Flexibility: What to consider in late work policies

Two students closely examine a handout.

November 16, 2018. Photo by Justin Mohling, University Communication.

Choosing a late policy that will work for your particular course and teaching style can be tricky. There are many different options available, and how well each works will depend on factors such as the discipline, course level, enrollment size, and instructor educational philosophy.

This page is designed to help you think about the different options and how they might fit with your needs. It contains a variety of examples of late work policies, annotated with things for you to consider before adopting that policy type. Some also contain ideas of situations where that policy type might work well. While this page may seem lengthy, it’s important to remember that good teaching is hard work! To support students equitably, it is critical to think about the implications for your syllabus policies on different student populations.

Before you dig in, know that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list - there are other creative options available for crafting great syllabus policies. It is also possible to mix elements of the different approaches together if none of them feel like quite the right fit. Note that these are focused on homework and project type work rather than exams. There are a lot of very interesting ways that faculty account for missed exams or students with low exam scores, but that is beyond the scope of this document.

Types of late policies that we’ve seen:

Due date listed, no late work accepted under any circumstance
Considerations: While fairly common, this policy poses huge equity challenges. Although the policy is often justified with ‘this is how things are in the real world’, that’s not actually true - people get sick leave and are excused from work during emergencies. During the pandemic, we learned that students have myriad reasons for needing flexibility because they all have different situations and face different barriers. Importantly, this type of policy is often violated by faculty (meaning they will actually give extensions in emergencies), so it disadvantages students that believe the stated policy and don’t ask for extensions.
Due dates listed, but no penalty for late work (or sometimes no grade penalty, but students get no feedback or lose the option to re-do work)

Considerations: This type of policy offers maximum flexibility for students that need it. However, instructors sometimes find that many students procrastinate too much, which can cause students to fall behind if material builds on itself. It can also be difficult to keep up with grading.

Learning happens by trying something, getting feedback, and improving. Instructors assign work because they believe it will lead to valuable student learning. Removing the ability for students to get feedback or re-do work can therefore take away the main reason you have them do the work in the first place.

When might this work well: Upper level or low enrollment courses with highly motivated students.

Due dates listed, lose certain percentage per day

Considerations: This type of policy is somewhat flexible and pretty easy to implement as an instructor (it can even be automated in Canvas). However, some students may still need exceptions, so this could potentially penalize emergencies unless there is a clear section outlining exceptions to the policy.

When it can work well: This is probably the most common late work policy, and can be implemented in most courses.

Due dates listed, after that earn a specific amount of credit (like 50%) no matter how late

Considerations: This policy works similarly to the previous one, which means there is flexibility and ease of implementation. The main difference is that this ensures a decent amount of credit for completing assignments no matter how late they are, which can encourage students to do the work that we know leads to enhanced learning. It is also less penalizing of students that have significant emergencies.

When it can work well: This can be implemented in most courses.

No late work, but drop a specific number of assignments with the lowest grades

Considerations: This can provide some flexibility, and makes it so the instructor doesn’t have to determine what constitutes a ‘valid’ excuse. It can also be automated in the Canvas. However, students may miss out on learning experiences for missed assignments, so this may not be optimal in courses where material builds on itself and every assignment is important. There may still be some need for flexibility on more than the granted number of assignments for specific students, although this method should substantially reduce the number of exceptions granted.

Where it can work well: In high enrollment courses or classes with a large number of assignments across the semester making it difficult to give feedback on late work.

No late work accepted, but get a specific number of ‘no questions asked’ extensions (often called ‘Oops tokens’)

Considerations: This can be very flexible, and makes it so the instructor doesn’t have to determine what constitutes a ‘valid’ excuse. Also, unlike the policy above where assignments are dropped, here students still get feedback on late work. While there may still be some need for flexibility on more than the granted number of assignments for specific students, this method should substantially reduce the number of exceptions granted.

