Late work IS still a problem


A good friend recently returned to teaching high school, after a long hiatus. Now she’s kind of like Rip Van Winkle, waking up to see how the world around her has changed.

The biggest shock so far, she told me, is the idea that due dates don’t matter much anymore. She can’t wrap her head around it. Why wouldn’t we expect kids to do work on time? How is this better for anyone? Won’t they have to do work on time in the real world?

One of her new colleagues tried to sell her on it, telling my friend: I’m not teaching the standard of their being able to submit things on time.

My friend responded: But can’t there be a reasonable time frame?

Yes, work has to be done by the end of the semester.

With no consequences for being late?

No, not if they met the standard.

Unlike my friend, I’ve lived through the evolution of this policy. But like her, I’m still stumped.

It’s not that I want to penalize kids for late work, and I get that mastering mean, median and mode in November is just as valuable as mastering them in September. I also admit that my old policy — 10% off per day late — was embarrassingly arbitrary.

But it wasn’t completely irrational. I penalized late work because I understand one of the core principles of economics, which is that incentives matter. People respond to incentives, and our students are no exception.

If there is no penalty for turning in work late, then why turn it in on time? My students freely admit that procrastination is one of their biggest problems. They’d always rather do work tomorrow.

There are a few other key problems as well, without even getting into the “real world” argument.

  • We’re trying to instill a growth mindset in our students, trying to encourage them to learn from their mistakes. But there is nothing to learn from if no work is done in the first place. We can’t give valuable feedback on unwritten papers or untaken tests.
  • Let’s be honest. When a student turns something in at the last minute (like in January or June), we are only ever going to give it a cursory read-through. Looks great, looks OK, doesn’t quite cut it. We can’t appropriately attend to student progress if it all happens in the same week.
  • Finally, I think these policies assume a level of pointlessness to our work. If I’m making my students do busywork, then sure, who cares when it gets done? But when I assign my students to design a mock psych experiment, it’s because I know it will help them master terms like “correlation” and “confounding variable” — and they will perform better on their assessment as a result. If they don’t do the assignment until months later, it loses value.

I think we can all agree that meaningful assignments are a whole lot more valuable to students and teachers when they are done on time. The real question we should be wrestling with is: How do we incentivize students to get things done on time?

If we aren’t willing to do it by punishing lateness, then fine, we need a new strategy. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a good one yet.

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