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As the pandemic wears on, conversations about pedagogy in higher ed have been turning to kindness, compassion and care. One specific way we can be compassionate with students is to stop using late penalties.
Late penalties are generally intended to do a few things: train students to get work done on time so they can succeed in the professional world, encourage them to stay on track in the course and help faculty members manage their workload. While these are all reasonable goals, late penalties can lead to intense anxiety for students and may not provide that much payoff for instructors.
I decided to try a semester without late penalties after I heard about a study showing that adding late fees at daycare centers actually increased the amount of time that people were late to pick up their kids. The authors suspected that a small fine seemed like a price for additional service and thus was not an effective incentive to be on time.
Public libraries have found similar problems with late fees, and the American Library Association recommends eliminating overdue charges in order to improve equity and access to libraries. There are now fine-free public libraries in almost every state; emerging data indicate that this policy seems to increase the speed and quantity of the items that patrons return.
Like libraries who don’t want patrons with fines to stop using their services, I didn’t want my students to lose access to the learning opportunities that assignments offer. When we use late penalties, we’re encouraging students to just skip assignments altogether when they miss deadlines and to think of the lost points as the cost.
Before I implemented a no-late-penalties policy, I used to scrutinize and then ultimately accept nearly all student requests for deadline extensions. But I worried that this approach was not entirely equitable—research shows that first-generation college students are less likely to ask for extra time to complete their work. As educator Myron Dueck explains, late penalties can make final grades a “measure of compliance and socioeconomic opportunity rather than learning.”
But won’t getting rid of late penalties create chaos for students and more work for faculty? In my experience, no.
In my late-penalty-free course last fall, 68 percent of the submissions for all four tests were on time, and another 15 percent were completed within 10 days of the deadline. It seems that staying on track in the course is already enough of an incentive for most students to meet deadlines. The remaining 17 percent were submitted an average of one month after the deadline; half of those (8 percent of all tests) were submitted in the final week of the semester.
Of course, instructors with hundreds of students in a semester might worry about getting overwhelmed if even a fraction of assignments come in during the last week of the semester. But if you explain to students that they won’t get detailed feedback on anything submitted at the end of the course, you’ll be able to get through it all pretty quickly.
Even if you need to adjust your schedule to accommodate late work and it takes a bit of extra time to reacquaint yourself with answer keys from earlier in the semester, the benefits to students might be worth it. In addition to providing students with more opportunities to learn, abolishing late penalties can also significantly relieve their stress and anxiety.
One student in my no-late-penalties course explained, “I’m a working mom doing school at night, and the anxiety it saved me from missing one or two small things was such an amazing quality-of-life improvement.” Another wrote, “Late penalties don’t do anything to help the student. Instead, they cause stress, anxiety and poor grades that could have otherwise easily [been] fixed.”
Students called the policy a “lifesaver” and a “game changer” and said, “It changed the entire semester for me.”
I was especially pleased to learn that the policy helped some students focus on learning and doing their best work. One student noted, “[I could] submit better assignments because I wasn’t as stressed about the deadline.” Another student explained, “I was able to work at my own pace without rushing or turning in sloppy work.”
Further, Katrin Becker reports that flexible deadlines encourage students to be more creative and “try approaches they might otherwise not risk. The end result is that they learn more.”
While most students had only positive things to say about my no-late-penalties policy, a handful were ambivalent or negative. Their comments typically mentioned that the policy led them to deprioritize my course or that it allowed them to put things off too long. One student explained that it “gave me too much room to procrastinate,” and another said they had a “hard time finding motivation to complete things.”
But would late penalties have benefited those few students? Probably not. Research shows that people who procrastinate aren’t, as many believe, lazy or lacking self-control. Instead, they need better skills for managing negative emotions. If that’s the case, the threat of a late penalty might be counterproductive.
Many people assume late penalties help students learn professionalism. But consider your own behavior as a professional. When you’re motivated to complete a task on time, it’s probably because you think it’s important, because being late will have a negative consequence for yourself or others, or because you understand and care about your colleagues’ expectations. In other words, it’s probably not because you’ve been trained to expect a punishment for being late.
If we want students to genuinely understand the stakes of missing deadlines in a professional setting, we need to target that outcome specifically. Rather than hoping that late penalties will somehow enable students to internalize professional norms, consider inviting a practitioner to talk to the class or assigning a reading on the topic.
I’m convinced that eliminating late penalties is generally better for students, but it’s also better for me. I no longer spend any time keeping track of requests for extensions or sending emails back and forth to negotiate new deadlines. Best of all, I no longer have to figure out whether their requests are reasonable: no more scrutinizing blurry scans of documents from doctors’ visits or wondering if the computer really did eat their homework. I’ve always been uncomfortable playing the role of gatekeeper and assessing the legitimacy of students’ traumas, and I’m happy to be done with it.