When I think back on my school experience, I distinctly remember attempting to finish homework a few minutes before class. They were frantic, heart-racing moments where I was scribbling illegibly. I wasn’t focused on doing good work—just trying to get words on paper so I could get some credit.

As a student, I knew I was being punished for procrastinating. As a teacher, I implemented a policy that I thought was kinder: I always welcomed work, but students lost points based on the number of days the assignment was late. I reasoned that I needed to prepare them for the real world of deadlines and consequences. It also seemed to be a clear-cut way to incentivize on-time work while allowing for wiggle room when students struggled.

Allow Nuance in Accepting and Assessing Student Work

Then, the pandemic hit, and nothing was clear-cut anymore. The pandemic showed that there had always been nuances in some student absences, but now it was on a much larger scale and complicated my policy. I also saw that when I discussed my students’ skills, my late policy made it difficult to see a student’s actual skill level if their grade reflected lateness, not a lack of understanding.

Dr. Jeff Judd, an education professor I work with at Leeward Community College, experienced similar challenges, noting that it was hard “to make viable statements about whether my students were actually learning anything. Does a failing grade mean that the student didn’t learn anything or that the student couldn’t manage their own time well?”

A few colleagues, including Dr. Judd, shared a new approach: allowing students to receive full credit on their assignments, no matter how late, and including a grade focused on their organization and planning. This allowed teachers to grade students on the skills their assignments were assessing. Judd appreciated the clarity, saying, “I no longer had to evaluate or confirm excuses on why it was late because they could still score full credit. If a student completed the assignments but received zero points for “on-time”/planning and organization [multiple times], I could intervene and focus on organizational and time management strategies rather than academic ones.”

Shift Your Late Policy to Encourage Quality Work

I was hesitant at first. The concept was outside my comfort zone. Then, I realized that my comfort zone was largely dictated by my own K–12 education experiences. I wanted to spare my students those frantic, heart-racing moments scribbling down words and instead try to get quality work.

So, this quarter, I informed students that I would no longer take off points for late assignments and they would also receive a separate “organization, planning, and preparedness” (“OPP”) grade in connection with each submitted assignment. The score was averaged into their overall class grade and used a rubric based on a percentage of late and missing assignments and student reflections so they could improve in the future.

Ultimately, my students and I both appreciated the change. It was more straightforward than my previous late policy. Instead of navigating excuses and calculating points to take off, I noted the assignment as “late,” knowing that I could consider it in the aggregate at the end of the quarter. This freed me up to provide more meaningful feedback to my students on the actual skills I was assessing with the assignment.

A few weeks before the end of the quarter, I shared their current OPP grade based on their present work, so they had time to raise that grade if they had been struggling or ask questions if there was a discrepancy. At the end of the quarter, I was able to quickly calculate what percentage of assignments were late and only needed to investigate if it drastically changed a student’s grade, so I could provide a comment to students and families about why and how the grade was affected.

Students said the change allowed them to turn in their best work. One student shared that the policy “motivates students who haven’t planned and prepared for class to be more prepared and… to be the best version of themselves.” Another shared that “it allowed us to not rush our work to turn in things. Although it’s important to turn in homework on time, I believe it is more important to submit work that [shows] your best abilities.”

Additionally, my students shared that it made them feel more valued. “[The new grading system] reflects more of an overall student contribution,” one reflected. “Taking off points for each assignment turned in late almost defeated the whole purpose of the assignment.” Another felt that “[I] should keep doing it because it assesses us as a whole.”

Set Boundaries so You Can Submit Grades on Time

While I was initially worried about getting a flood of work at the end of the quarter, I actually didn’t experience that. My mid-quarter check-in encouraged many students who had numerous late assignments to turn them in then. I also set a deadline for all work that gave me adequate time to grade work before I had to submit final grades to my school. This helped set boundaries so I could still assess work while giving students as much time as possible.

I’m glad I went outside my comfort zone to try this new style of grading. I’ve also appreciated learning from the work of other colleagues making similar changes, like Matthew R. Kay’s fantastic student-led reflective rubric for projects, which I want to incorporate into my classroom. In doing this, I’ve now reframed my classroom—not just to focus on assessing skills instead of timeliness, but also to worry less about punishing procrastination and instead find ways to look at my students in a more holistic way.

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