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Learning at its Best

Why I Accept Late Work

My students know that they can “get away” with turning assignments in late.  Although I provide an ideal time frame for when work should be completed, students know that assignments are due when students are ready to receive feedback.

When I mention this to fellow teachers, the first reaction I get tends to be, “Well how will you teach them to be responsible?”

I can rattle off a diatribe about how assessment is about learning rather than character, but I believe character matters.  I believe in teaching the whole student. I want my students developing into responsible, self-directed learners; which is precisely why I don’t do punishments and rewards.

Sustainable responsibility happens as a result of ownership, passion and ethical thinking.  When a student owns his or her learning, that student has a chance to be passionate about it.  Typically that passion transfers into a sense of stewardship for the learning that occurred.  Thus learning becomes a sacred act, internalized within the student.  Suddenly the late assignment is a missed opportunity to learn.  Moreover, the student is able to see that putting things off delays feedback.

By contrast, the student who gets zeroes and lectures about “the real world,” learns to do the bare minimum to avoid a slap on the wrist.  That child becomes dependent on “good job” and “let’s work on getting this in on time” and never figures out what it means to manage one’s education.  Moreover, it creates in some students a procrastination complex where they have to feel pressured before they get to work on an assignment.

In my first year of teaching, I had a 60% assignment completion rate from my students.  Last year, it hovered around 97% (though the students had the opportunity to customize the assignments if they spoke to me about it ahead of time).

It’s at this point that someone might pull the Real World card.  But here’s the thing: in the real world, the motives for responsibility are almost entirely intrinsic. Yes, I have to pay bills so I don’t lose my house.  However, I also pay them out of a deep love for my family.  I teach, not because of a paycheck, but because I get to do something that fits my passion, beliefs and identity.  I read, not because I’ll get a coupon for a hunk of fried dough, but because I enjoy learning.

I am responsible, because I am intrinsically driven to do the things that matter.  I have a strong sense of ownership.  And the crazy thing is I learned this mentality as a kid by deliberately ignoring grades and taking learning into my own hands. I became responsible when I ignored my physics homework so that I could write poetry.  I became responsible when I refused to study for a test, because I wanted to read Plato.  In other words, I became more responsible by being a “slacker” who had fallen in love with learning.

*     *     *

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


36 thoughts on “Why I Accept Late Work

  1. John,
    You bring up many excellent points. If you want the assignment to matter students do need time to “get it right.” If it is only given because it is a “have to” with no real reason behind it the brain will take the path of least resistance because it is meaningless.
    Thanks for always moving my thinking to a higher level.

    Posted by JoAnn Jacobs (@JoAnnJ68) | August 8, 2011, 12:13 am
    • Thanks for the kind words. I like the way you differentiate between “having to do” something versus “doing this because it matters.” Sometimes a teacher has to push a little and that’s okay, too. However, it’s an issue of character rather than rewards and punishments.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 8, 2011, 9:48 pm
  2. Love this post, and I agree with everything you’ve said here. I haven’t gathered any data on how many students do or don’t hand things in late, but I know that since I’ve let go of trying to control the decisions my students make for themselves I’ve been able to focus on my actual job. So much in this post to think about. Thanks.

    Posted by Erin Ochoa (@erinneo) | August 8, 2011, 12:15 am
  3. RefreshIng.

    Posted by Jerry Aulenbach | August 8, 2011, 12:19 am
  4. I agree that the responsibility card is a weak one.

    I see it as more of an issue for respect for my time as a collaborator — essentially, they need my feedback on their published work. I can do that much more effectively if they submit their work on time.

    At the same time, I use class time to allow for interaction with their process, either explicitly or implicitly based on the level of the students. I need to respect their time as well and be involved in the process, not just the published work.

    This is my approach: I set a deadline and say they must have something submitted by that time. If they wish to resubmit something later, they can if they discuss it with me, but they need to have something there so I can assess something if they don’t get around to it.

    Of course, we use criteria-based assessment, so I’m not ‘grading’ their work per se, but giving them feedback.

    Posted by Mark Kilmer (@marknkilmer) | August 8, 2011, 12:29 am
    • I definitely see validity in your approach. One of the things lacking in my post is a sense of nuance. I ask students to turn in incomplete work so that I can assess it and ultimately they can always move toward mastery.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 8, 2011, 9:51 pm
  5. I like this notion. Great to see your supporting data.

