I’ve been working through an issue for a little while now: late marks. Let me walk you through my journey.
Semester one, last year. I, like most teachers, started off the semester with an overview of policies and procedures, including that on assignments handed in late. I had a late policy in my internship, as did my co-op, and most teachers I’ve talked to have one. Some are 5% a day, some are 10% a day, some won’t allow late assignments to score higher than 50%, so on and so forth. I don’t remember exactly what my penalty was, but it was something like a few marks for each day an assignment was late. I ran into a few problems fairly quickly, the most troubling being that of inaccuracies – sometimes, I didn’t know how many days late an assignment was, due to a variety of factors, so it seemed like I was arbitrarily reducing their mark. What about when an assignment was late but the student told me it was due to family issues, or sports games? How did I know the other students with late assignments weren’t struggling with similar issues but just didn’t tell me? How did I know some of the students weren’t just using reasons like that as an excuse? Half-way through the semester, I gave up out of sheer frustration.
The next semester, I started really thinking about late marks. I had taken for granted that it was just something that teachers do – I feel it’s expected of teachers both within the profession and outside of the profession to teach the students about deadlines and due dates. But here’s what it really comes down to – is that my job? When I look at my particular curriculum, I don’t see any outcomes or indicators that outline anything about students being able to submit work on time. Other English teachers and I can dicker about AR9.1 and how it possibly has a place there, as it has students looking at their own personal strengths and needs in regards to the English strands and their contribution to a community of learners, which one could argue in certain cases involves being prepared, but that’s a mighty stretch and would not apply to every single assignment. So I’m thinking now that for me to give a student a 4/10 instead of a 10/10 because of late marks is malpractice*, because what I should be assessing and evaluating is their achievement of the outcome/indicator, and a mark of 4/10 does not reflect their ability in regards to that outcome/indicator, but rather their ability to hand things in on time. And if that ability is affected by a Learning Disability, the student needing extra time to complete assignments because they are slower processor or ‘outputter’, home or family issues, or other factors, then that 4/10 is a reflection of something entirely different than the outcome/indicator I am being employed to assess.
Now, for those of you who just heard me say “teaching students responsibility isn’t my job”, I would like to be clear on that topic, as I believe it is a part of my job. But for the reasons outlined above, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will end up reflected in assignments – in fact, most of the time a late penalty policy ends up doing the exact opposite; the more time that passes, the less motivated a student is to complete the assignment. And they are right. You would think that a student would reason, “I had better get this assignment done today or it will be worth even less tomorrow!” But what happens more often than not is the student reasons, “This assignment is only worth X% so it’s not worth doing anymore.” The thing about late penalties is that their whole reason for existing is to motivate students to hand assignments in on time, but it has been my experience that they don’t do that at all. So that is the second flaw of late penalties – they don’t actually do what they are meant to do.
So what do we do for late assignments? Well, I’ve been doing nothing in the way of reducing their mark. And you know what? Compared to when I did, I have the same average number of students handing things in late. I still have due dates, and I still hound students who don’t hand things in on those due dates. If students don’t hand something in on time, I inquire as to why they have not. For my Grade 9 students, I escort them to the homework room at lunch to get done assignments. I call parents and I email them with assignments attached. And if/when that assignment is handed in, I evaluate it based on what it is and not on when it was handed in to me. The fact that a student is chronically late with assignments is something that will show up in student comments rather than their mark. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it’s working so far.
For those of you about to protest, with the outcry of, “That’s not fair! You’re not rewarding students for handing things in on time and punishing those who don’t! How is that going to prepare them for real life?” My responses are threefold.
1.The “real life” we warn them about often does not exist. You aren’t going to get fired if you show up late for work once, and with some jobs, even if you show up late all the time. There are plenty of times in my own job that I’ve been late with a deadline and been met with grace rather than punishment. I’ve even been “past due” on paying some bills, without any penalty other than “great, now I have to pay two month’s worth of this bill this month.”
2. “Real life” will teach its own lessons in a way that I never can in high school. Go ahead, pay your credit card bill late, and you will have to incur the financial penalty. Lesson learned. Show up to a meeting late, and your boss may have words with you. Or, show up to work late all the time, and you may get fired. Lesson learned. A situation like this happening once will teach a student infinitely more than my late penalties ever will.
3. If I really wanted to prepare students for “real life”, I would sometimes have a late penalty, sometimes not, and sometimes reduce assignments at random. I would enforce very strict and unwavering deadlines for certain assignments, while allowing for re-submission on others. I would penalize students for the most minor of mistakes on certain assignments, and allow for gross error on others. I would do all this to teach students “life ain’t fair, get used to it.”
My point is that there are situations in life where you really can’t be late, but I believe that students will learn those situations and adjust accordingly. My silly 5% reduction will NEVER hit the students as hard as a 5% interest fee will.
I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, and feedback. Submit them before Friday, October 25th. Late comments will be considered 5% less valid for each day late that they are submitted.
(*If you think “malpractice” is a strong word to use here, read “Fix 2” in Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading. I borrowed the term from him.)