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I am teaching an elective course in which students' grades are determined on the basis of a final project. Due to unforeseen circumstances, this year I had to grant a one-week blanket exception to all of the students. However, several students asked for, and received, an additional extension beyond the general extension, based on legitimate issues related to other academic commitments.

Unfortunately, some of these students have still failed to turn in their project, and this is leaving me at a loss for how to proceed. For this year, I have decided on a policy of deducting a full letter grade for each 24 hours beyond the deadline, but this at once seems too harsh (to the individual students affected) and also too lenient (because everybody else managed to turn things in on time).

Is there a reasonable way to handle tardiness in submissions of final papers or projects, particularly when they are the sole basis for determining a grade?

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    Is there an option to give an incomplete ? – Suresh Oct 8 '12 at 19:35
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    I do emphasize being harsh is a lot more justified when announced in advance. – Nikana Reklawyks Oct 9 '12 at 9:31
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Here are some ideas of how I try to handle this sort of things. Maybe they will help, maybe you already are aware of these points.

  • As students, they aspire to become professionals, and you want them to. So, to a reasonable extent, treat them as professionals. In real life, finishing a project late triggers penalties, which can range from small to catastrophic (“the missed deadline? come back next year”). The rules are usually announced in advance, so they know how important each task is, and can weigh their own priorities.

    It is not common, but for long projects, I have once used the rule of “late projects will simply receive the failing grade of incomplete”. Needless to say, noöne was late.

  • Also, as in any professional setting, there is always room for negotiation (as you did). If they realize they will be late, they should come and make an well-argumented pitch, and asking for a specific extension.

  • Not reporting on your progress is the worse possible action. I mean, simply skipping the deadline and coming two days later asking for clemency will not fly. In fact, I wouldn't consider listening to anyone who has not at least come forward on the deadline to indicate they are late, and try to work out a solution.

Of course, there always are special cases: hospital, tornado, the usual… :)


I'll highlight another method for evaluating student projects, which I find very interesting but have not had time to put in practice yet (but my wife did). In that approach, you set the project deadline so as to leave the students ample time, and you allow them to hand you their reports at any time before the deadline, for you to review. And you state that after the deadline, they will fail (if they have not given you anything yet), or be graded on the last version of their project you saw.

Then, obviously, grade fairly strictly… because their work will usually be very good, since you already reviewed it once or twice (for most groups). This has been found (don't have the reference right now, I will ask) to improve acquisition of knowledge over the usual method.

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    I sort of do this. My approach is to make students hand in incrementally more work over the course of the semester—a one-paragraph overview after a few weeks, a one-page statement a few weeks later, a plan to finish a month before the project is due, and then the final report. – aeismail Oct 8 '12 at 21:25
  • In my first programming class, the policy was that after turning in the assignment, you'd get a grade and get it back with the opportunity to fix problems for a slightly lower grade than if you had turned it in perfectly the first time (I think we had about a week). Since we had an opportunity to fix things, the teacher was able to grade very strictly (memory leak = 0, compile warnings = 0, output doesn't match perfectly = 0, etc.), so I got used to writing actually good assignments instead of "good enough that the teacher would feel bad about failing me". – Brendan Long Oct 9 '12 at 14:41
  • @aeismail, what grade level and subject material do you teach? – livresque Apr 9 '13 at 1:47
  • The courses in questions are upper-level undergraduate engineering electives. – aeismail Apr 9 '13 at 18:18
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For a course in which the final project is the only (or the majority of the) grade, one letter grade (or a 10% penalty) per day is not too severe. Compare to the final exam. If a student needed to make up a final exam due to legitimate extenuating circumstances, how many days would you give that student to make up the exam? Not many.

I would also encourage setting a date after which you will not accept the project. At my institution, and likely at most, final grades are due by a specific date. If the project is not submitted by that date, I would assign a zero grade for the course.

Regardless of severity, most students would respect a policy that:

  1. is communicated upfront, preferably in the syllabus.
  2. is enforced uniformly.
  3. has some small amount of wiggle room for true emergencies.
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Here is an alternative way of thinking about the issue.

Some argue that punishing students for late assessment is counter-productive to the learning goals of a course. For instance, this blog post presents a good argument for this case. The author argues

Students should be graded on the quality of their work (their ability to meet the desired learning targets) rather than how punctual the assignment is.

I've also read this elsewhere in books such as Biggs' Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student does or Ramsden's Learning to Teach in Higher Education.

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    True. But, well, it depends what your goal is. In most cases, your goal is not only to get them to learn as much of your course, but also to teach them how to interact in a professional setting. The latter may be especially true if you work on projects… – F'x Oct 8 '12 at 19:40
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    I don't give late penalties, but in exactly the opposite sense as the blog post Dave points to. By default, the deadline is the deadline; if it isn't in on time, no credit, full stop. On the other hand, I'm quite happy to give extensions in small classes, or forgive assignments entirely in large classes, for either unavoidable circumstances (like sudden illness or accidents) or sufficiently advance notice. (I was horrible at getting things in on time as a student.) – JeffE Oct 8 '12 at 20:46
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    @DaveClarke I fully disagree with the author. In the real world people do not get extended periods of time to complete an assignment simply because they think they can make it better. Deadlines exist for a reason and often are critical to whatever the student intends to pursue. If its late its late. – Brent Pabst Oct 8 '12 at 21:11
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    @DaveClarke: The students in question have already asked for an extension. Students at some point have to accept responsibility for failure to follow the rules. I work in engineering, where missed deadlines have significant consequences. I also think that it's unfair to the other students, who could have done more or better work if they had the same time as the "latecomers," but chose to follow the rules. – aeismail Oct 8 '12 at 21:31
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    Certainly, if producing results to a deadline and learning to suffer the consequences if the deadline is not met is one of the learning outcomes, then I agree. – Dave Clarke Oct 9 '12 at 7:37
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At my high school in the US, every English and Social Studies class (two courses certain to have term papers) required both students and parents to sign a document at the beginning of the year acknowledging a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY for missed deadlines on projects and papers as well as the late policies for homework. These deadlines were established at the beginning of the term in the syllabi, much like university policy.

Students could turn in any paper ahead of time without gain or penalty, but without documented family/medical/extenuating circumstances, no work was ever accepted past the deadline. Zero tolerance = 0%. This was the perfect timing for a wake up call on making excuses for high school students.

Later in university in Québec, there were even more explicit reasons defining extenuating circumstances, which could take months of arbitration, i.e. your name in a mass-media, published obituary being the burden of proof necessary to miss a deadline as a result of the death of a family member.

Most recently, as a middle school teacher, I hit the middle ground of the -10% per school day (not per class period) for homework assignments. Otherwise, I need a note from a parent or guardian excusing the tardiness by the due date or upon the day of the student's return to school from an excused absence. I'd like to require a doctor's note in some notorious cases, but we all have to conform to the school handbook, don't we?

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