late penalties

Anyone want to take a break from political news and reflect on grading policies? Specifically, what penalties are appropriate for late papers and exercises? In practice, these range from the extremely Draconian “no late work accepted at all, you just get a zero” to the extremely lax “whenever” and include a huge middle ground of grade reductions and policies about which excuses for lateness are justified or not.

My own policies are not entirely consistent but tend to the middle ground: I think students should get more credit for doing work than for not doing it, even if it is late, but that there should be penalties for lateness that are proportional to the academic harm done (or advantage gained).

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

22 thoughts on “late penalties”

  1. I struggle with this, too. From my syllabus:

    “I realize that personal, medical, and miscellaneous events that prohibit students from turning work in on time do arise, and since this class is comprised of responsible adults, I have no desire to monitor reasons for late work. A 48-hour grace period will be granted once per semester to any student needing to take advantage of this policy. You are under no obligation to explain the circumstances to me, and the grace period can only be utilized once during the course of the semester. Subsequent late assignments will be penalized 5 points for each day they are late, and will not be accepted more than 7 days past the due date. To be frank, late assignments will not be graded with any haste.”

    I’ve let students in extenuating circumstances (e.g., personal problems or project gone bad for reasons they couldn’t have foreseen) propose an alternate timeline they think is reasonable, and have graded their work without any penalty. Maybe I’m a softie. But I don’t get many late assignments.

    Occasionally, I had back unsatisfactory work without a grade and list a date for the student to resubmit by. I get better assignments back in about 80 percent of those cases. (And the students are usually thankful after they get over being annoyed.) Most of the students who don’t re-do such assignments just drop the class, to which I say, “good riddance.”


  2. If a student contacts me before the deadline with a reasonable request for extra time, I allow it without penalty. If a student does not do so, my penalty is 10% per day, starting when I collect the assignment in class (meaning that if a student arrives after I collect the assignment, that student receives a 10% penalty). Although my syllabus does not make this clear, I typically cap the 10% penalties at 50%, allowing students to turn in assignments very late in the semester for half credit.


  3. As I indicated in the original post, my practices are mixed. For certain kinds of classes, I’m pretty lax about an extra day or two for big papers, especially if I’m in interaction with the student and I know I won’t have time to finish the grading within that much time, anyway. I often ask the student to send me the work that exists as of the time of the request, as a sign of good faith and to permit an evaluation of claims about how much the student has been working. For grad students, I often have individually-negotiated deadlines that work around their teaching/grading schedules. If I’ve been lax about deadlines during the term, then I have to make a special effort to reinforce the “absolute latest deadline” for which there can be no exception so that the final paper so that grades can be submitted. Typically I set the official deadline several days before this absolutely final deadline.

    For smaller routine ungraded assignments due every 2-3 weeks, I take a 10% penalty for each week the item is late, while setting some minimum below which credit cannot fall. I have also instituted a rule that no more than one or two assignments a week can be submitted, as late work submitted in a flurry at the end of the term never has any meaningful content.


  4. At the risk of embarrassing myself, let me ask a naive question: Why is it important that papers be submitted on some date designated by the instructor? For whose benefit are these deadlines and their enforcement?


    1. Is it wrong to say the instructor’s benefit? It isn’t like we exist to cater to the student’s schedules.

      My policy was essentially taking an A off the table for late work (I already nix the A- as the A+ doesn’t get them anything – A’s are all or nothing). Daily reading notes are half credit if late. I tell them that students that regularly turn in their assignments on time get better grades, and that’s true.

      I once (and only once) allowed a whatever-you-want late policy, and had more than one student turn in class papers as well as notes on the final day of class. Never again – stupid idea. I want to strongly discourage someone from turning in three course papers and a fistful of readings notes during the exam period – the real world isn’t that forgiving, so why should we be?


    2. One issue I had was that if I allowed students to submit work after I’d already graded everyone else’s assignments and returned them, it brought up issues with remembering exactly how stringently I graded. Though some things are objective and easy to measure, on many essay-type assignments, there are a lot of judgment calls for the prof, and to be fair, the same basic standard obviously has to be applied to everyone. If I receive an assignment weeks later, it’s harder for me to be sure I’m applying the same standard that I was when I graded everyone else’s, even if I have a rubric that sets out general categories of points.

      My dept. has a general guideline that we should try to have assignments graded within 7 days of receiving them. I carefully plan out which days things will be due so I can make sure I can make that deadline and that students will always get prompt, extensive feedback–so I make sure that I don’t have major assignments from two different classes come in on the same day, for instance. When I had a very lax late assignment policy, I found it very difficult at some times to manage the unpredictability of when I might suddenly get a flurry of late papers, especially, as usually happened, at the end of the semester when I already had a large number of long end-of-semester projects to grade.


