I occasionally get students who submit their assignments, but I only notice that they've submitted the wrong assignment when I begin grading. I can think of three possibilities to explain this:

  1. They made an honest mistake
  2. They are trying to buy some time to submit their assignment by making it seem like an honest mistake
  3. They didn't do the assignment at all and are trying to get some kind of credit

Sometimes I allow students a few hours or 24 hours to resubmit the correct assignment (is 24 hours too long?). If they don't, then I usually assume they haven't actually completed it. Other times, I'm just tempted to give them a zero.

The student in question submitted an assignment that was submitted previously in the semester.

Is there a better way that you know of to confirm whether they're being honest or not?

By the way, I'm looking for a general answer that can apply across multiple situations. In this specific situation, due to many different factors, I decided to allow the student to resubmit. She resubmitted right away, which seems to demonstrate it was an honest mistake.

  • Are the students submitting future assignments on the wrong date, but still showing that they have put in some work (i.e. they did the wrong assignment)? Or are they re-submitting old work, or completely unrelated work from another class (i.e. they submitted the wrong document)? I'd be more forgiving about the former if the student has clearly done some work (but the wrong work), rather than the latter scenario which might be a low-effort way to buy more time. Nov 30, 2020 at 18:49
  • 3
    Does it happen often? Is it often the same student?
    – user111388
    Nov 30, 2020 at 19:23
  • If this is in person, there's not a good reason to be submitting the wrong assignment. If this is online, does the tech you're using allow students to check their submission? Mine does and my syllabus says it's on the student to check they submitted the correct thing.
    – Kathy
    Nov 30, 2020 at 21:23
  • 1
    When I was teaching we were required to use the Learning Management System even for face to face classes. My syllabus said, "Be careful what you upload. 'I uploaded the wrong thing' will not be accepted as an excuse."
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:10

4 Answers 4


The fact that you're left guessing at unknowable motivations suggests a deeper problem to me. I always found guessing games like this very frustrating when assignments are due; giving students the benefit of the doubt sounds harmless... unless you're a student who scrambled to meet the deadline, while your peers took advantage of the professor's good will. This is especially true if the class is curved.

The policy I use now leaves my opinions completely out of it:

  1. Give clear due dates and turn-in proceedures
  2. Give students a "budget" for late assignments. I like to give three 12-hour tokens they can use at their discretion, no questions asked. If they turn something in late, I automatically use whatever tokens they have left to cover the time.
  3. Anything beyond that requires an issue serious enough that we're probably involving academic affairs as well. Things like serious illnesses and hospitalizations, for example.
  4. Anything turned not turned in on time, or within the scope of one of their "late tokens", gets a daily penalty added onto the score.

That way you're never faced with trying to ascribe motivations to what students are doing, and the rules are laid out clearly for them, which I find students like.

  • 2
    This is a very clever idea (+1). I like the 12-hour tokens --- I think I might steal that idea.
    – Ben
    Nov 30, 2020 at 22:03
  • 1
    Great answer. I actually use a similar token system, which I call the Life Happens Card (I got the idea from my favourite professor while at school). In this case, the student had already submitted the assignment on time; it was only after that I realized the assignment was wrong.
    – Genoah77
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:00
  • 1
    @Ben I tried "late days" for a few years, using 24-hour tokens. As with Jeff, I gave the students a budget. Mine was more generous; I think it was five late days. However, I required students to notify me if they intended to use late days. That totally didn't work.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:08
  • 3
    My Life Happens Cards work quite well. I allow a 48 hour extension. If students decide not to use theirs, at the end of the semester I cancel their lowest quiz mark. With this double incentive, students are quite happy; it has solved a lot of problems and conflict for me.
    – Genoah77
    Dec 2, 2020 at 1:32
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    I like calling them "Life Happens" cards! I might use that instead of "tokens". Also I should note that my "three 12 hour tokens" are for masters students on a short quarter system, so obviously you should tweak the values. I could see undergrads on a full semester system having a bigger "budet".
    – Jeff
    Dec 2, 2020 at 15:09

I announce a policy at the beginning of the semester that the course staff will only grade the work that is actually submitted, before the deadline, for each assigned homework problem. So if a student submits a solution to the wrong problem, for any reason or no reason, they can expect a grade of zero, exactly as if they submitted nothing at all.

