INTRODUCTION: Since beginning my teaching career five years ago, I have struggled with what to do about students who want to turn in late assignments. Accepting late papers distresses me because I worry that I am teaching my students that deadlines don’t matter, not to mention creating extra work for me. Additionally, refusing late assignments causes me distress because I feel uncompassionate and find myself unable to refuse a completed assignment with the student in front of me. I’ve tried imposing late penalties to discourage late assignments, but they seem to lead to more pressure from the students to “excuse” the lateness and waive the penalty. Worse yet, it seems some students are willing to accept the penalty and make a habit of turning in late assignments (since it is allowed). My angst over this issue has led to syllabi and first-day lectures that sternly warn about my intolerance of lateness, but in practice students find me to be a pushover if they try hard enough (hate to think about the lesson that teaches).
In an effort to end my waffling and create a fair and consistent way of handling this issue, I have adopted the use of the No Questions Asked Coupon (NQA coupon). I first learned of NQA coupons in a graduate course taught by Skip Downing, though he acknowledges that they have been around for years and doesn’t know who originated them. I provide one NQA coupon to each student, and this coupon, when attached to a late assignment, allows the assignment to be assessed as if turned in on time. These coupons allow for unexpected events in students’ lives, set up the expectation that work will be on time, and provide me the comfort I need to deal with late papers in a consistent manner. This strategy can be employed by any instructor who gives homework assignments, who wants more of these assignments turned in on time, and who seeks to help students develop personal responsibility for their work.
- Establish a fair and consistent system for dealing with late assignments, one that provides opportunities for students to develop personal responsibility and relieves me of the stress of having to judge the validity of student’s excuses.
Create NQA coupons (sample appended in SUPPORT MATERIALS below). For ease of use, I print the coupons on brightly colored paper so they stand out when attached to a late assignment. I use a different color for each class section.
When creating NQA coupons, consider:
- How many coupons per semester may a student redeem? (I allow only one.)
- How long after a deadline will you accept the late assignments? (I require submission in the next class.)
- What is the last day of a semester that you will accept late assignments with a coupon?
1. [On the first day of class, hand out NQA coupons, explain their use, and answer any questions. I also include an explanation in my course syllabus (text appended in SUPPORT MATERIALS below).]
2. [Throughout the semester, accept late assignments with no penalty when accompanied by an NQA coupon. Consistently apply your designated penalty for late assignments when not accompanied by an NQA coupon.]
3. [Track students’ use of coupons. Be sure students use only the number of coupons you allow, so one student can’t use another student’s coupons (heaven forbid they become a traded commodity). I accomplished this by color-coding the score in my grade book when I evaluate an assignment that has a coupon attached.]
My use of NQA coupons has transformed the interactions I have with my chemistry students in important ways. I have had several students approach me in advance about turning in late homework assignments, due to an anticipated absence. I was comfortable explaining their options of turning in the homework early, on time, or in the next class with a coupon. These exchanges have been cordial, and the students seem satisfied with their options. I am pleased to see them maturely managing conflicting responsibilities.
Better still have been my interactions with students who want to turn in late assignments. These students are able to turn in late papers without whining or begging. In the early part of the semester, students often approach me with late assignments and stories of woe, unready to trust the NQA Coupon. Instead of listening or judging, I politely remind them of the coupon. This approach dramatically changes the conversation. Students stop focusing on why the assignment was late and turn their energy to deciding what course of action to take next. Most of them immediately brighten up, pull out the coupon, and leave the interaction relieved that the crisis has been resolved in their favor (the assignment accepted). I no longer feel like the mean teacher who won’t accept late homework but instead I’m the nice teacher who will give you a break (once). As the semester progresses, the students get used to the coupons and they are used without comment.
Interestingly, once a student uses the NQA coupon, the experience seems to reinforce that late homework is unacceptable. In a recent semester, I had only one student attempt to turn in more than one late assignment, and I was able to refuse without my previous feelings of guilt.