  5. I take 5 percentage points per day late, which means that it’s not worth turning in after a week or so. I’m flexible with personal needs on an ad hoc basis.

    To answer Jay’s question, I see two reasons. The first is for me–it is hard to manage your time well and accommodate late papers. The second is for the students–it is hard for them to catch up at the end of the semester when they have let deadlines slide.


  6. I espouse a “zero score for lateness” policy on the syllabus but will consider exceptional circumstances (hospitalization, death in the family) on a case by case basis.

    The main reason for a strict policy is to protect my students, where by “students” I mean the TAs who do most of the grading.


  7. Rugstudy (and others): I certainly consider instructor convenience to be a valid criterion. (I am currently ignoring two papers that were put in a bin outside my door, in direct violation of the “journal submissions go in the folders in class only” policy which exists to minimize my hassle in keeping track of papers.) BUT if I know that it will take me 5 days to grade the papers, or I won’t start until the weekend, then I’m not inconvenienced by a late paper, as long as I don’t have to go to any effort to get it or keep track of it. Thus I personally tend to have different kinds of policies for different kinds of assignments, where I do consider my convenience to be a legitimate consideration, along with other factors such as fairness to other students.

    I also agree with Tina (as I think I already said) that late policies ought not to permit students to try to do a whole semester of work in the last week. Flexibility about a day or two, incremental penalties that go up with the length of the delay, or systems that give students one or two “late passes” seem to me better than systems that let students believe they can turn in everything at the end. (And, I confess, seem better to me than “late is zero” policies.)

    Re “real world,” it really depends on which part of the real world. Journalists have to meet hard deadlines, as do people in many occupations. But in many others, like academic publishing, home construction & repairs, and the ordering of custom home furnishings, lateness is the exception rather than the rule.

    I think the “fairness to other students” criterion is the one I have the most trouble weighing.


    1. One thing that may play a role here is institutional orientations. My institution takes a very strong stance that you can set your own late policy however you want to, but whatever is in the syllabus has to be enforced, and we can’t sometimes be lax but other times impose the rule. If I had told one student they couldn’t turn in a paper late, but then later in the semester allowed another one to do so because I, say, hadn’t gotten started grading yet, so it didn’t inconvenience me, that would be a *huge* no-no. In that case, if a student filed a grade appeal, I would quite likely be required to go back and allow any student who had not turned in any assignment the chance to do so, on the grounds that it’s not fair that only those students who happened to ask got special treatment, while others who accepted the policy as stated got penalized for not trying to see if there was any wiggle room. The Dean would absolutely rule against me in any grade appeal that came up in a situation like that. (This is excepting issues where a student was allowed to make up an assignment b/c of a medical/family emergency, of course, which is in a whole separate category for us.)

      I can see the advantages of taking into account things like whether I’ve started grading the rest of the homework yet, but it does seem potentially unfair to have no set policy. How do we then guard against, say, being more likely to get talked into taking a late paper from a student we think of as a “good student” than one who hasn’t otherwise done that well or something of that sort? I think of a firm late policy (whatever it is) as a way to help guard against unintentional favoritism toward students we might feel particular sympathy for, among other things.


  8. I generally agree with John above – if students ask ahead of time I am very generous with timing. If not, I tend to be pretty tough. “For whose benefit?” Both! it helps students, too, to learn to work within constraints and expectations.


  9. I support enforcing deadlines out of fairness to students who get their work in on time. I like a one-time late pass to allow for illness, flat tires or whatever and after that mild but cumulating penalties for missing deadlines.


  10. I have 2 reasons for holding students to my deadlines: 1) fairness. not all students feel equally entitled to ask for an extension and I don’t want to reward those with a more inflated sense of entitlement and 2) pedagogical impact. the assignments are placed where they are on the syllabus because they (hopefully) require students to engage with the material we are covering at that time. they are less impactful at a later point and therefore are not worth as much.


    1. Thank you on the entitlement issue–I was thinking while reading earlier posts that many students wouldn’t understand that rules aren’t set in stone. I didn’t as a student and sometimes took grade penalties when I had a good excuse.