Where it can work well: This method can work well in most courses, although it does pose the challenge of keeping track of ‘Oops token’ use

Different policies for different assignment types (exams / presentations / major projects no late work, daily assignments lose X% per day)

Considerations: This can allow flexibility in particular situations, and also helps signal to students what you value most. These policies can be more ‘realistic’, since in a lot of jobs, different types of work (like presenting to a client vs independently working on a project) have very different levels of importance. However, these policies can be more complex to write, and require instructors to be very specific about which rules apply when. Also, there will still be some situations where students need flexibility beyond what is stated for that assignment type, so having a clear exemptions policy will be important.

Allowing students to help build the policies and schedule for the course.

Considerations: Allowing students to help co-create key parts of the syllabus like policies and due dates can help give them ownership and buy in for the process. You’ll also be able to avoid dates that are particularly busy for a large number of students. However, it can be difficult to find a process that achieves consensus without some students feeling unheard, and you’re unlikely to find a schedule that works perfectly for all students.

Where it can work well: In small classes or courses within a major where students already have a sense of community.

Common beliefs and practices that can be unintentionally harmful:

Requiring documentation to avoid penalties. This can add a burden to students that are already having a difficult time, which sometimes can result in them taking the 0 rather than trying to get an extension. Students can also have very severe illness (COVID-19, the flu) without getting any medical treatment that would provide documentation. Policies like this often use phrases like ‘legitimate absence,’ which can leave students questioning whether their situation counts. first-generation college students and those of marginalized backgrounds are less likely to ask for extensions than other students in situations like this, which leads to inequity.

Requiring notification ahead of time for extensions. While it’s great to encourage students to let you know ahead of time when they’ll need an extension, making it an explicit requirement for being granted extra time is problematic. The term ‘emergency’ means ‘you don’t know it’s coming,’ and if a student is having an emergency, it doesn’t make sense for them to be thinking about your course. Changing the language to something like ‘Either ahead of time or as soon afterward as possible’ signals to students that it’s still okay to contact you after a due date has passed.

Having a stated policy (like ‘no late work under any circumstance’) that differs from what you do in practice (often ‘just talk to me and we can work something out’). As mentioned above, first-generation college students and those of marginalized backgrounds tend to believe exactly what you write in your syllabus. While some students will ask for extensions with this policy, not everyone will, which creates inequity in the implementation of the policy.

Supporting your policy with ‘In the real world there are no extensions’. Actually, there are. People get sick in the real world and need extensions all the time. It can be useful to think carefully about which types of work are granted which types of extensions in your field, and use that to craft a more realistic policy.

‘If I give extensions, they won’t be prepared for their future careers’. Time / project management is a skill that has to be learned over time. By the time they graduate, we want to ensure they have mastered that skill, but as with anything we teach, it’s not reasonable to hold 1st year students accountable for mastery. There is tremendous variation in workplace culture, so making assumptions about what students will encounter in their future careers can result in gatekeeping rather than support. The question then, is how do we design curriculum to support students through learning time management instead of using it as a reason to push them out?

‘Granting extensions to some students isn’t fair to those that turned it in on time.’ As long as you follow your policy as written, all students are being given the same opportunity for grace. Having a very stringent policy in the name of ‘equality’ is what produces inequity and makes it difficult for students with disabilities or emergency situations to succeed.

Writing a policy using harsh language. Whatever policy you choose to implement, pay close attention to the language that you use. Try to write it in your own voice as an instructor, and be sure to explain the reason you chose that policy. When you use all caps and bold font to say ‘DO NOT’ do something, it can signal to students that they don’t belong and can’t succeed in the course. Even if your policy includes penalties, find a way to phrase it in a way that signals you support student learning.

Having a vague late policy. Sometimes faculty will simply link to a university-level policy or say something like ‘late work will be penalized’. It is very important to write a policy that is specific to your course so students know exactly what to expect. Otherwise, they may make assumptions based on what they’ve experienced in other courses, which may or may not fit with how you implement your policy.

Was this page helpful?