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By Jay Todd

Photo of a parking meter that says, FAIL, instead of 0.
"Parking Meter Fail" by Jeramey Jannene / CC BY 2.0

I'll be honest: I can't remember the last time I penalized a student for turning in a late assignment. I used to be very strict about this. I was taught, in fact, to be very strict about deadlines. Make your policy clear in your syllabus and never deviate from it, I was told. Don't let the students take advantage. So I used to deduct one letter grade for each day a major assignment was late. Small assignments couldn't be late at all.

At some point though, I started to wonder about the effectiveness of this approach. Mostly, I started to worry, as a writing teacher, that I was hindering good writing by making the deadline some important. A few times, because of my clearly stated policy, I had to give an A paper -- I mean a truly excellent paper -- a C, simply because it was late.

I still have a policy in my syllabus that says, clearly, that a deadline is a deadline, but I follow that up with a statement that says, "If you anticipate having difficulty meeting a deadline, please speak to me about it." Basically, to an astute reader, I'm negating my policy right there.

Ellen Boucher discusses this a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: It's Time to Ditch Our Deadlines. Her new policy is that all assignments come with an automatic two-day grace period. If a student needs still more time, all that's required is a meeting. As a result, she says, she's seen higher quality work and less stress from her students. She makes a good argument, especially by focusing on how this helps under-prepared college students.

I should say though that so far, I've only taken this approach with big assignments -- essays and research papers. Daily homework, quizzes, and such still come with fairly rigid deadlines.