In this past semester, although no one used the coupon for the first homework, after that they began trickling in a few each week. For example, one class began with a total enrollment of 67 students, and for the second homework assignment I got three coupons. At the end of the semester there were 43 students still enrolled, 16 of whom had used coupons (37.2%). Many of the 24 students who dropped the course had used a coupon. However, in the last three homework assignments, only one student used a coupon.
Implementing the NQA coupons has felt like a blessing to me. I am able to stick with the late policies I have established, and I have been released from the angst that caused my previous waffling. The “no questions asked” aspect has meant I no longer have to judge the validity of excuses. As an additional bonus, I have received fewer late assignments so I don’t have piles of late papers to grade in addition to all my regular work.
As for the students, I believe that my implementation of NQA coupons has provided them an opportunity to take greater personal responsibility for their work in my course. One student, for example, came to me with a late lab assignment and asked me to clarify the consequences if he did or did not use his NQA coupon. He then chose to turn in the lab report without the coupon and accept the late penalty. When I asked why he wasn’t using the coupon, he replied, “I want to save it for a real emergency. This was just me being lazy. I don’t plan on being lazy again, so I want to save the coupon in case something unavoidable comes up later.” How’s that for learning to take responsibility for your own actions?
In another example, a student came to my lecture class on a Friday without his homework, but promised to have it to me by the end of the afternoon. That evening I got the following e-mail: “Hello! I just got finished the Homework Assignment #8 and it is 4:30 pm, Friday afternoon. I would have finished it earlier but I had a Math test at 2:30 pm. I immediately headed to the science office to turn it in but the office closed at 4pm. I didn’t know this. Is there any way I can still turn in the homework (I can email my work to you) without having to use my homework coupon? I was hoping to save the coupon for a real emergency.” As it happened, I was on my e-mail so I immediately sent the following reply: “No, that wouldn’t be fair to all the students who did turn the homework on time. You are welcome to turn in the homework with the coupon on Monday; this is exactly the situation it was designed for.” The following week, the student came up to me after class with his next homework assignment almost complete, but was concerned he had made errors and wanted time to correct it and finish it. I reiterated the course policy, and he said “Well, I’d better turn in it now. I don’t want to have happen what happened last week.”
This is not to say that the NQA coupon is a magic wand that teaches responsibility instantly and permanently. However, I do think the NQA has created opportunities for my students to learn about personal responsibility that do not leave me feeling cruel or insensitive.
The biggest lesson for me has been how nice it is to teach and interact with students when I don’t put myself in a position of having to judge the validity of excuses. Prior to the coupon, my compassion would cause me to give in to students’ excuses. Yet, even as I did, I knew I was failing the students in terms of teaching responsibility. The NQA coupon has been a great tool to extract myself from this trap. I can be clear about students’ choices, offer a bit of compassion, and get to have some teachable moments about personal responsibility along the way.
1. Explanation of NQA Coupon from my syllabus:
No Questions Asked (NQA) Coupon: Everyone deserves a second chance, so here is yours. You may use an NQA coupon if you are unable to turn in a homework assignment on the day it is due. That assignment will be accepted at the beginning of the very next class period if you attach this coupon. Please fill in your name and the assignment the coupon is being used for. Coupons attached to homework that is more than 1 class period late will be declared void, and will not count. Any homework turned in after the due date without a coupon attached will earn a zero. Remember there are many ways to get the homework to me on time, even if you don’t make it to class. Coupons will not be accepted for anything other than homework assignments. Hold on to this coupon, because it is the only one you will get. You may use only one coupon a semester (I keep track!).
2. Sample NQA Coupon:
Used by: _____________________________________________
Used for: _____________________________________________
Only valid for Homework Assignments Expires: 12-3-2007
–Kirsten Casey, Chair and Faculty, Chemistry, Anne Arundel Community College, MD