Sunday, November 28, 2010

How do you address late work?

Students submitting late is not a new phenomenon and is not something that will go away anytime soon.

People hold a range of opinions on how to respond to late work.  Some people say we should not accept late work at all, others say we should accept it and attach a consequence and finally, others believe that we should accept late work without consequence at all.

I believe we should accept late work from students without applying any consequence.

Here's why...

First, every task or challenge that we pose for our students is an important learning opportunity.  If we believe in the value of our students completing these tasks, we should engage in practices that motivate them to complete the work.  We should avoid providing students a reason or motivation not to complete the work.  Assigning a '0' or deducting marks for late work provides students just that...the motivation for  not completing the work.

As teachers, how do we know the length of time it will take each individual student to learn something new?  We establish arbitrary timelines all the time, but how do we know if these timelines suit the pace of learning of our students? Establishing timelines is necessary so that students have a guideline, but the timelines that we create must be flexible enough to meet the needs of all of our learners.  Surely we aren't going to demand that every student learn at the same pace as everyone else?

We know that people learn in different ways and at different rates.  Despite this, the factory model of schooling favors kids who 'get it' first or 'get it' right away.  In a rush to cover the curriculum, we often present material to our students and shortly afterwards, follow it up with a test.  Students who learn quickly perform well while those who don't learn quickly enough perform poorly. If we don't use these results to inform our practice and improve student learning then the test simply becomes another piece of summative assessment data that is used to generate a numerical mark or letter grade.  Unfortunately, this type of practice leads to major gaps in student learning, especially for those students who require more repetition and reinforcement.

As teachers, we help our students set reasonable expectations for themselves based on the progression of their learning.  So, following this same line of thinking, shouldn't we have different standards for late work for people who have already mastered a skill compared to people who are still learning a skill?  Should we be holding students, who aren't yet proficient or are still learning something to the same standard as people who are already proficient?

In the professional world, it is allowable and understandable to hold professionals to adult level competencies.  Adults possess greater maturity and are better able to establish earlier deadlines for themselves so that they ensure they will have their work completed on time.  This maturity comes from having made mistakes in the past.  On the other hand, when professionals are attempting to learn a new skill or develop a new idea, they are often afforded a considerable amount of flexibility when it comes to timelines.  The reason for this is quite simple, learning takes time and in order for deep learning to occur it cannot be rushed.

Many teachers say that they are preparing students for the 'real world' by not accepting late work or by deducting marks for late work.  The reality is that in the real world, one is allowed to be late more often than not.  Meetings, appointments, deliveries and flights all suffer from delays.  In the real world, we accept delays and do our best to understand these situations.  Whether we did not know how to complete some work, ran short of time or simply forgot, we have all been in the position where we have missed a deadline.  In these situations, we are still forced to get the work done in addition to the current work we are responsible for.  Did we lose our job? No.  Did we lose pay? No.  But, we did learn to prepare so that we can avoid similar situations in the future.

Allowing students to recover in full from 'not knowing' or being irresponsible about time management teaches more than if teachers slap a '0' on for late work.  For a student to have to re-do work or do work for the first time that he/she didn't do initially, while doing everything else that he/she is responsible for, he/she will truly respect and appreciate deadlines.  Students will come to realize that it is much easier just to keep up.  

So, how should we respond when students don't submit work on time?

First, we need to understand WHY our students did not complete their work.  Did they not understand how to do it? Did their schedules not allow them the necessary time? Did they mismanage their time? Were they lazy?

Our students' answers to the above questions should determine our response.

This may require that we spend some extra time to help our students understand the material.  It may mean insisting that a student stay in outside of class time in order to finish off their work.  Or it may be as simple as allowing them the opportunity to go home and complete the work on their own.

Regardless of how we choose to respond, we must insist that they complete the work because allowing students not to engage in a learning opportunity is unacceptable!


  1. Amen!! Thank you for this thought filled post. My staff and I are studying "A repair Kit For Grading". By Ken O'Connor. This is the one aspect that many of my veteran teachers are struggling with. Some of the ones struggling with it are the same ones who do not meet my deadlines-which I always work with them on. Thanks again for this post-I will be sharing it with my staff.

