Examining the Why Behind Your Late or Missed Work Policies

Posted May 8, 2019

By Christine Harrington

We all include policies on our syllabi, often simply copying and pasting them from one version to another. But, how often do we revisit the why behind our policies? What do your policies communicate? How do your policies help and hinder student achievement of course learning goals? Are there any unintended consequences of these policies? These are important questions to consider as our policies can impact student motivation and success (Hutcheon, 2017). Let’s use the example of one such policy—late or missed work—to illustrate the importance of regularly reflecting on and revising class policy.

The why behind late and missed work policies

The primary reason behind late and missed work policies is pretty obvious. Most of us would agree that completing tasks on time is an important life skill. For example, employers expect their employees to meet deadlines on projects and be on time to important meetings. By imposing deadlines and policies related to these deadlines, we can help students increase personal responsibility by developing effective time management skills.

Another reason behind these policies relates to our own—rather than our students’-- time management. As faculty members, we are incredibly busy, juggling teaching, research, mentoring and committee work. When we set deadlines for assignments, we often do so in an effort to manage our own packed schedules. It can very time-consuming for us to accept late work at all different times of the semester or create alternative exams or assignments. 

Image of multiple alarm clocks

What do our policies communicate?

Late and missed work policies typically communicate to students the importance of completing tasks on time. It is therefore important to include these policies on our syllabi (Doolittle and Suidzinski, 2010). However, the nature of these policies and the way in which we write these policies can be very important (Harrington & Thomas, 2018).

Some instructors emphasize the importance of these policies by using capital letters, bolded and larger font, and exclamation marks. These strategies will likely draw student attention to these policies, but there may be potential negative consequences as well. Students may perceive you to be yelling at them (Agger & Shelton, 2017). This approach may communicate to students that you do not believe they know how to responsibly behave. It may convey the idea that you expect them to behave irresponsibly and submit assignments late. This may negatively impact our relationships with students right at the start of the semester and may also decrease student motivation.

Strict late work policies can also send the message to students that the assignments in this course should be their priority. Although we do want students to place a high priority on school, it is important for us to recognize that this course is probably just one of many courses and that our students likely have many other competing responsibilities such as family and work. I’m sure we can all imagine a situation such as the loss of a loved one or a serious illness where we would agree that the course assignment would not be a priority in a student’s life. Strict, rigid policies do not acknowledge these situations.

What are your goals for the course and how do your policies help and hinder student achievement of these goals?

We all have identified learning outcomes for our courses. These learning outcomes are typically focused on students learning content and skills related to our discipline. In most situations, we have not identified specific outcomes related to timeliness even though we recognize the importance of students meeting deadlines. Let’s consider how strict no-late work policies or policies with significant penalties for lateness impact learning. If a student misses an assignment and is not given an opportunity to make-up the assignment, they have then missed out on a learning opportunity.

Policies that allow students to submit work late but with a penalty sound on the surface to be supportive of students, but in some cases, the penalties are so harsh that the reality is that it may not be worth the student’s effort to complete the task late. For example, some instructors have a half credit late policy. What would motivate a student to complete an assignment when the highest possible grade is an F? Late work policies that drop a letter grade for every day the assignment is late does not help a student who is in the hospital for a week or is spending several days with family after a loss of a loved one. Assuming this assignment was directly linked to our course learning outcomes, then this student may not be able to successfully achieve these learning outcomes for the course. 

A pen and a graded paper listing the grade as A plus

Are there any unintended consequences of our policies?

Students can become very discouraged by a zero grade. In some cases, the student may decide to withdraw from the course, especially if they do not see a path toward successfully completing the course. Depending on how much the assignment or exam counts toward the final grade, it may be impossible to recover and pass the course. In this scenario, the student may have learned an important lesson about the importance of being on time, but the primary learning goals of the course were not achieved. Since our primary goal is for students to learn the course content and related skills, this type of policy may not be aligned with our goals.

Late and missed work policies can also impact students from different cultures in different ways. Let’s look at an example. For example, perhaps one of our students had a death in family or was very ill. If approached by a student in this situation, many of us would likely make an exception to the no make-up or late work policy. On the surface, this seems like a fair approach. However, not all students will approach us if we have already communicated a strict no-make up exam policy. If a student comes from a culture where it is not acceptable to challenge a policy and ask for an exception, they would probably not approach us. As a result, we would not be able to make an exception. I think we would all agree that we created policies to be fair not unfair and yet a policy such as this one does certainly seem like it gives an unfair advantage to some students.

I think we would all agree that the final grade should accurately capture whether or not a student was able to successfully achieve the course learning outcomes. Sometimes strict or harsh policies that result in zero grades impact the final grade so that the final grade does not accurately tell the story about whether a student has successfully accomplished the learning goals of the course. It’s important that our policies align to our course goals.

