Students trying to negotiate away penalties for late submission of coursework

I'm teaching a course where coursework is submitted online. Recently, an important group project assignment was due. The students are required to submit a project report, which contains a link to a video produced by the students, usually uploaded onto a site such as YouTube, Google Drive or Dropbox. We had announced that for every day that an assignment is late, students will lose 10% of their score for that assignment.

As you might have predicted, there were several student groups who submitted their assignments late. The problem is that some of these students have sent me e-mails begging me not to impose the penalty for late submission. They gave reasons such as:

• The original PDF file which we submitted was corrupted, so after the deadline, we had to submit the PDF again
• There were some technical problems with the original video link, such that it is not possible for the video to be viewed at that link, so we had to upload a new video and are now sending you the new link
• The project was due at 9 PM, and we submitted it at 9 PM (see our screenshot!) but the system marked it as late

Initially, I told them that they will be penalized as specified in the policy, in order to be fair to the students who did submit their work on time. However, the students continued to say that I should be more considerate or fair.

In my mind, I want to say to these students, "Stop wasting my time arguing for marks!" But this doesn't seem to be the right way for me to respond to the students. How should I respond to these students who keep on asking me not to penalize them when the penalty is deserved?

• The students who submitted on time will include some who traded out an opportunity for e.g. another polishing pass over their writing in order to get it in early enough to be sure of being on time. They might have made a different decision given different rules. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 29 '16 at 16:13
• It's worth pointing out that there is a trick involved with deliberately submitting "corrupted files" to try to buy some extra time. If you still have access to the old files and a Linux machine you can commonly pass them through the utility file and it might tell you what sort of file it really is. You can then say "Oh? I found a way to recover the original file you sent, so I'll let you choose: either I grade that file with the 20% penalty for turning in two days late, or I grade with 0% penalty this very high-resolution image of your dog you submitted on-time. The choice is up to you." – CR Drost Nov 29 '16 at 19:49
• @CRDrost If you can proof that the "corrupted" version was not a corrupted version but, say, the picture of a dog, then I would interpret this as a cheating attempt and act accordingly. Probably the university has some general rules what should happen to cheating students. This might seem like overkill, but lying to try and get a better grade should really be punished in my opinion. – Nobody Nov 29 '16 at 20:38
• It's not a waste of time to argue over something that matters: either the marks/penalties don't matter, in which case why are you even bothering?; or they do matter, in which case it's (somewhat) reasonable to argue it. Your frustration shouldn't be with arguing about grading, it should be with attempting to use blatantly spurious arguments to do so. (That's what's wasting your time: nonsense arguments, not the arguing per se.) Solution? Provide a concise, non-equivocal reason why their argument is blatantly spurious. (ie briefly explain why the penalty is deserved, even in their case.) – R.M. Nov 29 '16 at 20:41
• If you want to reduce the time wasted on bargaining for points you can include something in the syllabus like: Assignments submitted close to the deadline risk being marked as late, submit your work early. Corrupted files will not be graded, you are responsible for checking your file thoroughly before uploading. Screenshots will not be accepted as proof. If you are penalized for submitting late you can recover these points with an extra assignment at the end of the course. You'll need to mark an extra assignment, but most students will suddenly be fine with accepting the penalty anyway. – Peter Nov 29 '16 at 23:38

Adhere to the guidelines and syllabus you posted. If students can get around consequences of late submission by arguing, you have set a precedent, and they (and future generations of students) will argue again the next time. Don't go there. Consciously cultivate a reputation that pointless arguments don't work with you.

Next time, make it clear that "normal" IT problems like corrupted files or network lag is not your responsibility, and encourage students to upload their work sufficiently early so they won't run afoul of such problems. If possible, allow students to change their submissions, so they can upload whatever they have a week before the deadline, and keep on uploading polished versions, with the last successful submission before the deadline counting for the grade. This is the way most MOOC sites do it.

(Of course, if the university servers went down, you should take this into account.)

This earlier question seems to be similar: How to deal with failing a student? (And I gave the same recommendation there.)

• I agree, but think that things like "if the university servers went down" should be emphasized more. As a student I've encountered too many buggy software systems likely built by a teaching assistant in a few hours. Also if the wording is bad, the deadline could possibly be interpreted as "clicking the submit button by that time" and the university should then have server logs showing when exactly that button was clicked (respectively when the the file transfer was started) and count by that time and not by the time when the transfer finished. – Nobody Nov 29 '16 at 20:32
• @Nobody: I don't really agree with the button thing. It should be well known that uploads take some time and, at least for me, it is obvious that I have to start such an upload early enough that it is finished before the deadline (besides, it would make the upload system overly complicated). Also if I don't plan enough time to be able to check if the uploaded file is okay and maybe reupload it, this is just my fault. If students do not do that... well, they learned their lesson for the next time. – luator Nov 30 '16 at 8:04
• @TomášZato Yes exactly, and for physical mail you are told whether the deadline is for sending (post stamp date) or arriving. I've encountered both. And the same also holds for electronic mail. So you might say "...has to be submitted to the system by xxx. Submitted means fully and successfully transmitted onto our system." and ideally go on with something like "If you encounter IT problems yyy before the deadline, contact @@@, after that time but still before the deadline hand your submission in personally at our office zzz." That's the standard procedure for important things where I study. – Nobody Nov 30 '16 at 9:17
• @TomášZato The way I understood the OP, they were talking about web forms, so there would be the time when the POST request first arrives on the server which should be close enough. But really, I'm not saying anyone should use a system like this! What I wanted to say is make sure the rules are clear, but if they are not clear you can't interpret them against the student. – Nobody Nov 30 '16 at 9:27
• Compare it to a job situation, if they were a contractor they just broke the terms of their contract (have work done by X). A good contractor will make sure it's working before this time anyway, and leave time for 'issues' to arised. My dissertation was finished, and bound 2 weeks before submission date - I still remember the queues (and some crying students) who were waiting to get theirs bound on submission day. If you know the date and time, you have no excuse for missing it due to difficulties which you couldn't of highlighted prior to submission time. – djsmiley2k Nov 30 '16 at 13:08

How should I respond to these students who keep on asking me not to penalize them when the penalty is deserved?

I would say that your "Stop wasting my time arguing for marks!" just needs a slightly different phrasing. So if students keep bugging you with basically the same unfounded reason to grant some exception, I would finally write something like

"I did consider your inquiry and your arguments throughly. Based on the announced rules, the present facts and the points you raised, I formed the decision that the deduction of 10% does apply in this case. My decision will not be altered after further inquiries."

I feel that it often helps to acknowledge the inquiry and state that you considered the points.

In case you are discussing with the students in person, I would go for "inquiries on grade changes have to made in written form" (paper better than email), see my answer here.

• If I received such a cold reply from a teacher, I'd never dare to email them ever again :) – Tomáš Zato Nov 30 '16 at 9:03
• How about "Your arguments are not good enough, you should have taken random issues into account and submitted earlier. Please email me only if you have any better arguments. I will only cancel the penalty if the delay is my own or university's fault." to make you sound more like a human. :) – user31389 Nov 30 '16 at 14:02
• @TomášZato Which would indeed help the OP with their problem. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 30 '16 at 14:13
• What this lacks is the actual reason. Without the actual reason, I would understand this paragraph as "I would tell you to fuck off, but sadly I'm only allowed to use polite words." and would write back a carefully considered answer in the same style, highly polite, with the gist of "I will pester you until you give me a fucking reason" (profanities for illustration). Of course I would also only complain if I thought my reasoning was rock solid and I was willing to defend it. – Nobody Nov 30 '16 at 19:37
• I would go with a simple "The course policies clearly state that late work will not be accepted for any reason." And this is why my course policies clearly state that late work will not be accepted for any reason. – JeffE Dec 4 '16 at 19:15

I have tried many methods, to varying degrees of success. Here are some that work.

