top of page

It's Time to Do Better: Alternatives to Penalizing Late Work with Zeros


Traditional classroom practices often focus on punishing behaviors like late work with grade deductions. Why? Because it’s what we’ve always done. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

There are alternatives that prioritize student learning in place of student punishments. Implementing these recommendations moves beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and creates a learning environment that fosters both content mastery and responsible behavior, preparing students for the complexities of the real “real world.”

The “Real” World

In schools, we commonly use the refrain, “in the real world…” as justification for rules and consequences for students. This sounds like, “In the real world there is a consequence if you’re late to work or turn in something late. If there are penalties for tardiness outside of school, then in school, we should follow suit. Thus, kids can’t be late to my class or turn in work late or else there will be a consequence–just like the real world.”

While I am sure there are places where being late to work does have major consequences, it’s not always true. Embarrassingly, early in my teaching career, one day I accidentally overslept by a lot. I can’t recall if I forgot to set my alarm or accidentally turned it off and fell back to sleep. Either way, I awoke to a call from the main office secretary who asked me if I was alright and if I was coming in that day. I was mortified, but there was literally no consequence at work. None. 

Regardless of whether the justification is based on “the real world” consequences or other reasons, students’ grades are commonly penalized for their behaviors toward learning even though doing so invalidates the true assessment of students’ knowledge of the content (read “Food for Thought” to learn more about validity and reliability regarding grading).

In last week’s Lyon’s Letter, “Who Knew,” I gave the example of three students who each scored 80% on their paper. However, each student had a different grasp of the content and each submitted their work at different times resulting in the same grade for all three students.

When we have three students whose accuracy regarding content knowledge is 70%, 80%, and 100% respectively, but we take into account behaviors that are related to learning, but unrelated to the standards, we provide some students with a false positive of success and others a false negative. Student A who only knew 70% of the content would benefit from content-based reinforcement or intervention. Student B might benefit from some quick content-based clarifications or support. On the other hand, Student C does not need any additional content-based support. Yet, when looking at the grades in isolation in a grade book after a couple days or weeks, how would the teacher remember what the students’ knowledge of the content was? How would the student or parent know based on the grade alone?

The Power of Feedback

There are oodles of very good reasons students should turn in their work on time. The best one, in my opinion, is so students can receive timely feedback on their work. The impact of feedback on student outcomes is probably best addressed in the article, “The Power of Feedback,” by John Hattie and Helen Timperly. Hattie and Timperley found, 

Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?) (p. 86) 

In order to address each of these questions well, the feedback needs to be provided within a small window of time to have an impact. After all, if the student is already onto the next task, what is the point of giving feedback about a prior task? THIS is the reason students should turn in work on time. If their work is late, their feedback is compromised and their ability to apply the feedback is consequently compromised. In this case, the penalty is untimely or nonexistent feedback. In other words, the research supports students should submit work on time because doing so allows the teacher to provide students with timely feedback. If however, teachers are not providing students with timely feedback, there isn’t a need for students to submit the work on time. Though it’s the way things have always been done, reducing a grade is an invalid means of penalizing a student for late submission.

Preparing for the Inevitable

I love the book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor. It’s the epitome of short and sweet. In the book, O’Connor explains fifteen broken grading practices schools often use and offers alternatives to replace fix the practices. Fix 2 is “Don’t reduce marks on ‘work’ submitted late; provide support for the learner.” O’Connor writes:

Grades are broken when they include penalties for student “work” submitted late. Penalties distort the achievement record the grade is intended to communicate, can actually harm student motivation, and for many students do not result in changes in behavior. The fix is to not use penalties and to set up support systems that reduce or eliminate the problem of late work.
It is critical to emphasize that we want students to exhibit responsibility and submit assessment evidence in a timely manner. The difficulty we face is, what do we do when students do not demonstrate these qualities? What policies and procedures are most likely to get them to learn as much as possible and exhibit the desired behaviors? Traditionally, we have used penalties such as a reduction of one letter grade or of a number of points for each day a required piece is late. (p. 26).

