Ugliness 101: late punishments

Before I lay out the program design I’m thinking of (and, beyond any discussion of competency, as a number of you have suggested, we are heading towards Bloom’s mastery learning as a frame with active learning elements), we need to address one of the most problematic areas of assessment.

Late penalties.

Well, let’s be accurate, penalties are, by definition, punishments imposed for breaking the rules, so these are punishments. This is the stick in the carrot-and-stick reward/punish approach to forcing people to do what you want.

Let’s throw the Greek trinity at this and see how it shapes up. A student produces an otherwise perfect piece of work for an assessment task. It’s her own work. She has spent time developing it. It’s really good. Insightful. Oh, but she handed it up a day late. So we’re now going to say that this knowledge is worth less because it wasn’t delivered on time. She’s working a day job to pay the bills? She should have organised herself better. No Internet at home? Why didn’t she work in the library? I’m sure the campus is totally safe after hours and, well, she should just be careful in getting to and from the library. After all, the most important thing in her life, without knowing anything about her, should be this one hundred line program to reinvent something that has been written over a million times by every other CS student in history.

A picture of an owl with orange eyes, staring at the viewer.

Have an owl, while you think about that.

That’s not truth. That’s establishing a market value for knowledge with a temporal currency. To me, unless there’s a good reason for doing this, this is as bad as curve grading because it changes what the student has achieved for reasons outside of the assignment activity itself.

“Ah!” you say “Nick, we want to teach people to hand work in on time because that’s how the world works! Time is money, Jones!

Rubbish. Yes, there are a (small) number of unmovable deadlines in the world. We certainly have some in education because we have to get grades in to achieve graduations and degrees. But most adults function in a world where they choose how to handle all of the commitments in their lives and then they schedule them accordingly. The more you do that, the more practice you get and you can learn how to do it well.

If you have ever given students a week, or even a day’s, extension because of something that has stopped you being able to accept or mark student work, no matter how good the reason, you have accepted that your submission points are arbitrary. (I feel strongly about this and have posted about it before.)

So what would be a good reason for sticking to these arbitrary deadlines? We’d want to see something really positive coming out of the research into this, right? Let’s look at some research on this, starting with Britton and Tesser, “Effects of Time-Management Practices on College Grades”, J Edu Psych, 1991, 83, 3. This reinforces what we already know from Bandura: students who feel in control and have high self-efficacy are going to do well. If a student sits down every day to work out what they’re going to do then they, unsurprisingly, can get things done. But this study doesn’t tell us about long-range time planning – the realm of instrumentality, the capability to link activity today with success in the future. (Here are some of my earlier thoughts on this, with references to Husman.) From Husman, we know that students value tasks in terms of how important they think it is, how motivated they are and how well they can link future success to the current task.

In another J Edu Psych paper (1990,82,4), Macan and Shahani reported that participants who felt that they had control over what they were doing did better but also clearly indicated that ambiguity and stress had an influence on time management in terms of perception and actuality. But the Perceived Control of Time (author’s caps) dominated everything, reducing the impact of ambiguity, reducing the impact of stress, and lead to greater satisfaction.

Students are rarely in control of their submission deadlines. Worse, we often do not take into account everything else in a student’s life (even other University courses) when we set our own deadlines. Our deadlines look arbitrary to students because they are, in the majority of cases. There’s your truth. We choose deadlines that work for our ability to mark and to get grades in or, perhaps, based on whether we are in the country or off presenting research on the best way to get students to hand work in on-time.

(Yes, the owl above is staring at me just as hard as he is staring at anyone else here.)

My own research clearly shows that fixed deadlines do not magically teach students the ability to manage their time and, when you examine it, why should it? (ICER 2012, was part of a larger study that clearly demonstrated students continuing, and even extending, last-minute behaviour all the way to the fourth year of their studies.) Time management is a discipline that involves awareness of the tasks to be performed, a decomposition of those tasks to subtasks that can be performed when the hyperbolic time discounting triggers go off, and a well-developed sense of instrumentality. Telling someone to hand in their work by this date OR ELSE does not increase awareness, train decomposition, or develop any form of planning skills. Well, no wonder it doesn’t work any better than shouting at people teaches them Maxwell’s Equations or caning children suddenly reveals the magic of the pluperfect form in Latin grammar.

So, let’s summarise: students do well when they feel in control and it helps with all of the other factors that could get in the way. So, in order to do almost exactly the opposite of help with this essential support step, we impose frequently arbitrary time deadlines and then act surprised when students fall prey to lack of self-confidence, stress or lose sight of what they’re trying to do. They panic, asking lots of (what appear to be) unnecessary questions because they are desperately trying to reduce confusion and stress. Sound familiar?

