There’s Always a Late Penalty: Social Costs of Missing Due Dates

Just to be clear.

I don’t give a grade-based late penalty on graded work with a due date.

I have bought into the argument that lateness is a behavior and that grades are a measure of content knowledge or skills mastery not behavior. If the skill or content mastery is displayed after an artificial deadline the student has still displayed the mastery. The grade should reflect that.

I get it.

I agree.

However…

The way this is discussed online drives me nuts.

The weakness in many of the Twitterverse discussions on this issue is the “in the real world” lense the often take. In most of the real world analogies used the relative lenience of late penalties is seen as proof that students’ shouldn’t suffer a late penalty in their grade. The argument often refers to financial penalties and how forgiving most real world situations are regarding hard deadlines. This is often true but missing deadlines always carries a consequence – just not always the obvious one that hits the pocketbook.

The typical “real world” analogy begins with the suggestion that people miss due dates all the time and often face little in the way of a penalty.  For example, a Tweet might say – “Hey I missed my rent payment by a day and no one kicked me out of my apartment!”. This is used as proof that even in the real world people with actual stakes (monied interests) are very forgiving and therefore teachers should be too over something far less meaningful like a grade. Interestingly, somewhere in these anti-late penalty thread a double speak of sorts usually emerges. A commenter might suggest that “well, actually…” here is a case where a late penalty hit me which an anti-late penalty advocate, sometimes the original Tweeter but not always, will pull a 180°. A new line of thought will emerge to suggest that the classroom isn’t “the real world” anyways so teachers shouldn’t be concerned even if there are real world late penalties! The analogy ping-pongs back and forth based on whatever perspective is needed in the moment. This, by the way, is a problem with all analogies but it is especially frustrating with this topic because there is a much better pedagogical reason not to take a late penalty – the grades should not measure a behavior.

Just for disclosure, I have used similar analogies explaining my no late penalty policy in the past (please search my site!). I remember one time Tweeting that I missed an important school level licencing deadline but my Principal didn’t hold it against me. Upon reflection I don’t think it is a useful analogy for debating about late work and due dates but if we are going to use it maybe there is a better point.

It is true that often time companies will allow extensions on late payments. It is also true that teachers are rarely fired over submitting grades late. I have walked into my fair share of meetings late. I have been known to occasionally miss my appointed lunch duty station. Grace and Mercy surely does exist.

(Although I did find one example of a financial late penalty in the education world.)

CUE19 calls this an early bird registration rate but it is really a late registration fee in disguise. I bet the CUE folks are not waiving all this late fees.

This is a long and drawn out way (perhaps snarky too…) of saying that while there is grace and mercy we need to be aware that there are definitely “real world” costs associated with missing deadlines not accounted for in the traditional financial based discussion.

I feel a story coming on…

In the gamification world a major motivator is “Relatedness”. Often this is translated into edu-speak as Collaboration but I think it is better understood as community. In the gamer world whole communities are built simply through playing games (go read Jane McGonigal @aventgame “Reality is Broken”). My two best friends in high school had many nights bonding over a 6 pack of Mountain Dew (yes, soda), a couple bags of chips, and a pool table. If it wasn’t shooting pool we were shooting at each other in Doom Battle Mode over an honest to goodness dial-up modem. We wasted many nights talking, laughing, and arguing but it was a productive endeavor building camaraderie and fellowship. The foundation of that Relatedness was the social contract of trust that was built on the knowledge that when one of us promised to be somewhere we were there. If one of us was needed something it would get done.

Then we all started dating.

Planned pool nights got canceled at the last minute. Phone calls delayed our Death Matches. Our “Relatedness” began to diminish. Not all at once but over a series of small but repeated slights. The social contract withered and by the time we all left for college the bonds were not strong enough to pull us back home all that regularly.

Classrooms are founded on the same community building as the game community. If that is true then deadlines in the classroom are the same social contract I described above. The cost of missing a deadline is not the grade but crumbling of trust. Deadlines matter because they are a deal made between two parties. This is not exclusive to student behavior towards missing deadlines either.

As a teacher my mind (maybe yours too) jumps to students turning work in late. Why wouldn’t it? This has a real impact on our lives – personal and professional. Late assignments interrupt our work flow which impacts our time to think about other innovations or practices. Late work causes fragmented planning and increase the time it takes to do things. It can bleed into our personal lives.

It works in reverse though too.

How many times have you heard a student complain about a teacher taking forever to grade something? Most teachers agree that this is bad practice because rapid feedback loops are important but it is also bad social practice. Taking a long time to return papers chips away at the same social contract between teacher and student.

Is there a penalty for late work?

Yes… Absolutely…

We should stop saying that lateness doesn’t matter in the real world!

I have grace and mercy with my students just like my Principal had with me when I was late submitting some paperwork. She didn’t fire me on the spot or dock my pay but I did chip away just a little bit at her trust. The consequence of my action was the hesitation the next time I was nearing a deadline that I would get the work done. Given enough of these little chips in the “real world” that foundation of community will begin to crumble. A single incident of lateness might not cause me to get fired but if it is a chronic issue it might. If the entire staff starts to show these cracks what is the impact on the Principal? On the staff? On the Students? What if there is an issue in reverse and the Principal starts to show signs of missing deadlines. One isn’t bad but several? How much trust is present amongst the community at that point? Do some teachers feel targeted or exiled from the good graces?

The “real life” argument doesn’t consider the hidden price of lateness. Most folks I listen to online say that late penalties don’t teach responsibility. I’m not sure how true that is. How can a person learn responsibility without having the chance to be responsible? Perhaps in the grade-based formulation it doesn’t inspire responsibility because once the grade is entered there is no conversation about the cost. The zero is entered and everyone moves on without acknowledging the hidden penalty the community has felt. Maybe a deadline that is not tied to a grade can be seen as a low stakes opportunity to show responsibility as well as the importance social connections. Maybe if a conversation emerges that one late incident isn’t a big deal, two lates isn’t necessarily a problem, but a third time is a pattern, a reputation is formed, and the communal trust has been chipped away. In a low stakes environment students (and sometimes teachers) can learn how to rebuild the community and make amends for their actions.

I don’t believe that lateness should have a grade penalty…

but there is always a late penalty…

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