I still have nightmares about my high school planner. For such a small thing, that notebook caused me no end of grief throughout my four-year tenure. I never knew when I’d turn the page to see a forgotten project, in bolded letters and circled with exclamation points, foretelling my doom in the coming week. It meant the next few days would be a crazed whirlwind of frantic studying, hastily scribbled notes, sleepless nights, and brutal mornings, all to cobble together a final product which (if the teacher was feeling generous) would earn me a passing grade. And if I failed to make the deadline? Well, I might as well not turn in anything at all.

Of course, things look a lot different from the other side of the desk. As educators, we’re the ones setting the assignments, and we understand that learning is a unique, iterative process. We also want to see our students succeed, and it’s discouraging watch them flounder or give up when they can’t make a deadline. Intellectual growth should never be a mad scramble for the bare minimum. That said, how do we manage the problem of late work without sacrificing the diligence and discipline of our classrooms?

Ask the Right Questions

Over at the Cult of Pedagogy blog, Jennifer Gonzalez found herself asking this exact same question. To her surprise, the topic proved much more complicated than she anticipated. For starters, not all schools measure grades the same way. Gonzalez noted that some grading practices were based more around student compliance than academic growth.

“If they lean more toward compliance, then what you’re doing when you try to manage late work is basically a lot of administrative paper pushing, rather than teaching your content.” She writes.

Teachers should also be weary of their own assumptions. It’s tempting to think that students who turn in late work are simply unmotivated, but this may not always be the case. Many students simply lack the resources they need to do their homework. Others may be dealing with personal issues like anxiety or depression, while still more struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities. The result is that there is no one-shot “fix” for dealing with late work. Instead, teachers should engage students personally on a case-by-case basis.

Learning to Adapt

The good news is that this doesn’t have to be complicated. Just because there’s no silver bullet for late work doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can make the process easier for you and your students. Here are just a few techniques you should consider:

  • An Oops Board: When she taught elementary students, VAEI educator Jamie MacPherson used what she liked to call, “An Oops Board”. The board essentially worked as a three-strike system. Students had three tags they could turn in if they happened to forget an assignment, allowing them to receive full credit for one late project. Once the students were out of tags, they would start receiving markdowns for any late work. This approach gave younger students a little grace when turning in late assignments while also encouraging personal responsibility.
  • Written Requests: For older students, it might be favorable to require written requests for any homework extensions. This approach allows educators to deal with late work in a one-on-one setting. You can ask questions, give constructive feedback, and make judgment calls at your discretion. Furthermore, it requires students to take personal responsibility for their work, reflect on their actions, and encourages time management. Even the request itself involves personal investment on their part, and this approach gives both parties more flexibility when dealing with late work.
  • Create Preventative Measures: Perhaps the best method for dealing with late work is to ensure that it never happens in the first place. Creating preventative measures can go a long way in cutting back delayed assignments. Start by including students in the deadline process so they don’t feel ambushed by any of their projects. Consider restructuring your homework schedule to accommodate after school activities. If both parties agree the schedule is fair, then students will be less harried and have fewer excuses for being tardy. This approach can also help your class develop their time-management and social-emotional skills.      
  • Create an Effective Framework: Even the best strategies don’t always work 100% of the time. Let’s say despite your efforts one student continues to turn in late assignments. What should you do then? At this point, it’s crucial to have an effective framework in place so you can take the relevant steps. Start with a student one-on-one so you can address the problem directly. After that, consider assigning them to tutors who can assist them in arranging their workload. If this fails, a call home may be in order, and after that, possibly a trip to the school counselor. Don’t let yourself be caught unaware, make sure you have a plan ready!
Better Late Than Never

Let’s be honest, students handing in late work has been an issue ever since the first scholars began chiseling ideas onto stone slates. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon, and you shouldn’t feel obligated resolve it all yourself. Remember, there is no one-shot solution for dealing with late work. Instead, take time to experiment with different approaches. Reach out to your colleagues for support and remember to adapt as the year goes on. Learning is a unique and deliberate process, and even teachers need to exercise their curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking when entering the classroom!

What about you? What are your thoughts on dealing with late work?

*Image courtesy of wikimedia commons