Thinking about Late Policy

~1200 words, ~6 min reading time

I’m thinking of revising my late policy. For philosophical reasons, I don’t penalize grades simply because assignments are late. Instead of grade penalties, I require students to email me a late form which explains why the assignment was late, and has them say what they could have done to prevent it from being late. The idea is: (1) to make it a teaching moment, so students are more prepared when they face real, serious deadlines(“Hey, maybe I shouldn’t have waited until 11:55PM to submit something due at 11:59PM, because sometimes the internet goes down.”), and (2) to let the punishment fit the crime. Grading a late assignment is mildly inconvenient for me, so the punishment should be similarly mildly inconvenient.
However, this semester I noticed something: there are two different types of late assignment doers.

Type I (the most common): people who hand things in a little bit late, usually because of poor foresight. (Took longer than expected, computer problems, forgot about the assignment but had to work that night, etc.) Generally speaking, these students hand in very few assignments late. They intend to hand things in on time, and have reasonable (but imperfect) systems for getting things done on time.

Type II (the less common): people who hand in a bunch of stuff at (or near) the very end of the semester. This seems to happen for two reasons: (1) a strategic decision to prioritize work in classes with less forgiving late policies, and/or (2) some significant life event which then leads to poor mental health which creates a more severe interference with executive function. (The life event might just be poor mental health itself.)

It makes little sense to treat these two the same, as they are very different problems. The Type I case isn’t really a “problem” in any significant sense. These students just need to learn to give themselves more of a buffer than they think they need. Also, the work created for me from these students is pretty minimal, both individually and collectively. If you turn in an assignment before I even grade those handed in on time, then it’s really no less convenient for it to be late than for it to be on time. The late form method was designed with this type of case in mind, and I think it works well for this purpose.

The Type II case is a bigger problem from a learning perspective, as the “do everything at the end of the semester” method has been shown to be bad for academic performance and bad for students’ mental health. (So, this is especially bad if students are doing it because their mental health is already poor!) Plus, more selfishly, I find this kind of behavior extremely annoying, as it *does* increase my workload at a peak time in the semester, and the wide variety of assessments I’m being asked to grade (going all the way back to week 1!) requires a lot of mental switching which reduces grading efficiency. I don’t think late forms are the right intervention here. Instead, I think a heavier-handed approach is appropriate. Specifically, I think it would be good to meet with these students individually to talk about their situation. (This also has the added benefit that I am much nicer in person than via email, as it reminds me that I’m dealing with actual people.)

A simple method I’m thinking about using:

(1) If an assignment is < 1 week late, only the late form is required.

(2) If an assignment is > 1 week late, you have to meet with me to chat before I’ll accept it.

The problem I foresee with this is that I’d be increasing my end-of-semester workload significantly, as I’m adding meeting with students in addition to grading all the late work, giving finals, etc. However, there are two factors offsetting this concern: (1) the pattern seems to be a few students (<5%) turning in a large volume of end-of-semester late work, so I really wouldn’t be meeting with very many students, and (2) meeting with me is a bigger hassle for students, so that would encourage students to turn things in closer to on time.

But, to further offset this concern, what I really need is an *early identification* system so that I can intervene before things pile up too much. With my grading system, this is tricky. The system is designed so that students can choose their goal grade, and then have some choice about how to achieve this grade. So, when Student X doesn’t do Assignment A, it doesn’t necessarily mean much. They might just not need it for whatever their goal grade is.

I tried to provide some guidance this semester by giving students occasional “Grade Updates”, where I told them what work I had received and graded and what work they still needed to do for various grades. However, a few students still fell through the cracks here. (Some of whom just weren’t in class to get the Grade Updates, and some of whom either misunderstood the grade updates or just ignored them.) I spent quite a bit of time saying to myself “This small group of students isn’t going to pass the class. They come to class, but don’t do the work (which is almost all on Blackboard), and I can’t figure out WHY.” (Of course, I didn’t directly ask them. Apparently, I prefer just being baffled by this kind of nonsensical student behavior to gathering data. That’s the theorist in me, I suppose.)

Now, I could try to intuit my way to a system that identifies students that need more active intervention – but that seems likely to be unbalanced and open to my own biases. (For example, I have a preference for students that sit close to the front and participate in discussions. Students that hide in the back or don’t come to class are much less likely to catch my attention.)

A couple of options:

(1) Use statistics to figure out which of the early assignments are most strongly correlated to failing the course. This would allow me to flag those students that don’t do these assignments. This also saves me having to check in with students continuously – just focus on a few key assignments to figure out who to intervene with. Downside: correlations aren’t perfect, so still plenty of cracks for people to slip through.

(2) Have some progress standard triggers at various points in the semester. This minimizes the number of students that would fall through the cracks. Downside: I might end up triggering lots of meetings, which could be very time-consuming.

It’s a tricky thing figuring out how to strike the balance between giving students their independence (which is the side I tend to err on) and providing sufficient guidance for those students that need more extrinsic motivation in order to succeed. But, I suspect that, as our society is still going through and then beginning recovery from the pandemic, a more active role may be useful.

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