    This take my thinking to the central question of “why assess?”. Students need a reason. The focus has to be on learning as opposed to “keeping busy”.

    Posted by Peter Tompkins (@ptompkins7) | August 8, 2011, 1:05 am
    • I agree. In fact, “keep them busy” was taught to me originally as a strategy for keeping kids engaged. It was part of my discipline plan in my first year.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 8, 2011, 9:52 pm
  6. Agree with this in large part and appreciate the caveat in Mark Kilmer’s comment. One of the hardest parts of being a teacher is having to deal with the misdirected anger of teachers who speak darkly of their students. I assume that my students are human beings first and from that all else follows. How can it be otherwise?

    Posted by tellio | August 8, 2011, 8:28 am
  7. I’m assuming you teach high school? What is your policy on letting students redo assignments and assessments?

    Posted by Eric | August 8, 2011, 9:31 am
    • I teach 8th grade, actually. I’ve taught social studies alone and self-contained all subjects. My policy is that students can always redo assignments (we don’t do traditional assessments) until they reach a level of mastery.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 8, 2011, 9:54 pm
  8. John,
    I am not sure what grade you teach but I agree completely with your premise. I teach at CSUSM in the school of eduction and use a very similar model for my courses. I primarily teach educational technology and I am amazed at how many students, young and old, are fearful of having to produce work using a new technology. A rigid, arbitrary due date only adds to their apprehension. I definitely believe in a competency model of teaching. I want my students to understand the activity I am asking them to do or the skill/tool I am trying to get them to learn, not turn in an inauthentic piece of work because it is due. I also allow students to fix any assignment/project that they do without penalty because I don’t want them to be afraid to fail, as it is a valuable part of the learning process. I remember hating college Spanish tests/assignments that penalized me for taking risks. I would never have learned write in Spanish if all of my sentences were simple. Obviously this commitment to student-centered learning requires some extra work on my part, but if I can get the students to feel comfortable using technology in their personal lives and in their classrooms, it is worth every extra minute I spend re-grading student assignments.
    I would completely disagree with anyone who thought that this makes it easier on the students or doesn’t teach responsibility. My expectations are that students will complete every assignment to a level that would warrant an “A.” I still have a number of student that, despite the ability to redo work, choose not to do the work at the expected level. However, I have many more students whose confidence grows with this model and I expect that they will become the type of teacher the empowers students in their future classrooms.

    Posted by jeffery heil (@jheil65) | August 8, 2011, 11:56 am
  9. People do work that matters to them. It’s better to discover, negotiate, and co-create that work than it is to jump through the hoops.

    John, can you share out some of the story of how those around you have reacted to your work over time? I think there is a process lesson in your career arc from which many – inside and outside the classroom – could benefit.

    Bes regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 8, 2011, 3:48 pm
  10. Great and informative post. And it sparks a lot of thought. I do the same. I set the deadlines but I am not “chasing” students down or slashing their grades because they were late with assignments. I guess it really depends on what age your learners are. I teach adult students and I find it embarrassing playing a parent with them and bugging them every day about deadlines. I think that they should be the ones determining what’s best for them. If they don’t mind dragging a course for months, then… so be it. But most of them are actually quite responsible and they just want to be finished quickly. Also, giving them the freedom to judge the deadline themselves makes them feel in control. Which makes them feel responsible. Also, I use a lot of group work which means that if one person is late because they are just “lazy”, the whole group suffers. So they push each other to finish the work.

    Posted by learningbuzz | August 8, 2011, 5:49 pm
  11. Your principles agree with me, John…I just wonder if there’s a more variegated strategy to “fit” the diversity of a typical class. Personality-wise, it would clash with how certain individuals think and work, with their sense of fairness (e.g., “I handed in my work on time and got ___. Why is he/she handing it in a week late and getting __?”) etc. It’s almost as if what you practice is really meant for a completely different educational system/context and it’s trying to change ours from within.

