Late Work

Missing due dates is a problem that every student faces sooner or later. Different teachers handle it in different ways. Obviously, it’s really important to be aware of an instructor’s late work policy; you can often find it in the course syllabus. This will help you make decisions about how you should prioritize your efforts.

My policy is that I do not deduct any points or credit for work turned in late. It doesn’t matter how late it’s turned in; it still receives full credit.

This often gets some raised eyebrows from other teachers. I know that there’s concern that it promotes a lack of responsibility, and that the amount of work handed in at the end of the term must be overwhelming.

I’ll admit, it gets more than a little hairy. But it’s important to me. I believe that the best way to get better at doing something is to practice doing the thing. And the things that I ask students to practice, or to demonstrate, are not only skills that are addressed in our state standards, they’re also skills that I personally believe are important. They help us relate to and understand others, and make ourselves and our ideas understandable to others. So I want students to do the work! And once I stop offering credit for it, fewer students will do it. So I continue to offer credit for as long as I am confident that I can follow through on it.

Here’s how I manage it.

First of all, I check work for completion, and enter it into my paper gradebook as collected or incomplete. Completed work gets a small checkmark in the color of the assignment. I use a different color for each assignment for two reasons. First of all, it helps me easily see which assignment I’m working with; I also try to alternate between warmer colors and cooler colors; if I have orange next to red or pink, it’s easier to get them mixed up. Second, I love my bright pens! It makes grading just a little less tedious.

Image: An early version of my grade sheet. Notice that I started with a red dot for late and moved to a red slash. Later versions use brown for late.

If an assignment hasn’t been completed correctly – the student typed out questions and didn’t answer them, or turned in a blank document – or hasn’t been turned in at all, it gets a slash-mark through the box in brown. I first started off using red to mark assignments late, but as I noted earlier, it’s difficult to distinguish that from an assignment marked in orange or pink. That’s why I switched to brown instead of black: it’s easier to tell it apart from dark blue.

Once I’ve done that, which doesn’t take long, I use my paper gradebook to enter it as ‘collected’ or ‘incomplete’ in the computer gradebook. Any grade of ‘incomplete’ gets averaged in as a zero, and if you’re at all familiar with statistics… or just, you know, basic arithmetic… you know that on a typical percentile grade scale, zeroes will really tank the average. This is what incentivizes students to get their work turned in.

Image: A depiction of a student whose average has just dropped. (Sally Brown, from Peanuts)

They see their average take a sudden hit, and that acts as a reminder to complete the assignment. If I simply leave it blank, and change it to a zero at the end of the marking period, they don’t have that reminder, and instead, their average drops when they don’t have a chance to do anything about it. And I want them to do the work. It’s not just work for its own sake; the assignments I create are designed to help students practice valuable skills that improve their communication and critical thinking. Even aside from what grade they receive in the class, I want them to get better at those skills, because they matter.

However, in order to make such a generous late work policy possible, I do require students to follow my late work procedure to have their work evaluated and entered into the gradebook.

Step 1 is that once they’ve completed the work and turned it in, they send me an email from their school account to my school account. The subject line says Late Work. In the body of the email, they include the title of the unit (so I can find their work on Google Classroom), the title of the assignment (so I know I have the right one), and the due date in the online gradebook (so I can find it there). Each assignment must be sent to me in a separate email. This helps me keep track of how much late work is being turned in; one email means one assignment. Pretty straight-forward.

Step 2 is my first response. I email them back by the “next business day” with the following response: Thank you for letting me know! I will get this graded and in the online gradebook as soon as I can. Please be patient, and check the Late Work page on the class website for updates. And then I file their email in a special directory: the Late Work folder, with a sub-folder for that particular class. I also mark it as ‘unread,’ even though I’ve read it, which lets me know that it still needs further action.

The Late Work page on the class website has the directions on how to inform me that they’ve turned in an assignment that’s past the due date. But it also sets my overall timeline: I grade late work as soon as I can. However, I grade work turned in on time first, followed by late work in the order I received it.