  2. Differentiated instruction will reduce the amount of late work that students hand in. The more that teachers differentiate to account for individual student differences, the more likely it is that students will be capable of completing the work and will submit their work on time.
    The one negative to 'insisting' that students complete all of their work is that is speaks to forced compliance. Ultimately, if we minimize the use of grades and emphasize the importance of meeting learning targets, we can increase the level of student engagement and consequently reduce the number of late assignments that students hand in.

  3. Nice post, Aaron! I couldn't agree more. If I am late getting something to my Superintendent, he doesn't say "Don't bother handing it in". I have to do the work, and right quickly, on my time! The appropriate punishment (for those who need to use such a word--not me, personally) for not doing the work is to DO the work!

    We must be thinking on the same wavelength--I had a rant about this a couple of weeks ago!

  4. Nicely put Aaron! I agree with all that you have said.

    I think educational deadlines exist in the first place because of the contrived context we have created for learning coupled with the "factory" model that is demanded regarding the reporting of said learning.

    Though I believe that reporting demands drive the assigning of "work" and the accompanying deadlines more than any of us in education would like to admit, I will leave that topic for another discussion. I will attempt to add another dimension for people to consider while trying to stay focused on your original point of accepting late work with no consequence.

    I think your post makes one important presupposition: that the "work" students are being assigned to do is valuable and necessary for their learning to occur. As much as I want this to be true, I have far too much evidence to the contrary.

    Therefore I think that it is important to challenge all those in "education" to examine the type of "work" that is assigned in the first place. The distinction between "learning work" and "final product work" needs to be clear and definitely separated.

    Learning tasks should be exactly that: tasks students do in order to learn! This is where helping teachers to learn how to differentiate instruction would be extremely valuable. The "work" done in a learning phase should not be held to arbitrary deadlines with zeros used to calculate reported grades.

    If however a student is refusing to hand in the culminating assignment(s), appropriately designed and properly supported by the teacher and educational staff, I think that the consequence should be an INCOMPLETE and a potential NO CREDIT assigned for the course.

    Some would consider this equivalent to a "0" consequence. I can see their point. Simply rectified - give them the credit upon completion. My argument being that if course credit is held back until the completion of the (important) assigned work, the expectation of "forced compliance" can be shifted to the expectation that it is the student's responsibility to demonstrate their learning in order to receive credit.

    All in all, I believe a context more palatable even for the most oppositional amongst us!

    Karen Gadowsky

  5. In response to your tweet: how do you address late work?

    The long answer:
    I think I have spent a great deal of time in pre-addressing the potential for late work i.e. I’ve changed the way I think about assignments. I basically don’t give them anymore. Instead, I create learning activities and focus on getting students to engage while they are in class with "competency" being the first goal. I create rubrics with the students for everything including "how to participate in a learning activity" so they understand what competency looks like and competency is the minimum allowable "score." Most students want to avoid being deemed "incompetent" at something so they usually try, especially when they don't feel pressured to be good, excellent or masterful at it.

    As for the products that I expect my students to "hand in" - they are usually more project-like in design and require little bits of learning and doing along the way. These stages of work, simulate how many "real world" projects unfold and therefore students are actually always meeting "deadlines" by participating in the learning activities.

    But you may ask: What about those writing out-put disordered kids or oppositional kids, or the extremely distracted or scattered students who just can't seem to stay on track or on top of anything? Don't tell me THEY don't hand in anything late in your class!

    Well aside from that being a description for 90% of the students in my class, yes, no matter how segmented and staged my projects have been, there will always be those students who just can't seem to get it together. My staff and I work hard at cajoling and good ol' fashioned butt-kicking. I keep kids during lunch and after school hours for shorter bits of time but as frequent as is required to make sure they are "up-to-date." Strangely enough, most kids appreciate being held accountable in this way – they even thank me for keeping them in!

    However I believe that the amount of butt-kicking and cajoling decreases proportionally the more I offer student choice, provide partnering opportunities and demand that if "you don't 'get it' you get off your butt and find somebody who can help you 'get it.'

    The short answer:
    I guess the short answer for how I deal with lates is that I don't allow them. I provide the structure so that if you come to class and do the work, you will be able to competently succeed. A ton of tracking, chasing and scheduling yes... but who said this job, done well, was suppose to be easy!?

    Karen Gadowsky