As part of my work as a graduate student in maths I currently teach a basic second semester calculus course. It seems like every semester I teach, one or two students want some sort of special privilege to turn in homework late for a month or take a test a week after they are supposed to. Many times they have somewhat legitimate reasons (documented depression, getting a divorce, wife having surgery.....). How should I handle these cases? I am not big into putting up with lots of late homework or late tests, but then again I would want someone to be lenient with me if things such as the parenthetical reasons above arose in my life.

How should I handle students with such situations? Should I write them off and just feed them to the dogs or should I allow them to catch up at their own pace? My honest opinion is that school is a sort of competitive game (Bad, yes, I know) and if they lose they lose. We do not shorten the football pitch because some club's striker is not a good runner. However, I think students should be allowed to have a chance to make things right.

  • 1
    Related: Is "no late work" a common policy?
    – Mad Jack
    May 24, 2014 at 3:04
  • 2
    I think the "no late work" link above covers everything, except I would add that you should consider laziness. That is, if you have a strong policy (e.g., no late homework accepted) you will have fewer students who try to get special treatment. That does not stop you from making exceptions for those who ask.
    – earthling
    May 24, 2014 at 6:41
  • 2
    FWIW, "documented depression, getting a divorce, wife having surgery" all sound like pretty good reasons to me. Of course, this presumes people are not making stuff up. What are not good reasons are perhaps "I had more fun things to do with my time. I was on vacation/wedding/at a party". You get the idea. Personally, I agree with Paul's answer, that you should go easy on people with real problems. May 24, 2014 at 20:16
  • Since this question is tagged with teaching and mathematics - just so you know, we have a swanky new SE site for exactly these questions: MathEducators.SE
    – user10060
    May 26, 2014 at 17:48
  • I am aware of that site. It has a certain feel of "How to teach primary school maths." Perhaps it has developed further since I last looked though!
    – Vladhagen
    May 26, 2014 at 22:08

4 Answers 4


If people have a legitimate reason for wanting an extension of the deadline, I would simply give them the extension. If they cannot provide a good reason, i.e. they simply procrastinated too much, they have to take responsibility for their behavior, and they do not get the extension.

This has nothing to do with being a hard-ass, but being fair. Other people have done the work, and giving people that procrastinated an extension is not fair to them. In addition, getting work done that you where assigned (even if it is hard or boring) is a valuable lesson to teach a student. Their future boss will also not be sensitive to a missed deadline because of procrastination.

  • 1
    Personally I am a hardass about exams (to be fair, as you say), and about end-of-term assignments (to make my grading schedule bearable), but I'm a pushover for homework assignments: I'll take any reasonable sounding excuse the first time or two from any student. But I record extensions that I grant and start to look more closely if a student begins to pile them up; and I tell them that I am doing that. May 25, 2014 at 0:05
  • +1 for mentioning their future boss. You do a student no favors by letting them slide. May 25, 2014 at 3:54

This is really up to you. You can be very strict and demanding or a total pushover. It's best to calibrate yourself against others in your department (or college) as there is usually some sort of rough standard / aka departmental culture.

Personally I have better things to do than to police students but other colleagues seem to relish this task.

What you shouldn't do is ever view your own "Rate My Professor" webpage [as you will despair for the minds and souls of your students].

  • 2
    I just looked at this "Rate My Professor" -- yep, I always have to press that button that says "do not press". Now I despair for society, because there is a dedicated column to mark if the prof is "hot"...
    – Moriarty
    May 26, 2014 at 6:32

I penalize late work very strongly: 2 marks out of 10 for each day late. This is to prevent a cascade of lateness from assignment to assignment. However that is for folks with no reason who just didn't get it done on time. When someone wants an extension, to write the midterm or final on a different day, or to have the marking scheme changed, and proffers me some reason for it like the ones you mentioned, I send them to Special Needs aka Student Services aka Disability Services etc.

Why? They are trained on this stuff. They know when to ask for a doctor's note and how to evaluate one. They can think of more creative solutions than just having more time. They know when someone is "playing you" and when they need help. That's their job and they're way better at it than I am. When they direct me to accommodate, I do with no qualms at all. I have been so directed for both physical and mental or emotional reasons.

We have a fair number of students ask to write a final early to accommodate a plane ticket they bought long in advance. I defer these to the departmental secretary, who knows all the students and their history. If she's willing to supervise you writing it, I'll compose a special one for you. If not, too bad.

This helps me, as an adjunct, because I don't know the students super well. I believe it also results in decisions that are fairer both to the student with a problem and the rest of the class. I have never had a complaint about this approach in the 12 years or so I've been doing it.


I usually create a few safeguards like telling everyone from the beginning that only the best 10 out of the 13 quizzes will count towards the grade (so you can just miss 3 and still get the full score), that I will average 2 other midterms if one midterm exam was missed for a good reason, and that everybody who aces the final (>95%) gets a decent grade even if he has performed poorly during the semester (this can be implemented in many ways). After that I allow no make-ups except for the time conflict on the final exam (this is out of my hands anyway and is governed by the general university policies).

The point is that I allow the students to take some time off without any effect on the grade, so if they encounter some temporary problem during the semester, they can easily compensate for it by doing well the rest of the time without any special arrangements or (sometimes awkward) explanations. On the other hand, if somebody tells me that his grandmother died on the date of the first midterm, his girlfriend left him on the date of the second, and he was hit by a car when coming to take the third, then I just suggest that he sort out his personal life before enrolling into the course.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .