Late Work

A white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and looking at his pocket-watch, running late. From Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland.
White Rabbit from The Nursery Alice, illustrated by John Tenniel.

As long as I have been teaching, I've used a “late day” policy in most of my classes. I designed this policy after learning about universal course design while taking Preparing Future Faculty at the University of Minnesota, but I don't think I've ever publicly written down the motivations and design of this policy. So here you go!

Why Keep Deadlines?

I generally cannot do away with deadlines in my classes. Deadlines allow me (or the grader) to grade in a predictable timeframe, with all the assignments in; it's easier to maintain consistency when grading all submissions in a single effort. They also provide a cutoff for working on the assignment so I can share my solution with the class. For some classes with assignments that produce more varied student responses, this wouldn't matter near as much, but most of my classes are programming or data analysis classes where everyone is working on the same problem for most of the assignments.

I did try a deadline-free approach one year for my graduate recommender systems course — all material was due at the end of the term — but the effect was that almost all students didn't start working on the assignments until the last week or two of class, and had significant difficulty completing them in time. Students benefit from deadlines to structure their own work as well.

For all of these reasons, it wouldn't work to do away with deadlines entirely in my teaching. I also don't think it would work to just have deadlines with unlimited free extensions — it might guide some students to submission, but makes the deadlines relatively meaningless.

I do not enforce deadlines for the purpose of trying to simulate the “real world” or something like that. The deadlines are for the purposes of maintaining smooth operation of the course.

Principle: Empowering Students

My guiding principle for assignment logistics is that students know better than I what is going on in their life and how it affects their work. There are many different reasons a student may need an extension on an assignment deadline, including but definitely not limited to:

  • illness
  • accident or emergency
  • last-minute child care needs
  • car got towed while they're eating supper before finishing the assignment
  • difficulty understanding material, need another trip to office hours

Further, I don't really want to be in the position of adjudicating what counts as a legitimate basis for an extension and what does not, or obtaining backup justification, or anything like that. It isn't fun, it's an unnecessary intrusion on students' lives, it doesn't advance learning in any way, and it requires relatively arbitrary decision-making.

Different students have different needs. So I want policies that will meet a wide range of student needs, and empower students to do what they need to in order to succeed in both the class and their lives.

Resources for Success

This led me, when I was preparing my first syllabus in Preparing Future Faculty, to frame the question differently: instead of rules and exceptions, can I design the class to provide my students resources that they can deploy as their particular situation requires?

The fundamental concept I landed on here was to provide late days as a resource. In their current form, they work as follows:

For the assignments, you have a budget of 4 late days to use throughout the semester, at your discretion.

  • Each late day extends an assignment deadline by 24 hours with no penalty.
  • Late days are indivisible, so submitting an assignment 12 hours late uses an entire late day.
  • You may use up to 3 late days on a single assignment.

When submitting an assignment using a late day, state with your submission the number of days you are using. I appreciate it if you notify me (via a Piazza private message) prior to the deadline that you are planning to submit late, but do not require you to do so.

I adjust the total number of late days based on the number of assignments in the course and the level of the students; this version is from a graduate course with 7 assignments. The number is relatively arbitrary, but I've found 4 to generally work pretty well for such a class. The limit on late days per assignment is to put a shorter end-point on when all students have turned in an assignment. With deadlines on Sunday night, a 3-day limit means I can teach through my solution in class on Thursday.

The purpose of this design is to enable students to make the decisions they need to in order to succeed, within a framework that encourages them to think about those needs and select appropriate tradeoffs. They could use most of their late days on an early assignment just because they want more time, but that creates the risk of running out of days later.

I round out this policy by also dropping their lowest assignment score (or sometimes the lowest two scores, depending on the course). If they're out of late days, or something comes up that would require more than the allowable limit, they can just blow off any one assignment without penalty. Sometimes, when students talk with me about a late assignment that they're having difficulty finishing, I'll encourage them to just not submit it and save the late days for later. I have also, on occasion, zeroed out a previously-submitted assignment and refunded the late days for use on a later one.

Remaining Extensions

Late days and the dropped assignment cover the vast majority of needs for extensions, so I very rarely grant extensions. About once every 2-3 terms a student will have needs beyond those accounted for in the base course design, and I'll work with them on a solution (additional extensions, etc.), but for the standard extension requests I can point students to the policy and they can take the extra time without needing to justify themselves.

Alternatives

I have experimented with escalating penalties for late work — 5% the first day, then 10%, then 25% — but that has felt more punitive. Resources that can be used without grade penalty is, in my opinion, a more success-oriented approach to managing course deadlines.

Assignment Timing

There's also a lot of discourse sometimes about when assignments should be due. I typically make my assignments due at midnight on Sunday.

I use midnight as the deadline to allow students to work into the evening while discouraging them from pulling all-nighters. When I've had assignments due at the beginning of the next day (8 or 9 AM), I see quite a few submissions at 4 or 5 AM. I'm lax on the precise time, though, interpreting midnight as “before you go to bed”; if an assignment is an hour or two late, I don't count it as late.

The day is a little trickier. I've sometimes used other days, such as Tuesday. If a course has class on Tuesday afternoon, I'll sometimes make the deadlines Tuesday at noon.

Some argue against Sunday deadlines, on the idea that it encourages students to work on the weekends. I don't find this argument persuasive, as students have different needs and different lives. Many of our students work during the week, especially upper-division and masters students, and the weekend is the time they have set to work on their course assignments. If I make the assignment on Friday, then students who have plenty of time during the week have almost an entire week longer to work on the assignments than the students who have to balance their studies with a full-time job and family duties. In keeping with my goal of empowering students to make the decisions they need for their own lives, I put the deadlines either on Sunday night or early in the week, with the expectation that if weekend work isn't good for a student, they can choose finish it on Friday, and the difference in effective time for the assignment isn't as large as it is if I used a Friday deadline.

Student Response

Students have been overwhelmingly positive about this policy. There's sometimes a little confusion early on, or the first time a student actually needs an extension (since they usually haven't had the policy in their other classes), but once I've explained the policy I have never had a student complain about it. I have had a student say that all CS courses should use my late day policy 😊.

If you find this policy useful, feel free to adopt it in your courses. If you want to attribute it to me, a link to this blog post would be fine. So far as I know, this particular policy was original or at least independently developed; I don't remember referencing any directly similar policies while designing it, except perhaps some general flexible extension policies, and was primarily informed by universal design and what I was learning in class about how to accommodate a wide range of student needs.