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No Grandmothers Killed: Reflections on My Late Policy

posted: 2.6.14 by Traci Gardner

I’ve heard my fair share of excuses about late assignments. I’ve been regaled with dozens of tales of grandparents who weren’t doing very well, had taken a turn for the worse, and had unexpectedly passed away. There have been extensive stories of colds, flus, and details that included far too much information on food poisoning episodes. I’ve heard of lost, dead, and dying life-long family pets. I’ve listened patiently to complicated narratives about car trouble, roommate disagreements, and devastating breakups with significant others.

All that changed last semester. Not a single student came to me with a tale of a grandmother who was sick or dying, keeping him from completing his work on time. In fact, I had no sobbing, begging students in my office at all. The box of tissues on my desk was used only by students with sniffles because I finally found a tear-free late policy that works.

You may recall that last September I wrote about my struggle to find a way of handling late work that didn’t require extra tracking for me, that didn’t ask me to evaluate students’ excuses, and that provided fair options to students. The system I ultimately adopted had three components:

  • a due date, the last class when we discussed the project.
  • a one-week grace period.
  • a deadline, the last moment that work would be accepted.

The approach, based Reed Gillespie’s “A Late Work Policy That Supports Learning,” shifts the work and responsibility to students. I announce the dates and encourage students to turn their work in by the due date. If for any reason they can’t, they automatically have a grace period of one week to complete the work. If the work is not submitted by the deadline, they earn a zero.

During the first weeks, there was a lot of confusion about the terminology and the system. I felt as if I had to explain the three components during every class. However, by midterm, everyone understood, and even better, not a single student asked for more time.

I did end up giving out three extensions beyond the deadline. One student had a death in the family, and I received an official letter from the dean. Technically, the grace period would have covered his situation, but I gave him a few extra days.

Another student had lost several days to a weekend ROTC training event. As he talked to me in conference, I could tell that his work wasn’t up to the quality of work he usually gave me. I asked if a couple of extra days would help, and he gladly accepted. The third student was in a similar situation. She had well-documented issues with family and on campus. I didn’t even ask her if she wanted an extension when I talked to her. I just announced that she had one and told her when her work was due.

Of course, there were some challenges with my new late policy. In their course evaluations, some students reported that they wished they hadn’t procrastinated and had gotten their work in by the due date. I’ll be sure to emphasize the woes of procrastination when I explain my policy this term.

In terms of grading their work, I found myself resisting assessment until all the papers were in. That decision left me returning papers to students later than I would have liked, so I want to start grading as soon as possible this term.

Finally, I ended up extending the late policy to the in-class writing that we were doing. I originally announced that in-class work could not be made up, but I was quickly bombarded with legitimate excuses and was overwhelmed with the prospect of remembering them all. Extending my late policy to in-class writing solved that problem—but it created a new one. With a week to do in-class work, the writing was no longer an incentive to be in class, and students who completed the work late frequently ended up doing busy work.

For instance, one in-class writing asked students to post the first draft of a thesis statement and sketch out some details that the paper was going to cover. A week later, at the deadline for turning in that in-class writing, the drafts had been completely written and shared in peer review. Going back to sketch out preliminary details at that point was not a useful exercise. To solve that problem, I’m going to shorten the grace period for in-class writing to 24 hours and find some new ways to reward class participation.

Overall, I’m pleased with the late policy I came up with in September, and it’s on my syllabus for the spring term, with only the minor change to how I will handle in-class work. With continued success, I may be able to keep all the grandmothers happy and healthy this spring semester!

[Photo: bless you by Robert S. Donovan, on Flickr]

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