Better Never than Late

I recently mentioned to a colleague how my syllabi include a “no late-work” policy for course assignments. He asked me, “In a sentence, why did you harden up your late policy?” He knows better than to ask me to answer anything in a sentence.

I have come to believe that having a “no late-work” policy has pedagogical value. There; that’s a sentence. I actually don’t have this policy in my current teaching job: our department has a boilerplate late-work policy that we’ve all agreed to adhere to. But have found that a no late-work policy for course assignments is an important facet of the learner-centered classroom.

Raison Égaré

Before I describe the reasons why I believe it is valuable, let me dismiss some of the other benefits that I have heard bandied about…

  1. It is an inconvenience for me (the teacher) to grade late work. It is an inconvenience, and it is frustrating for the teacher. I set aside specific time to do grading and give a great deal of energy to the work. So when a student turns something in late, I have to carve out additional time. If I get the feeling that their lateness is evidence that they are inconsiderate, or imposing, I can even resent them for it. But I dismiss this benefit for the simple reason that it is my job – I get paid – to offer feedback to students. I don’t really see where, on my diploma, that some of the “rights and privileges there unto appertaining” preclude inconvenience.
  2. It saves me (the teacher) from having to judge excuses. When a student tells me that “my roommate’s sister’s best friend had to euthanize her dog,” I really don’t know what to do with that. It sounds like a remote reason; but maybe the student was very close to his roommate’s sister’s best friend. In truth, I do believe that students should be empowered to make decisions about priorities; but not for the purposes of relieving my own burdens.
  3. It’s my classroom, so I make the rules. I take a great deal of pride in how I design my courses. I try very hard to create an atmosphere of rigor and deep learning. But I am increasingly unimpressed by faculty who claim ownership of the classroom. I just don’t want to become the kind of precious authoritarian that enforces capricious rules in my little kingdom. That’s not whom I aspire to be.
  4. “Students need to learn about deadlines for their work-life.” So the first three reasons center upon me – the faculty member. But this rationale begins to center upon the student. It’s a good start, but a failed argument. First, people in the workplace turn junk in late all the time. Sometimes there are consequences, but many times there are not. Second, this rationale begins to assume that grades are about rewards, punishments, and conditioning (Pike, 2011). I want grades to be a reflection of learning, not a reward. Third, my classroom is not a workplace. It’s a learning place. We do work, but in the service of learning.

In short, I think that there are some terrible arguments for having a “no late-work” policy. But I also believe that there are some very good reasons.

Raison D’être

Self-directed learners take responsibility for their learning. Macaskill and Taylor (2010) described these kinds of students as “Autonomous learners” who “…manage their time well, plan effectively, meet deadlines, are happy to work on their own, display perseverance when encountering difficulties and are low in procrastination when it comes to their work” (p. 357).

I think Maryellen Weimer (2013) has made a the most comprehensive argument for why students need to become autonomous learners; “equipping students with learning skills makes it possible for them to learn content for themselves – sometimes within the course itself and regularly after it” (p. 11; emphasis mine). I want to create environments where students become learners – life-long learners.

When I teach content, I want to teach students how to learn the content. Most, even among my doctoral students, don’t understand this effort. They believe that I own a set of facts that I will transmit from expert to novice. But I am interested in teaching students how to learn, in autonomous, self-directed, self-effective ways.

The research has convinced me that life-long autonomous learners take responsibility for learning. They take responsibility for coming to class, for consuming the resources that are available to them, and for submitting work for feedback.


It is possible to throw students into the deep-end of the self-directed learning pool and watch them drown. As an educator, I’m not ok with that approach. Instead, I want to find ways to help students develop the ability to take responsibility. Here are some methods to consider…

  1. Insert a low-stakes assignment at the beginning of the course. I will often have an assignment in the course that accounts for very little; maybe a reflection paper or a simple exercise. If the student misses the deadline, and cannot turn in the work, then he still may be able to do very well in the course. But the experience of not being able to turn in work late is a learning opportunity with very low-stakes.
  2. Consider a department/school-wide policy. It is difficult to create self-directed learners in a single course. If the entire department has a similar policy, based upon a similar intended outcome, students will have more opportunities to develop autonomy, and have a consistent set of expectations.
  3. Be explicit, rather than implicit. Several years ago, I started adding a section to the end of my syllabi that describe the rationale for the different assignments and policies in the course. Some of my students will go on to be teachers themselves, so this approach gives them the opportunity to see my process in course design; but it also provides all of the students with an awareness of where I want for them to go. I have found that implicit or inductive learning outcomes pass by students who need that development the most. Instead, I share with my students the need to be self-directed learners.
  4. Make assignments available long in advance. I took a course on statistics in my Ph.D. that was truly self-directed. It was an online course, and highly scaffolded. But students could complete the work at whatever timetable they wished, as long as they finished each segment by the due-date. I finished the 15-week course in about 4-weeks. I appreciated this arrangement, because I could focus on some other projects I had for other courses. It may not be possible in some circumstances to allow students to complete work early, but often even scaffolded assignments can be arranged so that students can complete them early. I make everything available on the first day of class. I tell students, “If you think you might be abducted by aliens, be sure to get your work done ahead of time so you don’t miss the deadline.”
  5. Be reasonable. As I mentioned earlier, this policy is not designed to absolve me of judging student excuses for failing to meet the policy. Students get sick, lose loved ones, have car accidents, etc. My policy is designed to help students develop self-directed learning; not to absolve me from discerning whether a miscarriage is sufficient grounds for granting an extension. I can, and will, extend the deadlines when, by my own lights, I decide a student’s situation warrants it. But when a student fails to turn in his work because he never got around to buying the textbook, I take advantage of the learning opportunity; we have a teachable moment to help discover his inner-self-directed learner.


Macaskill, A., & Taylor, E. (2010). The development of a brief measure of learner autonomy in university students. Studies in Higher Education35(3), 351–359. doi:10.1080/03075070903502703.

Pike, D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society Presidential Address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly52(1), 1–12.  doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2010.01195.x.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2 Comments on “Better Never than Late

  1. I love that you give a rationale for different assignments and policies, I’m sure that’s so helpful to students who are questioners by nature. And I know you are an awesome teacher, in person or online – your “abducted by aliens” comment made me laugh!

    Liked by 1 person

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