    Posted by Kosta Dimeropoulos (@kostadimer) | August 8, 2011, 9:30 pm
    • I see your point and honestly this is a challenge I have to face. However, I’ve tried to work around this in the following ways:

      1. Moving from seeing grades as work completion to grades as mastery. With no “due dates” and an emphasis on mastery, students are less likely to complain about fairness.
      2. When students complain about fairness, I toss it back to them with larger questions of fairness: Do all students come to class with the same knowledge? Do all students have supportive parents? It’s essentially like complaining about finishing a race when you got to have a head start. This metaphor seems to resonate well with my students.
      3. I emphasize the need to avoid comparing with one another, because it will invariably lead to arrogance or shame.

      What you write about changing the system from within is absolutely true. I work in a low-income public school. My approach is an absolute reversal of what they’re used to.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 8, 2011, 9:46 pm
  12. I’ve followed this same policy with a similar success. I like how parents decide we are “on the same team” when they learn I want their son/daughter do complete his/her work and do the best possible on it.

    I work to help students relearn material and retake tests/quizzes. If mastery of concepts is most important, time is a factor of less importance.I encourage students to seek help from me on assignments or test preparation as needed.

    Posted by Glen Westbroek (@gardenglen) | August 8, 2011, 11:13 pm
  13. Hey John, David Loitz told me this has gotten a whole bunch of views, and I want to thank you for keeping it real and making your own decisions about instruction so explicit. A sense of responsibility–a real sense of that–seems to me as if it can only come from actually caring about the work that you’re doing, and feeling a sense of relationship and commitment between the student and the teacher…that something here matters. Otherwise, it’s all a play acting game, and we are teaching our children to comply and to be alienated from themselves.

    Very, very young children can feel (and do) feel this sense of engagement and commitment, and school disables them through forced compliance.



    Posted by Kirsten | August 9, 2011, 6:09 pm
  14. Hello John,
    I find this post and it’s comments really interesting. As a music teacher, I have gone back and forth with the late work debate. On one side, I want the student to work towards a final goal (broadly being able to play music) and to feel like if they need more time to tackle something that they can take it. Music isn’t something that you can grasp in a week or a semester, it’s a process that builds on other processes. One the other hand, the reality is that you have deadlines in music – concerts, recitals, auditions, and you have to learn to deal with deadlines. I’ve always wanted to teach my students how to budget their time so that they can get the most accomplished with the time they have – whether that’s a week or a year. I’ve found that with some students, you give them a week or three and they will do the same amount of work and preparation.

    Anyway, I don’t know how I feel about it. But thank you for giving me more to think about and consider.

    Posted by Monica Shriver | August 11, 2011, 4:29 pm
  15. I also appreciate your succinct and meaningful approach.

    I teach teachers and guidance counselors at Portland State. As we have to enter a letter grade, after introducing myself I tell them that they have an “A” in the course. I have never been disappointed in their effort or the quality of their work. I don’t mention late work. It rarely occurs. When it does I do not ask the reason. My comments tend towards how they can apply their understanding and other resources they can use.

    Posted by Ba Luvmour | August 14, 2011, 3:03 pm
  16. Maybe the issue isn’t so much taking late work or not; being responsible or not; etc or not. Maybe the ultimate issue is one’s decision about what learning matters most, and how you put that into play for your students. You’ve done that – amen to it.
    So much of the work we have kids do falls short of being “real” problem solving, or “real” work that genuinely engages them, or “real” stuff that makes their neurons dance and jump up and down. So if you’re having students doing things they experience as real life learning — a day late becomes more of a moot point.

    Posted by Stephen G Kennedy | August 17, 2011, 7:56 pm
  17. John, great post. I appreciate the feedback you have given others on their comments.
    I aspire to create a learning environment similar to yours in my own grade 7 classroom. As my students and I head into a new year, are there any suggestions/pointers you can give me to get started on the right foot?

    I truly believe that each student has a right to learn, a right to succeed, and a right to struggle on a path to mastery.


    Posted by Cameron | August 18, 2011, 9:53 pm
  18. The only class I worked in used a lack of discipline to try and teach their kids passion and responsibility. Kids would get into fights, not do their work, not show up to class and, for the most part, there was no consequences for their actions. The idea might have been pure, but the execution failed. For me, it really made me realize how important it is to have boundaries, but to let those boundaries be fluid.

    It’s nice to hear of fluid boundaries in motion!

    Posted by aliciarice | September 3, 2011, 12:23 pm
  19. Since you mention not using rewards and punishments, I wonder if I can pick your brain on behalf of my husband. He has been an elementary school teacher for six years and during that time has been moved around a lot (3rd grade, music, 6th grade, now a 4th/5th blend) and struggled in various ways. His main struggle: he disagrees with most of the philosophy behind traditional schooling. It has taken a while for him to realize this, but as of this new school year, he is trying to make whatever changes feel possible—e.g., he told the kids why he wants to avoid rewards and punishments, homework for homework’s sake, and grades (as much as possible). The no rewards and punishments thing went over well initially, but he’s feeling a bit lost now—a few kids have taken to disrupting class discussions a lot, and at times there is too little listening and too much chaos. Obviously, no rewards and punishments doesn’t mean no boundaries, but what do you suggest? How can he maintain boundaries and a healthy, respectful, pleasant atmosphere for all in this situation? I would love to hear your and any other Co-opers stories and perspectives.

    Posted by Mindy | October 12, 2011, 3:30 am
    • A few thoughts:

      1. Last year, I had a similar phenomenon. There was a great initial period and then it got harder. However, after continuing to build the relationship, the chronic disruptors stopped. I had three really hard weeks when I nearly slipped into a behaviorist approach.

      2. I don’t have it all figured out. The reasons for misbehavior are complicated. If I can’t “fix” the misbehavior of my own four year old, then I’m not sure there is an easy fix at all.

      3. I had a “rough” group of eighth graders and I was really tempted to come in as a drill sergeant. However, I negotiated class norms, class values, a class mission and a bill of rights with the whole group. We voted on it democratically and that set the tone. I also negotiated class rituals to help things run smoothly. Our mantra was “freedom to learn” and we decided it was fair for the individual to compromise some of his or her freedom in order for others to learn. The rights, norms, values and rituals all contributed to the sense of boundaries we needed to feel safe.

      4. We had no consequences for misbehavior beyond a one-on-one conversation outside. I used some of the cognitive coaching questions to help them think through their thought patterns and actions. The students mentioned in my second point had to meet with me at least once a day outside during transition times. However, ultimately there is always a reason for misbehavior. Judging from your comments, it seems like you and your husband are sharp, empathetic, amazing people. My guess is he’s probably a pro at this idea.

      5. Ultimately, the only solutions are relational. As the relationship continues to grow and develop, the class will probably be less disruptive.

      Sorry if this came across as pretentious or know-it-all. I admit that there aren’t any easy answers.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 17, 2011, 7:15 pm
      • John, you are very (i.e., not just a little) awesome. Thank you very much for your time. I’m going to send your comments to Jason.

        Have you read Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community? I haven’t read it, but after skimming it the other day I told Jason it might be the book he should be reading right now. It seems to be all about what he’s struggling with. If you’ve read it, I wonder what you think of it.

        Posted by mindyfitch | October 22, 2011, 3:24 am
  20. I teach a four-week professional development course for new online college faculty. Assignments have official deadlines, but participants disover quickly that there’s plenty of flexibility in order for them to submit, receive feedback, revise, and resubmit their work. Almost all participants need the extra time, and seem pretty grateful for it. Then as the pressure gets heavy in the third week, and after most of these new online teachers have benefitted from this flexibility for their own projects, I ask them to discuss how they will handle late assignments in their own online classes. Most of them say the experience of being a student in this course changed their minds about strict deadlines, and agree that the focus should instead be on what students actually learn.

    Maybe more teachers need to be students again.

    Posted by David Lester | January 5, 2012, 3:27 am
  21. Good article. I’ve always been of the mind to let students in an online class have until the end of class to submit their work. I much rather they put their best effort into it, rather than submit a half-done assignment, or, worse yet, one filled with writing errors (I teach writing).

    My attitude changed when I recently worked writing an article for a national photography magazine. The editor told me to turn in my article when I wanted to. I said to myself, “What?”

    I asked the editor about it. He said he felt that writers should take all the time they want, just so he gets a good article to include in his magazine.

    Posted by Matthew Bamberg | October 5, 2012, 3:14 pm


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