1. Check the wording in the syllabus to make sure it's impeccable. For example, "due by 9pm" can be revised to more specific as "due by 9pm, based on the indicated time of submission on [whatever online platform]."

2. Allow for 15 minutes technical mayhem leniency. If it's due by 9pm and there is a technical issue, and the students failed to notify the instructor about the technical issue by 9:15pm through e-mail, it's considered as late. You may consider adding this term to the syllabus.

3. Consider a low-risk mock submission. For instance, insert a few smaller assignments or projects into the course so that the students can get to make a pdf, create a video link, and try the submission platform. This would help reducing their anxiety and also provide them a chance to identify possible technical issues.

4. Slightly evil approach: If you're indeed correct that they were late. And they just want "no late penalty." That's fine. Remember you still have control over bonus. So don't take any penalty, give them what they deserve. It's 10% penalty, which means their score should have been multiplied by 0.9. Now go and divide all other on-time assignment scores by 0.9 to grant other people's an on-time bonus, about 11%. I usually tell them "Now this is technically and validly late. I understand you don't want a late penalty and I am happy to retract that. Do know that I will apply a bonus to other students for being on time." I have also used this at students asking for bonus points or extra credits. I used the same method to them. Thus far, out of about 5 incidences in the last 6 years, no one went for what I proposed. (And it's funny that none of them took it even I switched to absolute grading from relative grading; somehow people cannot accept a scheme that benefit more than just themselves.)

I will not recommend allowing the on-time students another chance to revise for a higher grade. They have done their due diligence to plan their academic life and now would be coerced to spend more time on it. I don't think that's fair.

• . I also put my deadlines when most students should be sleeping — 3 or 4am — so the work tends to be very clearly on time or late to avoid the "but I was so close!" (and even then I do about a five minute soft extension to account for clock differences, they can't see our server's internal clock after all), but since I switched the deadline time, that's not really come up – user0721090601 Nov 29 '16 at 19:56
• +1 for point 2. I do think it is fair to give a bit of 'leeway', and teaching students to keep you in the loop if there are technical problems that they are presumably furiously working to overcome also seems fair. Also +1 for @Penguin_Knight's last paragraph noting that making it 'fair' by giving the on-time students another chance to revise project isn't necessarily so great an opportunity in the big picture. – Carol Nov 29 '16 at 20:25
• @guifa: A variation: Set the official deadline to 4am. Set the inofficial deadline to "must be there when I arrive at the office in the morning". This makes arguing about it near impossible - any sane person would have submitted by 1am or 2am. And anyone who had problems submitting at the time of the deadline still had four hours to sort the problems out. – gnasher729 Nov 30 '16 at 21:43
• @gnasher729 Students do not behave sanely at deadlines. Your scheme would lead to groups working all night and posting a lookout to submit at the last possible moment. – TheMathemagician Dec 1 '16 at 14:33
• @guifa: "I also put my deadlines when most students should be sleeping — 3 or 4am" In which fantasy land do you live 😂😂😂 – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 2 '16 at 10:42

Combination of bullet-proof written penalty text, and very lax actual timing:

Official text: The submission system guarantees acceptance until 31. Nov 1pm. The submission system will close after the deadline and late submissions will not be eligible to any points.

Then configure the system to close down 24 hours later. Anyone who has not submitted by then will be more than 24 hours late and have no grounds to argue. - Anyone a few hours late will thank god for his luck that submissions were still accepted. You don't have any hassle.

