How to deal with missing & late-work: one teacher’s approach

Hey readers! It’s been a while since you’ve seen anything from us at Three Teachers Talk. We, like all of you, feel like we’ve been trudging through this year. Between the zooms, the Nearpods, the screencasts, the quarantines, the cleaning protocols, the bandwith issues…well, you get the picture. It’s been a lot.

Now we’re at the half-point of this year and so many are struggling with engagement. How do we “hold kids accountable” in the midst of all this? And what can we learn that might go beyond the crisis teaching we’re doing now? I’ve been loving following Tyler Rabin’s (@tylerrabin) journey around these issues and invited him to share his thinking with all of you.

We hope you’re safe. We hope you’re well. We hope this helps.

I’ve gone through this cycle more often than I’d like:

  1. Realize that grade penalties on late work are bad.
  2. Eliminate all grade penalties.
  3. Immediately get overwhelmed by late work and a lack of organization.
  4. Rush to reimpose late penalties.

I would argue that in most classrooms, grade penalties don’t exist because the teacher likes them; grade penalties exist because we don’t feel like we have an alternative.

On top of that, they work. For some things. The things they work for are the easily visible pieces. Do students hand more things in with grade penalties than without? Typically, yes. 

But, let’s also point out some of the things we know about how extrinsic motivators, especially punishments, impact student learning. This blog captures some of the key points from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation well, and the first point that we have to be aware of is that, while extrinsic motivation does increase short-term motivation, it actually hurts it long-term. This means that we can use it once or twice to convince someone to do something, but eventually that ends up no longer being motivating. Sound like any students you’ve had? 

The second piece is the more concerning piece. Extrinsic motivation increases someone’s drive to complete basic tasks, but it hinders their ability to engage in complex process. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe learning falls under the latter category. While I wish I could put this softly, I don’t know a way around the harshness of this fact: an emphasis on late penalties values compliantly completing a task more than it does the student’s ability to learn. 

Now, here’s where we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Late penalties are, in essence, a barrier to learning, but in most cases, there doesn’t appear to be a sustainable alternative for teachers. We don’t want to have to use grade penalties, but we are human. We need to have lives, and the constantly ebb and flow of late work is exhausting and time-consuming. 

This concept was weighing heavily on me a few months back. I too often criticize the act of using grade penalties without acknowledging the reality of our context or providing possible solutions. As I wrestled through this in an attempt to provide a solution, I recorded the most helpful info I could into the longest thread I’ve ever posted on Twitter. However, as it always goes on Twitter, it lacked the depth the conversation needs. 

As such, I’ve broken the thread into segments so that I can provide additional details about how to address the late work issue in meaningful ways without using grade penalties and without losing your sanity. 

Part 1: Organizing Assignments into Essential vs. Non-essential

Tweets:

This Tweet probably needs the most explanation. If you remove grade penalties and allow students to turn in ALL their work whenever they want, you will lose every ounce of free time you have. The key is to really identify the assignments that carry the most value. This isn’t to say that the non-essential assignments aren’t valuable, but the non-essential assignments should mean that their function is to allow students to practice specific skills and demonstrate their current level of understanding. They should have more than just that one opportunity to do that for each skill. But…I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Part 2: Non-essential Assignments – Multiple Attempts for Learning

Tweets:

The key with these assignments is that the student will have further opportunities to demonstrate their learning, but these missed assignments demonstrate a need for a different type of support, a support that grade penalties just frankly don’t offer. For your sake, don’t take late work that falls into this category. Tell the student that they missed this opportunity, but they will get another shot at it later. However, if you end there, kids will receive the message that every educator fears: deadlines and completing assignments aren’t important. 

This is why there must be a system or process set up to hold students accountable in a way that actually focuses on building those skills. Like I mentioned, my favorite is to have them stay after class and schedule their week with me. I can also put them on my list of students who receive my Remind messages about upcoming assignments. Somehow there has to be a clear next step for students who miss these assignments so that they know (a) you’re paying attention, (b) it’s important, and (c) you want them to get better at self-management and executive functioning. 

Part 3: Final Evaluation

Tweets:

All of this comes down to the fact that we should be averaging scores over time to determine a final score. Not only does that result in an inaccurate report of student learning, but it means that missing assignments will almost inevitably factor into the final grade (unless you drop scores, which I’m always a proponent of). 

At the end of a term, the goal is that you are doing a summative evaluation (preferably with the student) where you are looking through their data to determine their final scores. If this step isn’t happening, missing and late work usually ends up being a significant factor in a student’s grade. 

Now, I know a lot of people are thinking, “What about the student who doesn’t turn in ANY work?!” At some point, a lack of evidence is a lack of evidence, and that student hasn’t given you enough to demonstrate proficiency in the skill. I have found that this happens WAY less often than we think it does, though. 

Part 4: Authentic Consequences for Authentic Assessments

Tweets: 

While I probably don’t need to elaborate here, I want to make sure one word shines through: authentic. How are we creating experiences where students get to apply their learning in authentic ways so that the cost of not doing something is actually meaningful for the student? Is this a one-size-fits-all thing? Absolutely not. For a consequence to be meaningful, there must be an element of choice in it. The student has to have had some control and ability to bring in their full self – their passions, interests, goals, etc – to the project. That is when the consequences become powerful. 

Part 5: Final Thought

Tweet:

This is why I get so worked up about grade penalties. I know we do them because it feels like we don’t have an alternative, but so often these grade penalties are just kicking a horse who’s already down. These are students who often have already been told they’re bad at school, maybe not explicitly, but the message has been sent over and over. They don’t need another reminder that they can’t do it. We teach them nothing when we add penalties on top of self-doubt. What they need is someone who notices they are struggling, but instead of blaming the student and calling it good, that person goes, “Here’s how we’re going to do better next time. Let’s let this one go and move forward together.”

This is why we have to stop depending on grade penalties. They are a way of washing our hands of the responsibility of educating our kids, of helping them see their best selves. We can do better. It’s not easy, but we can do it, one small change at a time.

Bio:

Tyler Rablin is a current instructional coach and National Board certified high school language arts teacher in Sunnyside School District in Sunnyside, WA. On the side, he is a consultant with Shifting Schools, contributing writer for Edutopia, and a Google for Education certified trainer. His educational passion is focused on the ways that meaningful technology integration, modernized assessment strategies, and strong cultures of learning can allow us to provide meaningful, powerful, and personal learning experiences for each of our students. In his personal life, he enjoys reading, running, and spending time hiking and camping with his wife and two dogs.

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