Rethink Your Late Work Policies

Over the past few years, faculty have been working to be more flexible with students and to accommodate their needs as they balanced completing assignments with caregiving, work, and other responsibilities. One area that has come under focus is late policies. Late policies often cover how late students can turn something in, if they lose any points, and what the procedure is for asking for an extension.

Late penalties are often instituted for a few practical and philosophical reasons: sometimes, students need to complete work by a specific time to prepare for a lab section or to be ready to move into a new unit. Thus, late penalties are used to induce students to complete work in a timely way to ensure they are prepared for class. And sometimes, faculty need students to submit work in a timely manner to be able to manage their own grading loads, particularly if they are working with large-enrollment sections.

However, other reasons are more problematic. One is the idea that late penalties are fair to the students who turn in work on time and teach students responsibility. However, not all students work from the same conditions, so what is fair for one person may not be fair for others. This idea of fairness assumes students are starting from the same place, but we know that each student has varying levels of privilege, ability, and time: while one student may be able to focus full-time on schoolwork, another may be balancing work and caregiving alongside their academic load. In addition, “fairness” is a loaded term in that it assumes that giving flexibility to one student somehow penalizes or costs the other. The student who submits work on time still has an advantage over the one who needs flexibility because they can move on to the next task. Thus, instead of fairness, thinking about equity might be more beneficial in that providing flexibility is one way to lower barriers for student success. Students can benefit from flexibility in accepting late work and no penalties for late submissions, and it can add to the equitable classroom environment faculty seek to build.

The other argument is that late penalties teach responsibility, but that reasoning assumes that the classroom works like the workplace, instead of being a space where students can make mistakes and learn how to succeed—and, in any case, employees often have to renegotiate deadlines as problems emerge or unexpected events occur. Who among us hasn’t had to ask for an extension for a manuscript or change the deadline on a project?

While you may have good reasons for needing students to submit work on time, you might want to rethink penalizing students for submitting work late. Late work penalties may encourage some students to turn work in on time, but what is often overlooked is the ways late penalties might burden some students more than others. Neurodivergent students, for instance, might struggle to get work in on time and the late penalty may discourage them from submitting work altogether. Students who are struggling to master the content may be penalized more for needing more time with work, thus lowering their grade still more and creating more barriers to success.

Instead of late penalties, you might consider creating policies that encourage students to get work in time but make your reasoning clear and transparent and creating what Matthew Cheney calls a “cruelty-free syllabus.” For instance, some faculty think that they need to appear to be stricter in their policies but that they’ll be flexible if students ask. However, this creates a shadow policy where the students who are willing to ask for extensions get them and others do not because they don’t know to ask. Instead, faculty should outline a policy and explain the reasoning, such as explaining why work past a certain date cannot be accepted. For example, I tell students I can’t accept their last project of the semester past the deadline because I need time to evaluate them and submit final grades before the deadline imposed by the university. Other faculty might note that certain homework assignments are necessary for work that will be done in class and thus cannot be submitted late, such as the kind of work needed to be successful on a practical or a laboratory assignment.

If you typically allow extension requests, then clearly outline the process for doing so and communicate it in various places. In addition, you might also include a grace period for submitting work, such as a 24 or 48-hour “no questions asked” policy, where students can submit work in the grace period without letting you know why they need to do so—thus allowing them to make decisions and you to get fewer last-minute extension request emails! Again, the goal of these policies is to create some flexibility, let students understand your reasoning for accepting late work, and ensure that all students have access to flexibility and extensions as needed. Since I stopped penalizing late work, my own workload has not increased, but every semester, a few students and are able to come back from challenges they encountered to pass my courses, which means they encounter one fewer barrier to success.

References and additional resources


Jenn Mallette
Associate Professor, Department of Writing Studies
Boise State University