I have written about this at length while exploring time banking, giving students agency and the ability to plan their own time, to address all of these points. But the new lens in my educational inspection loupe allows me to be very clear about what is most terribly wrong with late penalties.

They are not just wrong, they satisfy none of anyone’s educational aesthetics. Because we don’t take a student’s real life into account, we are not being fair. Because we are not actually developing the time management abilities but treating them as something that will be auto-didactically generated, we are not being supportive. Because we downgrade work when it is still good, we are being intellectually dishonest. Because we vary deadlines to suit ourselves but may not do so for an individual student, we are being hypocritical. We are degrading the value of knowledge for procedural correctness. This is hideously “unbeautiful”.

That is not education. That’s bureaucracy. Just because most of us live within a bureaucracy doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our pedagogical principles. Even trying to make things fit well, as Rapaport did to try and fit into another scale, we end up warping and twisting our intent, even before we start thinking about lateness and difficult areas such as that. This cannot be good.

There is nothing to stop a teacher setting an exercise that is about time management and is constructed so that all steps will lead someone to develop better time management. Feedback or marks that reflect something being late when that is the only measure of fitness is totally reasonable. But to pretend that you can slap some penalties on to the side of an assessment and it will magically self-scaffold is to deceive yourself, to your students’ detriment. It’s not true.

Do I have thoughts on how to balance marking resources with student feedback requirements, elastic time management, and real assessments while still recognising that there are some fixed deadlines?

Funny you should ask. We’ll come back to this, soon.

4 Comments on “Ugliness 101: late punishments”

  1. Julie Kerry says:

    I think flexibility is important, but with some limits. We need to be cognizant of student calendars when setting deadlines, first off. Having an assignment due the day of their anatomy exam is generally not a good idea! If being late impacts a group class activity, there should be some consequences. As I’m teaching future physicians, any lateness related to interactions with patients should also have some clearly laid out consequences. In their case, habitual lateness could literally cost lives. I am also more likely to penalize less if a student owns up to their lateness rather than me having to track them down to make sure I didn’t just overlook something although I admit that this is an arbitrary distinction.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Real tasks have genuine lateness consequences built in but pretending that an assignment has some, and then relaxing those constraints when the reason is good enough, is play-acting at it. Wrong approach. Wrong message.

      As I said, some deadlines are real. Most aren’t. We continue to push far too many deadlines as important despite the evidence that we don’t really teach them much. We just end up with a group of survivors who probably already had reasonable time standards. That’s not my intention and it’s certainly not a world I’m happy with.

      We often talk about consequences but we mean punishment. The learning consequence of not taking part in a group activity is that a student won’t get access to the developed knowledge and will miss an opportunity to practise something. But I suspect that you mean ‘they lose marks’. If the knowledge is essential, shouldn’t they simply not pass at all until they’ve demonstrated the knowledge? Giving someone lower marks for not doing something we wanted, yet letting them pass, sends the wrong signal, is extrinsic motivation (far less effective) and doesn’t lay out steps to correct the behaviour. Yet it satisfies the requirement that something be done and often seems to be appropriate: we are entrenched in the punishment of non-compliance. Humanity is cursed by both a requirement for conformity and the shenanigans we get up to in order to wriggle out of it.

      So, it’s not that effective, it’s not that honest and it’s a made-up requirement in the first place that you will adjust if they learn to play the games to rules that you accept. Training people to ‘own up’ when they do something bad doesn’t go back in time and stop the bad thing from happening and, worse, we may have just created a reward for insincere post-behaviour! Writing True and False on the same question shouldn’t get you half-marks as it will become a risk managing strategy. 🙂

      I’m going to lay out some situations where on-time behaviour is related to the world and I hope that it clarifies how I’m thinking.


      • Julie Kerry says:

        Thanks – a lot to think about as I plan the next iteration of my course! In regard to the group activity, they will lose marks but I’m much more concerned that they miss out on practicing the application. So how do I manage that? I guess this would play into our professionalism piece. Our hope with that was by incorporating a reward for positive behavior that it would be more than just reinforcing a negative. We can reward with points, or by reporting positive examples of professionalism that we include in letters of recommendation to residency.


      • nickfalkner says:

        These are all great questions, which is ‘Nick code’ for ‘hard questions to answer’.

        In terms of mastery learning, we’d usually get them to repeat an activity until they got it but this is hard with group activities. I think making it clear that their behaviour in the groups is going to be part of their report makes it genuinely important and will catch the majority of people. That’s a real benefit and authenticity rocks.

        If I may turn the question back, if someone missed out because they were sick, what would you usually do then?


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