Sunday, October 26, 2008

Deadlines and Late Policies

Over at Twitter and Facebook, I made comments about students not getting work to me by the noon deadline I'd set up for today, and a few people asked questions about the policies I'd mentioned in brief. So, a blog entry seemed to be in order.

First, electronic sumbissions. For my first-year seminar this semester, all major essays are due as an attachment to an email message by noon on Sundays. I've been doing electronic submission for a few years now because 1) I like to have the ability to type longer comments in the margins and 2) I like to be able to keep copies of each and every essay I receive and grade. I think my comments are much clearer than before. Also, I can highlight sentences with errors or glitches in them, showing students that there is a problem and encouraging them to find the solution on their own (or come to me later so we can discuss it in person). Sure, I could do that with a regular highlighter, but doing it on the computer feels smoother to me. And having the essays on hand has worked for me and my students. More than once, I've received an email from a student who had a computer crash and needed a writing sample for a job or scholarship application. I'm able to forward their previous work to them in just a few seconds. Gmail makes storage really easy; in twenty-nine months of doing this, I have used only seventeen percent of my storage capacity (yeah, I keep just about every email I receive and/or send).

Second, deadlines. When I switched to electronic submission, it didn't make sense to have the deadline be the start of class. Also, I always hated how, the day an essay was due, it was pointless to have students do any serious reading. When I was an undergrad, I never read what was assigned the day an essay was due. Sometimes, I would cancel class and wait in my office for students to turn things in, but that felt like too many lost days. Having the deadline on a weekend made sense because I would never start grading until the weekend. Why have them turn in work when I know I'm not going to touch it until Saturday or Sunday? I used to make the deadlines noon on Saturday, but several evaluations last year recommended pushing them to Sunday. That sounded fine to me, so I made the change. I'm thinking of revising how I talk about deadlines, though, to say that essays are due within a time frame, like from noon on Thursday to noon on Sunday. Students used to turn in essays early, but now they seem to wait until the last minute. Some have told me that they do not want to turn things in early because they don't want to look like a suck-up.

Third, late policies. I do not dock students who turn in late work as long as they turn it in within a week after the deadline (I won't take work at all when it's more than a week late). Why no penalty? Well, I read What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, and he argues that everthing we do in class should be motivated by pedagogy and not punishment. That got me thinking how, for me, grade penalties were done more to punish and less to teach. So, I tried to create a situation where students would be motivated to stick to deadlines because it would improve their learning. Therefore, I take work up to a week past a deadline, but I don't comment on it. I email them with a grade and nothing else. Since I usually allow revision on major assignments, this really hurts them. Of course, I offer to meet with them in my office. I'm not going to leave them stranded. But I think they lose out when they get no comments from me at all, just an email with a C+ on it. It usually works, too. Some students panic more about deadlines than before. It also helps good students make choices. I had an honors student who had the proverbial hell week. For me, she put off the essay by a few days and concentrated on her exams. She still earned an A from me. But that's the exception, not the rule.

Now, these strategies work only for me. I'm not advocating them for everyone. I do think some people follow some policies more out of habit. I've had colleagues say that they never thought it was possible to do anything other than decrease the grade on late assignments. Not all of them have switched to my style, but I hope people think a bit more about why they do what they do. Da Man has now been teaching for a couple of years, and he does the exact opposite of me. He forbids electronic submissions and decreases the grade on all late assignments. To meet his class objectives, these guidelines work best for him. These strategies I describe here fit my goals more fully. Frankly, I think students need to be exposed to as many techniques and "rules" as possible. I think they learn more by having to negotiate different expecations for different people. That seems to be one of the greatest life lessons we can offer them.

As for my first-year studens who led to this particular discussion on this particualr day, ten out of fifteen have not turned in their essays yet, and the deadline was over five hours ago. I've never had more than a couple miss before, and many of them did get their first essays to me on time last month. There are many reasons why this could be happening, and I'll ask them about it on Tuesday. The first essay was an narrative portrait, and this essay is a standard interpretive analysis. This essay is harder, and some of them have be struggling. Some did not keep up with the reading and realized that mistake too late. Some may be struggling with college and deadlines in general. It is midterm season, after all! And some might be truly apathetic.

I've been teaching long enough not to be upset about it. Hey, I've graded the five essays that came in on time and have returned them already. A few hours have now opened up for me this week! It's annoying, but I know I did a lot to help them get this essay done, including a week of in-class writing workshops. I've posted information about revisions, so they know they have to get something to me in the next week. After all, you can't revise what you never wrote in the first place. There are a few things I can still do to help them complete the next essay more easily. They still have to write it and get it to me on time, though!

I'd love to hear what people think about these strategies and what works for them. The more ideas and options we have circulating, the better for our students, I think.


  1. Thanks for this post. I like your thinking. I too have moved away from having students hand their essays in during class. I'm still thinking about whether or not I want to move to email submissions. I know I'd have to set up a separate gmail account just for essays. I'm just not sure how efficient I'd be grading on the computer since it can be such a distracting for me.

    I do like the idea of not putting comments on late papers. I may have to adopt that.

  2. I don't accept late work, unless a student has a valid excuse, like a note from the health center or a bail bond slip. I hate having to track down people to submit stuff that should have been done in the first place. My motto is 'Better never than late."

    I have done this for the past four years and it works well for me. The students know where I stand and make every effort to get their work in on time. They also know that I will ignore begging, pleading and the occasional cuss words.

    Now, I do give options if someone will not be in class and I explain them the first day and they are in the syllabus. I don't want to be that vicious, but I guess I came from a profession where deadlines are met unless unforeseen circumstances arise.

