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  • Writer's pictureAndroy Bruney

Should we Penalize Students for Late or Incomplete Assignments?

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

If your answer to this question is a definite yes, or you are still on the fence about it then you should definitely stick around.

A Challenge to my views

I was once one among many teachers who believed that punitive grading was one of the best measures to alleviate the recurring issue of late or incomplete assignment submissions. But, a conversation with a parent lead to my reassessment of the real purpose of my students' grades and I eventually had to work reevaluate some of my classroom policies.

Let's take a trip back in time to about six years ago, I had finally come up with a classroom management plan (though flawed) that seemed to be working well enough for me, and I felt as though I was starting to get a hang of this teaching thing.

It then came time for the dreaded parent-teacher conferencing and an obviously irritated mother came to me demanding an explanation for her daughter's sudden performance drop-in chemistry.

You see, this student (let's call her Jane) had maintained an average performance in my class of about 75 %. However, this time around her score had dropped to about 56%.

I already knew the reason for Jane's performance drop. Regardless, I made a show of consulting my grade book under the intense glare of her mother. Feeling confident, I pointed to the zero circled in red:

"You see here, your daughter submitted her last assignment late which caused her average score to drop... I have a zero-tolerance policy for late work in my class, once an assignment is more than two days late you automatically get zero!"

Jane's mother stared at me blankly for a few seconds then asked me what her daughter would have scored had she submitted her work on time. Again, consulting my grade book, I realized that Jane would have scored 71 % which was consistent with her usual performance.

Her mother then asked me a question that took me down a path that changed the way I viewed my "grading policy" forever :

"Have you ever missed a deadline, miss? Maybe submitted your reports late or handed in your exam scripts late for printing?... Was money ever deducted from your salary for it?"

Punitive grading teaches accountability and responsibility... or does it?

The answer to Jane's mother's question was no, I never had money deducted from my salary because I didn't meet my deadlines, and the idea was quite ridiculous. Still, I understood her point and had to contend with a very important question...

How do we teach our students responsibility and accountability if there are no measures in place to hold them accountable?

Like most teachers who apply punitive measures to students' grades, I believed that if there was no policy in place to deal with late or incomplete work then I would be overwhelmed with the sheer volume of assignments submitted past the due date.

But the purpose of this discussion is not to say that there should not be consequences, but rather to determine whether our current policies are fair and more importantly, are they effective?

Are our grades fair?

If I am being honest my no zero policy was a bit extreme. A zero can be quite destructive to a student's academic performance (which is why some of us employ this tactic to begin with).

There were less extreme penalties being implemented by other teachers, such as the deduction of 10% from a student's score for every day that the assignment was late. But as it turned out, these penalties did not stop students from submitting work late or incomplete... the excuses just became more creative. And for some of those who did submit the work on time there was clear evidence of cheating.

What is the purpose of a student's grade?

We need to ask ourselves this very important question if we ever hope to make any headway in this issue of whether or not to implement punitive measures to students' grades. What really is the purpose of a grade? What information does it provide us as educators?

After careful thought and research I came up with the following:

  1. They help us measure students learning against a set of established standards.

  2. They provide information to students for self-evaluation, so they are aware of how they are performing and to work on the areas that need improving.

  3. They provide a means of communicating information about students' achievements to parents and other stakeholders.

With that in mind, we need to then ask:

Should nonacademic variables be factored into the assessment of student learning?

For me, the answer was an irrevocable NO!

If like myself you agree that a student's grade should show evidence of their learning, then applying penalties for handing in late, or incomplete work does not accurately reflect that.

There are a number of reasons outside of the classroom why a student's work may have been late or incomplete. Here are just a few of them:

  1. They are just regularly late or absent from school so they could not meet the deadline.

  2. They lack confidence or they just did not understand the content.

  3. They just didn't feel like doing it.

And in response to each of these questions, we should ask also think about the


  1. Should a student's academic performance reflect trends in their punctuality and attendance? Does that really solve the issue?

  2. If a student is struggling with a concept shouldn't we try to help them rather than punish them?

  3. Are we really teaching students accountability by allowing them not to hand in or complete assignments by just assigning zero?

I don't know about you, but I have definitely had students who would gladly accept zero or a low grade if it meant not having to do the work!

In my situation with Jane, her score of 56% was an obvious misrepresentation of how well she could handle the chemistry content, and her mother had every right to be concerned.

I now hold the opinion that a student should only ever be given a score of zero on any assignment or quiz if after applying much effort got every single question wrong or demonstrated no understanding of the learning objective, only then would zero be an accurate indication of their progress (or lack thereof).

So here's why we should ditch grading penalties

  1. They can compel students to cheat.

  2. When students get work done just to avoid penalties, it does not necessarily mean that they are learning anything.

  3. Some students do not care about grading penalties and they would gladly accept a lower score and even a zero if it meant getting out of completing an assignment.

  4. We as educators are invalidating the purpose of grades by using them as a tool to affect student behavior rather than a tool to measure learning outcomes.

What should we do instead?

You may be thinking "now what? " or " Do I just accept a late assignment, or an incomplete assignment days after the due date like it's nothing?" or even "how do I measure learning if a student made no submission and couldn't be bothered to do so?"

I know full well how frustrating it can be when you have spent hours grading a pile of assignments only to realize that a few are still missing. Placing a zero in that little empty spot in your grade book is by far easier than having to chase down the culprit, and then having to weigh the legitimacy of the excuse. It's exhausting!

But, once we have made the decision to stop allowing nonacademic factors to affect our academic data, then we can start having conversations about putting measures in place to match consequences to behavior.

We may need to consider adopting a no-zero policy rather than a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to late or incomplete assignments.

For example, when a student comes to you on the due date with an incomplete assignment, they can be asked to give up some of their free time during lunch or after school to complete it.

Or, if a student laments that the work was too hard to complete, then you can offer them tutoring sessions during lunch or after school to go over the concept, better yet, they can be paired up with another student or an older student who has a better grasp of the content. That way the integrity of our academic data holds, but we are also helping students complete their work while simultaneously teaching them accountability.

In my next post, I will be suggesting some of the strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms to deal with late or incomplete work. But before we get to that I would love to hear what strategies you use to keep your students accountable. Drop me a line in the comments.

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Guskey, T.R. & Bailey J.M (2001) Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press

Guskey, T.R & Bailey, J.M (2010)

Developing Standards-Based Report Cards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Myron Dueck (2014): Grade Smarter Not Harder ASCD Pubications


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