Let’s Talk About…Late Penalties

Some instructors I know are almost indignant: At a college level, an assignment is due when the assignment is due: “There’s no tolerance for late projects in the real world,” they crow.  Other instructors I know are at the opposite end of the spectrum: They allow students to hang on for a whole semester with minimal effort, and often end up paying the price themselves at the end of the semester by grading an avalanche of last-minute, hastily-thrown-together late assignments in weak attempts to save doomed grades.

You know that old adage: “No good deed goes unpunished?”  It sometimes applies here.

I think either extreme on late penalty policies, too hard or too soft, is problematic in a community college setting.  Having or enforcing no expectations for “on time work” isn’t disciplined enough, and in many ways penalizes those who turn their work in on time (why should they?).  Having a policy that is too strict and punitive can destroy a handful of beginning students prematurely:  Does that harsh of a penalty really fit the “crime”?

Regardless of what you do for late penalties (and everyone should have and apply a stated policy from the opening day of class), document your guidelines in the syllabus, let everyone know ahead of time, and be fair in the application of the rules.

I’ve come up with a late penalty system that I think hits middle ground and is effective for community college learners. Here are the main features of my late policy:

  • If an assignment is late per the web time stamp or other, the penalty is 20% off the point value per calendar day (even if you don’t use Canvas for a full online class, you can still use it for assignment submittals – and you won’t have to carry around all that paper, either).
  • Any assignment not handed in within five days of the deadline gets a zero.
  • Any student that has three “zeros” is in danger of being dropped (note I didn’t say “will be” – there are a few exceptions — see below).

Some exceptions:

  • Extra credit, because it is by definition “extra,” must be handed in on time, and cannot be handed in late.
  • If a student has an extended illness or a planned medical procedure or a severe accident, I will consider an extension if they let me know before the assignment due date.
  • Some assignments, like MGH Connect, are graded on participation and effort (in the case of Connect, by completion percentage). Here I grade at 25% completion and four-week intervals, and allow late submissions, but not for credit. Students must make the completion percentages on time to get participation credits. (With Connect, they cannot go forward without completing all previous exercises).
  • Drafts are key assignments in the writing process – they represent a significant milestone, and I typically need to assign peer reviewers to drafts as soon as possible to give reviewers as much time as possible. Therefore, late drafts are accepted, but the penalty is more severe and the time is shorter: 50% off the point value IF the draft is handed in within 48 hours of the original due date – and, the student does NOT get to participate in peer reviews for credit.

To me these very practical late penalty measures represent a good balance between the discipline needed by students in their first couple years of college (where part of the learning is learning how to be a student), and the realities of (college student) life:

  • They tell the student that they are accountable for their assignments.
  • They tell the student that they are responsible for their overall grade.
  • They distinguish between the important and the most-important assignments (not every thing in life is equally important, either).
  • They are fair in the sense that (1) the policies are the same for everyone, (2) there are exceptions for extreme conditions, and (3) the penalty is based on a percent of the point value of the assignment (in short, equitable).
  • They reward on-time delivery by the more mature/exceptional students.
  • They virtually eliminate the grey and often emotional areas we all run into: Is an assignment late if it is 30 minutes late? Is it late if I was sick? If my mother died? If my dog ate my homework? Yes to all.
  • They provide hope for the students that, as human beings, forget an assignment due date once in awhile – they are not destroyed by one or two late assignments, and can recover with a quick response and hard work.

State and apply a late assignment penalty system that is fair and equitable and fits the situation. Your students’ lives (and yours!) will be better for it.


One thought on “Let’s Talk About…Late Penalties”

  1. Gary,
    I think you discussed some very valid points! Wouldn’t it be interesting if all instructors could come to a consensus on these types of policies? Wow! I wonder how that would impact our student’s success…


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