  11. I have different policies for different courses. For undergraduate courses, I announce all deadlines on the syllabus and in class repeatedly, and warn students that something will happen that will delay them weeks hence. I say that if you tell me something happened, I’ll say, I know, I told you it would. Therefore, I say, you should plan to finish a week early. I officially deduct a half grade per late day, but in real life, the late papers are generally awful, and I will try to find a way to give a paper that would otherwise pass a passing grade. (I under-enforce.)
    For graduate students I have two basic assignments: weekly papers, which are optional (but you must submit 4)–no late papers accepted. For seminar papers, submit on your own schedule, but you’ll get an incomplete if it’s too late for me to grade on time
    In truth, deadlines are merciful for all involved.


    1. Re grads: when younger I gave incompletes liberally to grad students, but now I don’t because (as I say to them) taking an incomplete is like borrowing from a loan shark. Once the deadline has been missed, the expectations for the paper keep going up. Instead, I say that everyone will be in the same boat, doing the paper that can be done within the confines of a semester. Then I set a paper deadline that is about a week before the last day grades can be submitted, so I can flexibly offer extensions at the end if needed, and still get the grades in. And, regarding equity, I explain this policy and procedure on the first day of class.


  12. As regards entitlement, I don’t think the solution is to punish people who get very ill or whose parents die or who have been raped during the semester. Yes, I agree that people with very serious problems that deserve accommodation are precisely the people who don’t ask (and the privileged often assume without asking that they can make up their own rules), but blanket statements about “no late papers no matter what” just help to send the message to working class students that our systems are inhumane. I cannot for the life of me see how accommodating a genuinely uncontrollable event for one student could possibly be construed as being unfair to another.

    I think the solution is to include on the syllabus an explicit statement of policy that says you will accommodate circumstances that are clearly beyond the control of the student but there will be penalties for absence/lateness that is under your control, even if it involves tough choices like a work schedule or studying for another class. I try explicitly to explain the difference between a problem that truly deserves accommodation from one that does not.

    I think part of an instructor’s job is to spot people who are messing up and find out whether they are just blowing things off or have a real problem. This is not incompatible with sending them off to a dean to have the circumstances vetted before permitting a substantial accommodation, nor is it incompatible with telling the student that accommodation does not mean that you get out of the work. Nor is it incompatible with telling the student who missed a draft deadline because he was too busy being a political activist that he cannot possibly get an A no matter how good the final paper turned out to be.

    Edit: After posting the previous paragraph, I want to amend to say that although it is a legitimate part of our job to follow up with students, I also feel that it is impossible to do this proactively with a big class.


      1. But isn’t that the difference between the whole “excused” and “non-excused” situation? I know a number of people with strict late policies, but that never included things like a family death, medical crisis, etc. I’ve at times imposed a no-tolerance policy for lateness–I’ve played around with different policies over the last few years to see which works best. Never was that policy applied to emergency situations.

        Are there really large numbers of profs out there who are imposing late policies regardless of the circumstance, and telling a student whose parent died or who was raped that they can’t make up work? I just took it for granted that everyone distinguishes between “personal emergency” and “I’m sorry you had a really bad hangover and so couldn’t concentrate, but the paper was still due” categories. I’ve been reading a lot of syllabi (on a search committee), and this distinction seems pretty standard.


      2. replying to okiefarmgirl: Yes, of course, professors who know about such circumstances do accommodate. But I am saying that syllabus statements that do not explicitly acknowledge the types of things that should be accommodated contribute to the pattern that working class students with real problems never ask for help. I have personally had to call other professors to intervene for students who had real problems but could not get the professor to listen. One just kept saying “no make up exams” and would not listen to the student who was trying to explain about not having a choice about when her surgery for cervical cancer was scheduled. Once the professor actually listened (to me!), of course she accommodated. But she wouldn’t let the student explain.

        So what I’m saying is that if you care about the students who do NOT feel entitled, you have to overtly make it clear that you WILL listen to people’s explanations about what is going on. There is no question that this stance also makes you vulnerable to listening to those who feel entitlement and those who are willing to lie to you. You have to interact with people and make judgments. But announcing that you won’t listen (or failing to say that you will) does have the effect of perpetuating what you decry: the disadvantaged students are the ones that don’t ask for help.


      3. Ok, I guess I give people too much credit–I just assumed that it’s standard, as at my school, to make it clear that there are a range of situations that would be exceptions to the late policy, and to discuss that on the first day. I work on a campus where the study body is 45% first-generation and overwhelmingly working class or lower. We just sort of take this type of stuff as an inherent part of doing our jobs–that you inquire about why something was late, and then you make a decision about whether it falls into the exception or no exception category. Most of us email students to check on them if they don’t come to class for a couple of class periods or fail to turn in anything that is a significant part of their grade, so we aren’t just relying on their own confidence to speak up and tell us what’s going on.


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