As I have already shared, “In the real world…” is a familiar preamble in schools regarding why schools do what they do–particularly concerning penalizing late work. Thus, I would guess many are probably surprised by O’Connor when he wrote, “Having absolute deadlines (and penalties) for everything does not prepare students for the world beyond school” (p. 26). This sentiment not only flies in the face of the rules adults create in schools, but it also contradicts the intention. To his credit, O’Connor proves his point:

In the “real world” timelines are frequently negotiated (real estate, legal matters) or adjusted to circumstances (contractors and consultants); deadlines range from fixed to considerably flexible…We prepare students better for that world when we offer a variety of deadlines in school…Furthermore, in the world beyond school, as adults, if we are not able to meet a timeline, we often can communicate with the person/institution to whom we are responsible, arrange a new mutually agreeable timeline, and then work to meet it. This is the responsible, adult behavior we need to encourage in students and we do this by allowing them to request extensions…If we want students to be responsible and timely, then we can teach them and help them along the way, rather than assume they will learn the lessons through punitive policies. (p. 26-27)

Since being late at some point will happen, it is better to teach students how to handle themselves in those situations. As well, there are some situations when timelines are appropriately or expectedly loose so it is also important for students to learn how to pace themselves and navigate within less rigid boundaries.

This Not That

If you search “this not that” in Google, you’re going to see alternative food choices to eat in place of less healthy options. Instead of a box of raisins, eat a cup of grapes, for example. The point is to replace something unhealthy with a healthier option. Eat whole wheat bread instead of white bread. Drink skim milk for whole milk. To maintain what you already know and enjoy is the goal, but to do so in a manner that is better for you.

Using the “this not that” mindset, I am not asking you to look the other way with regard to students who submit work late. Submitting work late is a problem. In the 21st century with online submission of student work, it is easier than ever to keep track of when a student submits their work. This information, like all information related to student behaviors toward learning (like respectfulness, interactions with peers, organizational skills, etc.) deserves comment. However, student behaviors should not be included in a student’s grade related to their knowledge of the standards. In short, the “this not that” is to separate student behaviors from student knowledge of the standards. Student grades of content knowledge may be done with percentages or letter grades; student behaviors toward learning may be done with either report card comments or a stand-alone section on a report card with pre-specified student behaviors that are scored on a frequency scale (see below for an example). Standard-based report cards, most typically associated with elementary schools, generally do this well.

The Consequence of Not Learning

Logically speaking, the point of doing the assignment in the first place, is to ensure the student acquires the intended learning. Therefore, if the student does not do the assignment, the intended learning did not happen. Furthermore, without the intended learning, there is a gap in the student’s knowledge.

The current logic is the threat of a zero should be enough for the student to do the work. Since there are students who have at least one grade of zero in the grade book due to not submitting work, we know that the threat of a zero doesn’t work for some students. Is the student still required to do the assignment? If not, then not only is the student’s grade penalized, the student’s knowledge of the content is as well. After all, the student didn’t do the intended learning. Accordingly, the gap of knowledge is inadvertently reinforced and condoned by the teacher who never required the student to close the gap. We should not be surprised, then, when the student struggles later since the learning never happened.

This is why, rather than a zero, the consequence of not doing the work should be doing the work. As Douglas Reeves writes in his truly compelling article, “The Case Against Zero,”

The appropriate consequence for failing to complete an assignment is completing the assignment. That is, students lose privileges, free time, and unstructured class or study hall time, and they are required to complete the assignment. The price of freedom is proficiency, and students are motivated not by threats of failure but by the opportunity for greater freedom and discretion when work is completed accurately and on time. (p. 325)

Knowing and Doing Better

The current system of penalizing late work with grade deductions distorts the true picture of student learning. Instead, grades should reflect a student's mastery of the content, while behaviors like punctuality can be addressed with separate feedback or consequences. By implementing practices like allowing extensions and requiring completion of missed work, we can prioritize learning over punishment. This approach better equips students for the "real world" where deadlines are not always rigid and communication is essential. Let's move beyond the limitations of the "zero" and embrace a system that fosters genuine learning alongside responsible behavior.

Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” We cannot continue to grade as we always have. We know better. Now we need to do better. 


P.S. My Catch of the Week is this graphic of "20 Ways to Provide Effective Feedback to Students." What ideas would you add to this list?

P.P.S. Please remember to...

Like and share this post

Check out other posts 

Buy and rate your copy of Engagement is Not Unicorn (It's a Narwhal)

From Amazon or Barnes & Noble

60 views0 comments


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page