    I don't recommend this approach for everyone. One has to be a very strong individual who can take whinning, complaining and being cussed out. Also, in some courses I could see where it would not work. I guess one has to find their mix.

  3. I love, love, love electronic submission. I prefer being able to type in comments. I like having samples of student work to think about and look at when revising the course, too.

    A friend of mine recommended this policy to me when teaching graduate students, which is all that I'm teaching this semester. No late work, but deadlines are negotiable if and only if negotiated ahead of time. This encourages students to coordinate their work across all courses and take responsibility for their deadlines. When I set deadlines, I don't know what else they have going on in their lives outside of class, for instance. I'd rather get quality work than worked crammed together to meet my somewhat arbitrary deadline.

    I need to think seriously about deadlines that are not by the start of class, so students will have time to read, too, for instance. I like that idea. I had made that shift in some undergrad classes, but I will think about it for grad classes now, too.

  4. SS, my policy does kind of work in the same way. Students never request extensions. They know they can turn it in late. I have had some ask if I'll still do comments if it's late, which is a kind of extension, I guess. I say no but that I'll gladly meet with them in my office later to talk about their work. Most avoid that, though!

    You're right, though, that law is a profession that is all about deadlines.

  5. I encourage electronic submission but not by email. It's hard enough to track student work on paper and in WebCT, let alone adding in my university email to the mix. Since they have WebCT as an option, however, I don't worry.

    I enforce some deadlines stringently: tutorial responses (my Reformation survey class hands in ten of these during a term) are due a week after the tutorial. Even a minute late is too late and I don't feel bad because these are one-page assignments and I'm not getting sucked into an endless catch-up on a bunch of late submissions. Students also enjoy the guarantee that their tutorials are marked and back in their hands within a week of submission.

    Essay deadlines are, conversely, less of an issue, although, like you, I tell students who've submitted late that they forfeit a detailed response. They are also assessed a small late penalty because otherwise I will receive the vast majority of the class essays quite late in the term if there's no downside (and no comments aren't a downside for the average student, I find) and when there are eighty students in a writing-intensive class, I just can't afford to get terribly behind!

    I, too, love Ken Bain's book and have tried to adopt many of his suggestions. I agree with your point that students can benefit from trying out different rules with different instructors: that often helps them learn to understand their own educational style!

  6. I tried having students turn in papers (electronically) on Sundays one semester, and they hated it. I think they somehow felt it ruined their weekend - more than when I'd just have it due on Monday? It was weird.

    My policy on lateness depended on my purpose in assigning the papers. I used to be a hardass about any lateness. I also used to assign a lot of papers for the purpose of having students show up to class prepared to talk about that day's material (so they had to write a response paper based on that day's reading), and I was a hard-ass about taking those late, because the point of doing the papers was to facilitate good class discussion. But I moved closer to your current policy on stuff that wasn't tied to what we were doing in class. Life is complicated, and it wasn't like I was going to sit down and grade the papers instantly, anyway.

    (I have to confess that Bain's book actually annoyed me a bit, because it seemed a little unrealistic. Without meaning to underestimate non-Harvard students, observations based entirely on Harvard students seemed to applicability outside of Harvard. But that was probably just me. And the point about pedagogy vs. punishment is a good one.)

  7. Okay, just wrote out a comment and it didn't post. I'll try again.

    I used electronic submissions (through "blackboard") at my last school and really liked it. I liked that I could have students submit assignments on days that we didn't have class. More than that, I liked that I could get assignments back to them on a day we didn't have class. So if I had planned to return essays on Thursday, but didn't quite finish all of them, I didn't have to wait until the next Tuesday to get them back to them. I could return them electronically Thursday night or Friday morning.

    Some students loved it, some hated it. Isn't that so often the case? There was some anxiety about me actually receiving their work, as blackboard didn't really give them a receipt or acknowledge that I had received it. And there were times when students did, in fact, send something and it didn't get to me. But these were uncommon and easily managed.

    As for late penalties, I'm interested in this idea Nels. I'm wondering, though, how often students who didn't get comments do revise. I worry that this could discourage revision. But perhaps that's mitigated or even outweighed by the effect that you describe: that students are so worried about not getting comments, that they tend NOT to turn in essays late.

  8. Abby, you're reminding me of another reason why I love electronic submissions: I don't have to deal with students who get an essay back in class with a lower grade. Yes, they can email back fast, but no one ever has. It tends to encourage a cooling-off period.

    So that's another reason I like to have worked submitted and returned outside of class.

  9. New Kid, are you sure you're not confusing Bain's book with Richard Light's Making the Most of College? Light's book is based on his experiences at Harvard, and I agree that he over-generalizes to other institutions. Bain, who is at NYU, based his book on "best professors" nominated from all over academia.

  10. I am far from center when it comes to late papers. I accept them. I don't feel taken advantage of because it has been my experience that students more often than not turn things in on time, and if they need extra time, then that's fine by me. The only time I address the issue is if turning in late papers is part of a larger constellation of issues, like missing class, not being prepared and so forth. Then I pull the student aside and have a chat with her or him about it and set up some deadlines and offer advice for getting help through the Writing Center or through counseling if needed.

    It has been my experience that most of the time, students do turn things in on time.

    I like the idea of electronic submissions, and feel ready to go that way--I already read and return rough drafts to students via email, and prefer that process largely because it means the paper won't be lost in the stack. Literally lost, that is. And, Abby and Nels, you have pointed out another advantage to the system: the cooling off period. The next time I teach FYC, I'm going to start the semester with the emailed draft and forego paper completely.