Methods for Managing Late Work

Examining the reasoning behind your assessments can help shape your approach to tardy work, says Jennifer Gonzalez.

September 27, 2019
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When she was teaching, Jennifer Gonzalez used to plod through a “pointless” exercise at the end of the term: allowing a few students to complete late assignments and then docking their scores by 50 percent for tardiness. In her recent blog post, she reflects on why that practice didn’t help her students and offers suggestions from other educators on how cope with late work. 

The first step, Gonzalez says, is to examine your assessment procedures as a whole. Ask, “What do your grades represent?” The emphasis should be on learning and growth, not compliance. “If your grades are too compliance-based,” Gonzalez says, “consider how you might shift things so they more accurately represent learning.” Look also at the quantity of what you grade, she advises. Many assignments function as practice, not assessment. Shift to fewer graded assignments, she says, even if it is a challenge to “convince your students that ungraded practice is worthwhile because it will help their performance on the big things.” 

The final step for evaluating your grading system is asking yourself, “What do I assume late work means?” Gonzalez confesses, “I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first started teaching, I assumed most students with missing work were just unmotivated.” But lack of motivation is rarely the cause; many students don’t complete homework because they don’t have the resources of their peers. 

The most important factor in your grading system? Creating a plan you can actually keep up with, Gonzalez says. Once you establish a system, you can develop a strategy for late work. She offers a range of possible options, curated from other teachers through social media, ranging from penalties to the elimination of deadlines. 


Many teachers still opt for penalties, and there’s a reason: “When work is turned in weeks or even months late, it can lose its value as a learning opportunity because it is no longer aligned with what’s happening in class.” If you choose penalization for tardy assignments, a reduction in points can motivate students to complete the work, even if it is late. “This policy still rewards students for on-time work without completely de-motivating those who are late, builds in some accountability for lateness, and prevents the teacher from having to do a lot of mathematical juggling with a more complex system.”

Other teachers implement a policy that rewards students who turn things in on time by allowing them to resubmit their assignments for improved grades; if the work is late the student can’t retake the assessment for more points or receive feedback. 

Punitive policies don't always work as motivators, Gonzalez says, because sometimes the reason for late work isn't related to a lack of motivation. As a result, many teachers are abandoning the practice. "Students may have issues with executive function and could use some help developing systems for managing their time and responsibilities. They may struggle with anxiety. Or they may not have the resources—like time, space, and technology—to consistently complete work at home," she writes. 

Separate Mastery From Deadlines

Some teachers use a separate assessment  to “measure factors like adherence to deadlines, neatness, and following non-academic guidelines like font sizes or using the correct heading on a paper.” Completing assignments on-time, in other words, is part of a separate evaluation from the mastery assessment--and students receive grades for both. 

“Although most teachers whose schools use this type of system will admit that students and parents don’t take the work habits grade as seriously as the academic grade,” Gonzalez writes, “they report being satisfied that student grades only reflect mastery of the content.” Because better work habits can yield better academic results, having this type of “work habits” score can be used to show students the importance of staying on top of deadlines.

Issue Selective ‘Passes’ or Use Floating Deadlines

Another popular option for late work is to anticipate it and offer a pass the student can elect to use instead. “Most teachers only offer these passes to replace low-point assignments, not major ones, and they generally only offer 1 to 3 passes per marking period.” A “next day pass” serves a similar purpose; students can use them to extend the deadline by a day. One teacher reports that the introduction of the pass gave her “the lowest rate ever of late work.” Some teachers use extension requests so students can anticipate when they might be late and write a proposal about why their tardiness should be excused. 

A floating deadline can help avoid the question of how to address late work altogether. Giving students a flexible range of dates when they can submit work allows them to take ownership in their work. “Some teachers offer an incentive to turn in work in the early part of the time frame, such as extra credit or faster feedback, and this helps to spread out the submissions more evenly,” Gonzalez writes. A variation on the flexible deadline allows students to turn in work that’s in process. Teachers then have the chance to review work and give feedback before the final grade. Students can also take responsibility by weighing in on when work should be due. “They may have a better idea than you do about other big events that are happening and assignments that have been given in other classes.”

What is the best policy on late work? The system that actually works for you. Gonzalez encourages teachers to experiment with different approaches and settle on the process that suits you and your students.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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