Suggestions for developing and communicating policies

1. Consider accepting late work. Begin by communicating the importance of completing work on time and how doing so will help them learn and succeed in the class, but then also acknowledge that situations may occur that prohibit them from doing so. I have generally found that most students really appreciate this type of policy and do not take advantage of it. If you are worried about this may negatively impact your schedule, you could establish parameters for this policy. For example, you could:

  • Accept late work only during the final weeks of the semester
  • Allow each student to submit a specified number of assignments late.
  • Tell students that very low stakes assignments such as online quizzes can not be made up but that moderate and high stakes assignments can be made up if there is an extenuating circumstance. The rationale for different rules for different types of assignments is that very low stakes assignments won’t negatively impact the final grade as much as moderate or high stakes assignments.

2. Accurately communicate your policy. If your practice is to make exceptions when warranted, then it makes more sense to communicate this in your policy. Instead of saying “no late work will be accepted,” you could instead recognize that situations may arise that prohibit a student from submitting work on time and if this happens, they should come and talk with you. This type of policy not only more accurately reflects the practice, it also communicates to students that you care about their success and recognize that they may encounter stressors in their life.

3. Use positive language. Phrasing policies in a positive way can motivate students (Wasley, 2008). For example, instead of a policy that says no-late work will be accepted, what about having a policy that says all students are expected to complete work on time and to talk with you if life circumstances make this difficult or impossible.

4. Provide a rationale for policies. Students really appreciate it when you share the why behind your policy (Harrington & Thomas, 2018). For example, you could begin by explaining that being able to meet deadlines is an important skill. You could also emphasize how each assignment builds on the previous one and how their classmates will often be counting on them to be prepared for group activities.

5. Consider using 50 as the lowest grade. Zero grades can have a significant negative impact on student motivation and achievement. Grading systems are failure heavy- with failure being represented by approximately 65% of the grading scale. Guskey (2004) advocates for grading scales from 50-100 rather than 0-100. With 50 as the lowest grade, students are more able to recover from a mistake or missed opportunity. In many cases, students can’t mathematically earn a passing grade if they received a zero on a major assignment.

6. Use a series of formative assessments throughout the semester. Having numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate what they are learning is advantageous for many reasons. One reason is that no one grade on an assignment will determine the final grade or outcome for the course. Another reason is that students will have the opportunity to learn from feedback they have received throughout the semester.

7. Structure grading policies to account for possible missed work. Another approach is to build in a “drop the lowest grade” or “only count the highest three grades” approach for different assignment categories. This is quite easy to do in most course learning management systems. The benefits of this approach are that you don’t need to worry about accepting late work and a student’s final grade won’t be negatively impacted by missing an assignment. You will also probably find that the student’s final grade is more likely to accurately capture whether a student successfully achieve the course learning outcomes because outlier grades were removed from the calculation. 

A group of students jumping up for joy having graduated, throwing their caps in the air.

Establishing policies that align to your course learning outcomes can play a critical role in student success. Students will undoubtedly appreciate your flexible policies and be more motivated to learn. For additional ideas about policies, read Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement (Harrington & Thomas, 2018) published by Stylus.

Feel free to visit my website www.scholarlyteaching.org for more teaching and learning resources. You can also email me at [email protected].


Dr. Christine Harrington is a national expert in student success and teaching and learning. She has worked in higher education for almost 20 years. She is currently an associate professor and co-coordinator of the Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program at New Jersey City University. Previously, Dr. Harrington worked as a professor of psychology and student success at Middlesex County College. She also served as the First-Year Seminar course coordinator and the Director for the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching. Christine also teaches part-time in the Learning and Teaching Department within the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. Recently, Christine served a 2-year appointment as the Executive Director for the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. In this role, she assisted all 19 New Jersey community colleges with implementing Guided Pathways to improve student success outcomes.

Christine is the author of a research-based first-year seminar textbook Student Success in College: Doing What Works! 3rd edition, published by Cengage. She co-authored Dynamic Lecturing: Research-Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness with Todd Zakrajsek and Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement with Melissa Thomas, both published by Stylus. She also co-authored Why the First-Year Seminar Matters: Helping Students Choose and Stay on a Career Path with Theresa Orosz, published by Rowman and Littlefield. She was the 2016 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching First-Year Experience award which was presented at the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience, and the recipient of the 2016 Middlesex County College Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. She is frequently invited to give plenary presentations at national and local conferences as well as at colleges and universities across the nation.


Agger, B., & Shelton, B. A. (2017). Time, motion, discipline: The authoritarian syllabus on American college campuses. Critical Sociology, 43(3), 355-369.

Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. (2010). Recommended syllabus components: What do higher education faculty include in their syllabus? Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 20(3), 29-61.

Guskey, T. R. (2004). Are zeros your ultimate weapon? Principal Leadership, 5, 32-35.

Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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Wasley, P. (2008). The syllabus becomes a repository of legalese. The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Faculty. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Syllabus-Beco...