• Hmmm. 31st of November? :-) – gnasher729 Dec 1 '16 at 22:05
• Easy way to recognise the ones clearly trying to "cheat" - they're the ones who swear they submitted it on the 31st :-P – Rycochet Dec 2 '16 at 11:13
• Nope. "I thought on the 30th that I had one day left; then next thing I knew it was the 1st of December". – Dawood ibn Kareem Dec 4 '16 at 0:34
• The problem with this is that people who missed the secret deadline can legitimately complain that you allowed other submissions after the published deadline. Others who rushed to submit in time can legitimately complain that they could have done better if they'd known they had more time. – Robin Bennett May 24 at 11:27
• @RobinBennett this is why the official text is worded like this. The only guarantee we give is submissions before the deadline are valid, and submissions after the deadline my be rejected without further explanation. - the system is still fair – Falco May 24 at 12:06

My advice on the specific case is similar to the other answers, but I want to add a general point on such penalties. I have found time-dependent penalties useful -- immediately after the deadline, the submitter starts losing marks based on how late they are, up to a maximum (which could be the entire assignment if you're evil).

This penalty model has the advantage that submissions that are only a few seconds or minutes late will be penalized by only a small amount, and students won't feel treated unfairly for network lag and bother you. People submitting really late however will be penalized more harshly.

You can have non-linear penalties to teach them about exponential growth at the same time. A penalty of 1% after 30 minutes is not much and allows for network lag, computer problems, corrupted files, etc. But 50% after an hour should encourage submissions that are roughly within the deadline!

• If I've a meeting with 'Huge company' and am a few minutes late, do they 1. go 'Oh well maybe he was stuck in the lift' OR 2. go 'Well this guy sucks, we won't be using him'. Submit early, confirm it's correct and if somethings gone wrong you leave your self time to fix it. As long as the goal posts haven't moved, the students don't have a leg to stand on. – djsmiley2k Nov 30 '16 at 13:06
• @djsmiley2k, most 90% of the time they are late! Therefore you being a few minutes late is unlikely to have an effect. – Ian Nov 30 '16 at 13:16
• Then the one on time can be happy that they get the full reward for being on time @Ian ! – djsmiley2k Nov 30 '16 at 13:38
• @djsmiley2k Sure, but there's a difference between being a minute late and 30 minutes late. Even "huge company" won't make much of a fuss if you're a minute late. – Lars Kotthoff Nov 30 '16 at 19:25
• @djsmiley2k I hate comparisons of education to a job. (I assume college) A student is paying huge sums of money to the college/professor, not the other way around. Nobody is paying the student for this, don't pretend like that's the case/model. I'll take a JOBS 101 class if i wanted to learn all about job stuff. – tobii Dec 1 '16 at 17:52

I think instead of writing bulletproof rules for submissions, what you really need is to put a reminder above the deadline rules:

It is recommended that students account for possible technical issues on their and their network's side by submitting early enough so they can check their results!

After all, all the problems you have mentioned were on their side:

• They submitted broken PDF. It's not exactly their fault, but it's fault of the software they're using.
• They did not check the video link.1
• They obviously did not account for network lag.

I think all this should be obvious to average person, but well, a friendly reminder won't hurt anybody.

Remember however, that if your evaluation script is broken, that's not a problem on student's side. Your system should first record time of submission, then handle the homework data.

1 I see one exception here: If they submitted the homework on time, then the link went down, it's really not their fault and you should accept that. It's not clear from your post if it's the case.

• When e.g. a youtube link goes down, there's a placeholder page saying the video was there but was taken down for some reason. That's easy to check. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 30 '16 at 14:24
• @DmitryGrigoryjev that's like one video service and one particular reason of ehat taken down can mean. Not mentioning that I - of course - assumed that link is the only change students can re-submit in that case. – Tomáš Zato Nov 30 '16 at 14:43
• (1) I didn't mention any particular reason, and I'm pretty sure Dropbox and Google drive don't just shred your files without any notification and (2) I'm really struggling with your sentence link is the only change students can re-submit – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 30 '16 at 14:50
• "They submitted broken PDF. It's not exactly their fault, but it's fault of the software they're using." It's still their responsibility. This is a crucial lesson for your students to learn. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 2 '16 at 10:43
• @LightnessRacesinOrbit Well, that's exactly what I was saying. Is it unclear? Should I formulate it differently? – Tomáš Zato Dec 2 '16 at 11:46

I found this useful to prevent students begging: Explicitly state that your decision is final and it will not be changed no matter what they claim. You could also follow with telling them they are wasting their time by arguing with you.