(Behind the scenes, I tell my graders that they are welcome to swap obviously misplaced assignments if it's easy, if they have time, and if they want to, but they are absolutely not required to.)

On the other hand, I also drop the lowest 25% of homework scores before computing final course grades. For example, in a class with 32 homework problems, only the highest 24 scores for each student would count toward their homework grade. (A majority of the grades in my classes are based on exams.) I also announce this policy at the beginning of the semester.

So in practice, if a student submits the wrong homework, they've burned one of their free drops, and they don't get feedback from the graders, but it has no significant impact on their overall course grade.

For similar reasons, I never give homework extensions. The deadline is the deadline is the deadline.

  • It's really nice when someone is strict up front but lenient and understanding behind our backs! Jun 26, 2021 at 15:15

Personally I always just tell them to make sure it doesn't happen again and let it go at that unless I see a pattern.

I think to get to the right answer here (which I believe mine is) you have to ask yourself what the purpose of grading homework even is in the first place and why does it matter if they turn it in on time. I mean, unlike exams, homework isn't really a good measure of student ability and even if it was it's not like anyone is spending all the time between assignment and submission working on it.

In an ideal world (and in some grad school courses) student grades would purely be based on mastery as shown in exams or projects. Unfortunately, at the UG and lower level we need to assign and grade homework as an incentive to keep students from just leaving everything to the last minute and never learning the material. In other words I'd argue that graded homework is a necessary evil done to keep students from hurting themselves (and why I usually allow students course grade to be just their exam grade if it's better).

As such if a student goes to that kind of length to get more time on hw I figure they are mostly just hurting themselves (but I also give extensions liberally as long as it doesn't become a problem for keeping up).

Besides, from a fairness POV there is really not much harm if some students get some extra time. I mean that's just noise compared to the unfairness inherently present in time to work on homework between students who need to take jobs and who don't and besides that extra time comes out of the time needed for the next assignment.

  • In a business English course like mine, exams are of very limited value. Students can't really learn how to write proper sentences on a timed exam, so assignments (not "homework") is essential. They are writing letters, emails, etc., so they need to practice and take the time to edit/revise their grammar, which exams do not afford. I much prefer many short quizzes to anxiety-inducing English exams. I do, however, agree that projects are helpful. Giving extra time might not be a big deal, but it can become a problem if other students find out, because it can be perceived as favouritism.
    – Genoah77
    Dec 3, 2020 at 4:49
  • Even in this case it's not the ability of students to respond in a certain number of days that one is trying to measure (can't since how much time students have in those days varies wildly anyway). So the size of the unfair advantage a student who fake submits gets is already less than the unfairness you are already willing to inflict by making assignments due knowing the huge variation in student time and outside commitments. The goal isn't uniformity for its own sake but minimal distance from the ideal grade assignment. Dec 3, 2020 at 5:01
  • Every student signs up for a course with advance knowledge of their outside commitments, so uniformity with due dates is fair. Uniformity establishes a clear standard for students, which minimizes conflict between students, as well as conflict with the instructor. In other words, uniformity's purpose is to prevent needless conflict.
    – Genoah77
    Dec 4, 2020 at 0:10

I don't think anything but #1 is a reasonable assumption. They submit something and presumably that took time and effort to prepare.

Is there any reason not to be generous here? Especially since you say it is occasional.

The time you give them would depend on the assignment, of course. But I doubt that a day is too long.

It might be different if the same student does this repeatedly. Then you should explore more deeply into why it is happening. It is even possible in such a case they have something like dyslexia that makes it hard for a person to manage things accurately.

  • "It might be different if the same student does this repeatedly..." You cannot treat students differently, not even based on past behavior. That's a ticket to an unpleasant meeting with the dean.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:13
  • I realized my previous comment was incomplete. Set rules that give you some maneuvering room, put the rules in the syllabus, and apply those rules consistently to all students.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:19
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    @BobBrown: In all places I know, telling the dean "this student has done it once, so I won't allow it a second time" would be acceptable (and with an online system, you can even prove this). Many places even don't have so explicit rules in a syllabus (or even a syllabus). So your statement is not universally true.
    – user111388
    Dec 3, 2020 at 19:41

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