that. Lastly, the gravity of the deadline made it such that I didn't even have to give anyone a failing grade. Everything worked out smoothly, exactly the way that it should.
Get rid of those loose late submission policies. Students will adapt accordingly, and the semester will go so much easier for everyone involved.