Edit: As explained in other answers, you should not budge from your decision. If you give an inch, next time a yard will be in question.

• It will surely scare them away, but it might not raise their opinion nor does it fix much of the underlying causes. OP mentioned students are saying he is not considerate or fair. If OP doesn't really bother about it, then this is the way to go. – Trilarion Nov 30 '16 at 9:17
• Well, consider this as partial answer. Instead of saying them don't waste my time, this will do nicely without being rude. – Cem Kalyoncu Nov 30 '16 at 9:59
• Well, as someone who always submits assignments on time, if not for extraordinary circumstances, I would feel a professor who let's people discuss away late penalties isn't fair. I wouldn't complain about that to the professor, but in conversations with other students it would obviously come up. – Josef Nov 30 '16 at 11:48
• Extraordinary circumstances can be understood, but nothing can be done about them. The problem is there are no distinct labels. If a professor allows a well behaving student to bring his/her project late because of a valid reason; tomorrow another student will use this as a precedent and will ask for an extension for a reason that is probably a lie. – Cem Kalyoncu Nov 30 '16 at 13:47
• @Trilarion The task is to "have the work uploaded on the server". Having the work done is a part of the task. – Crowley Nov 30 '16 at 19:11

If the submissions are late, then they are late, and the deduction applies. This is a crucial learning opportunity to gear up students for life in both academia and the 'real' world: deadlines matter. Make a point to emphasize this to the students, in class, along the lines of

a post-deadline bid on a contract, or a late submission of a grant application, will most often result in the application not being considered.

Enforcing strict submissions deadlines is simply a reasonable model of life, and if students are playing brinksmanship by seeing how close to the deadline they can submit then that will also get them in trouble later on.

After having a number of problems with group projects not being submitted on time and repeatedly hearing something like "It was Jack's job to upload the file." I came up with the following strategy that helps prevent excuses like "corrupted file" and finger pointing...

Students will work in assigned teams which will create a Powerpoint file as described below. This file must be uploaded to the class DropBox no later than 09:00 a.m. on __________. EACH STUDENT will be responsible for INDIVIDUALLY uploading a separate copy of their project file with the filename is to be your team name and your student email name and the Powerpoint extension (example: superwinners_jsmith32.pptx). The Powerpoint project is a team effort and all members of the same team must upload the same file contents. The project will be graded on the team's results HOWEVER individuals will have points deducted for uploading their individual copy of the work late. On the other hand, if ALL team members submit their copy of the project file at least 6 hours before the deadline the whole team will earn extra points on the project submitted.

This approach is carrot & stick, with bonus points awarded for improved teamwork. Additionally it seems to help decrease the "let one guy do all the work" attitude that sometimes plagues group projects, since everyone wants the file on time for their own sake. The final deadline is hard, but the early deadline is a bit softer since I am trying to reward the effort to work together and to submit early.

Point out verbally that it is in everyone's best interest to work together on the project and help each other get the file uploaded early.

• Use services that backs up all changes and logs events.
• If students encounter any problem, they shall inform you. (Server is down, what should I do?)
• Set the rule, that after deadline student will lose 10% per day.
• Count it as -0.007*[minutes].
• Add false-complaint penalty of another [significant ammount].

Cancel the penalty only if the student proves that the hour-long delay was caused by university servers malfunction (brakedowns shall be logged) and that the work was done before the deadline (timestamp).

If they cannot prove their statements then apply both delay and false-complaint penalties.