It also has a line that I update whenever I enter grades for late work into the online gradebook: Any assignment that received an email reply from me prior to (date) should be current in the system; please email me if this is not the case.

Step 3 is about setting precedent and managing expectations. At the beginning of the term, there isn’t a backlog of late work, because there aren’t a lot of assignments. However, I am absolutely diligent about replying to emails asking for more information if they didn’t email me correctly the first time, even though I can probably figure out which assignment they’re talking about and look the due date up myself. If I don’t do that from the start, then once we get later in the term and there’s more assignments and some of them have similar names, it becomes much more difficult to manage.

Likewise, if there are only three assignments in the system, and they turn the third one in late, all of a sudden, they drop from an A to an F. Students don’t like that. The adults who are legally responsible for those students also don’t like that. I get … questions. Sometimes, less pleasantly, accusations that they emailed me and I haven’t graded their work.

Image: Adults fussing at a student about bad grades.

My response is, first, will you forward me the reply you got back from me telling you that I’d received your first email? I don’t see that in my email folder with the others.

And surprise, surprise, I get an email that gives me the information about the assignment. (Oops!)

Sometimes it’s “how soon will such-and-such assignment be in the system?” To which I just copy-paste the bit from the Late Work page: I grade late work as soon as I can. However, I grade work turned in on time first, followed by late work in the order I received it. And I add, In order to be able to offer a generous late policy, I need students to be patient with me so that I can evaluate all work fairly. Remember that you won’t lose any points for it being turned in late, and that you can check the Late Work page to see what I’m currently grading.

That way, late in the term, they aren’t expecting immediate turnaround when there’s a lot that’s been turned in late, on top of the regular work.

Step 4 is actually getting work evaluated, marked on the paper gradebook, and entered into the online system. My order of precedence is replying to student emails, marking current assignments, and then going on to late assignments. The goal is to have current work entered within a week, and late work entered within two weeks. But there’s definitely some ebb and flow there just depending on what I’m working with. I grade late work by going through the email folder for that class, finding the oldest ‘unread’ email, and opening it up. Based on the information in that email, I go to that assignment and evaluate it, including feedback on the assignment itself, and then enter the grade.

Step 5 is a second notification. I reply to that email with this message: Please check the feedback on this assignment. The online gradebook has been updated. Please check to make sure that it is showing up correctly. Thank you for turning in your work! And then I go back to the folder and on to the next ‘unread’ message. I want to emphasize that I do not delete the email when I’m done with it! It’s now marked as ‘read,’ which tells me that I’m finished with that task. But I leave it in the folder in case I need to go back to it.

When I’m going through late work, I try to get through all the emails that have a certain date. Then, I go back to the class website, go to the Late Work page, and update it to say Any assignment that received an email reply from me prior to (date) should be current in the system; please email me if this is not the case.

A screenshot from the Late Work page on the class site.

Toward the end of the term – about six weeks out or so – I let students know that they will have a “guarantee deadline,” which will be 2-3 weeks before the end of the term. I tell them that this will be the last date by which I will be able to guarantee that I can get their work reviewed, graded, and in the computer system before it locks all grades as final. I put this date on the board, and I regularly have them tell me what it is and what it means. I remind them that I will absolutely continue to take work after that, and that I’ll do my best to get it graded and in the system, but that I don’t want to make any promises that I’m not certain I can keep. I’ve been developing this procedure for about five years, and through all that time, I haven’t had any students complain about that deadline. They understand that it isn’t punitive or arbitrary; it’s just based on reasonable capability and my own integrity, and I guess they respect that.

The last few weeks of the term definitely involve me busting my tail to get students’ work evaluated, with feedback that helps them understand why they got the score they did, and getting as much of it into the online system as possible. But to me, it’s worth it.

If you’re a teacher, I’d love to know what your late policy is, and why it’s set that way. If you’re a student – or if you’ve been a student – I’d love to read a story about a time when you were either helped or hurt by a late policy.


You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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