You can make submission more bulletproof when using multiple services and the work must be uploaded to all services on time. Probability of all services corrupted is much lower than probability of one service corrupted.

Or you can reject their complaints saying:

You were expected to upload your work and verify its validity before the deadline and proper plannig was part of the task. Your complains were raised late and will be ignored. Take it as a lesson for your further work.

In real life, companies are losing fortune per day if the work is delayed, no matter the circumstances. Students are about to lose couple of points. Take it to acount as well. :)

• In real life, students have engaged in enough e-commerce to know that if a package from Amazon is a day late from when they were told it would come, Amazon doesn't really care. Or if an item from Kickstarter is a year late. They've read Internet horror stories about managers demanding a report on Monday at all costs, and then the manager not reading it by Friday. The students are probably familiar enough with real life to not be impressed that everything is a fortune a day matter. – prosfilaes Dec 4 '16 at 3:07
• @prosfilaes Amazon is strong enough to not care. But if your payment to Amazon is delayed, they will press charges. Boss (Client) from Hell is another [censored]. Do you really want to teach students that rules are for dumb losers? – Crowley Dec 5 '16 at 9:22

Since the issue here seems to be that you want to be slightly lenient without giving in to frivolous requests, here is another simple solution. Apply all deadlines strictly but give graded work that has total credit more than 100%. For instance you could easily have graded work that totals to 120%. It is especially useful if the extra 20% is more difficult, and you may even wish to label them as optional assignments or for bonus credit. People who are on time will have no need to do the extra work, but people who are late will have to earn the extra credit to cover their lateness.

The benefits of such schemes are obvious:

1. Students have an avenue to make amendments for their lateness.

2. Leniency with respect to lateness is not free and must be earned.

I would like to introduce randomness into the late submission penalty process, mimicking the situation in later life that you often do not know what the outcome of not finishing something by a deadline will be.

It would probably work better in the old days of having to physically hand in work, but I imagine a process where if you submit the work in late, for any reason whatsoever, I pull out a 20-sided die, and invite you to roll. Roll a 1, you get 0 for the work. Roll a 20, no penalty. 2-10, 10% per day pro-rated to the minute, 11-19, 10% per day, not pro-rated. After the first day, 20 also becomes a 0 zero mark, i.e. 10% chance of getting 0 marks, which should be somewhat motivating to not submit late. Obviously, there is no negotiation with a d20.

• This is amusing, but far too complicated. A slightly less complex variant would be to multiply the score by (d20-roll / 20) once for each day (or portion of a day) the submission is late. So a submission 2 days plus 0.1 seconds after the deadline would get three die rolls, with an expected penalty of 87.5%. – JeffE Dec 4 '16 at 19:28

Require a proof of the assignment existence at the given date

We all know that we should take upload time into account, but it is very easy to face unexpected delays when submitting near to the deadline: from the not accepting the , the generated pdf file being quite big (all those photographs looked very nice when preparing the document), the university server giving a timeout for the large assignment file, the teaching platform being slow when many files are being submitted at once, or simply the upload link being quite slower than expected.

However, an email simply saying "We are having issues sending the assignment foo of sha256 cb2730cb4d47b879f6f1a5627e0e94d8261065052375b5dd76abb44e1838008e" won't hit any size limit. They can even hand it out physically the next day in a DVD/USB.

By giving the cryptographic hash, they are committing to the exact file they will be handing out, thus you can verify there were no changes after the deadline. Explain to the students how to generate them on the first day, after the usual talk on "take into account upload time". You may even encourage them to email that (or post it into the forum for your lecture) on normal submissions (no screenshots showing the upload).

Having an official procedure will (a) make students more confident about what to do when genuinely getting computer issues handing out a work they performed on time and (b) give you an argument to disregard claims for students that did not follow the given procedure in case of upload problems.

protected by ff524♦Nov 30 '16 at 9:13

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