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There are a lot of ways of handling late homework submissions, of which I've only tried a few. The general policy I've settled on is something like the following.

  1. Homework must be submitted at the beginning of class on the day it's due.
  2. Late homework is not accepted.

This is pretty harsh, I think. But with this policy in place, I make unofficial exceptions on a case-by-case basis (it's easier to start with an overly harsh policy and make exceptions in the students' favour than the other way around), for example, if a student happens to be late to class on a day that homework is due.

I want students to be motivated to hand in their work on time. Highly motivated. That's why I make the official policy so strict. But I feel bad about actually adhering to such draconian measures (they should get zero for missing the bus?), which is why I make exceptions. But overall, I'm dissatisfied with the ad hoc nature of this approach. How can I motivate students to submit homework by the deadline without being "overly harsh"?

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Are there aspects of the question particular to maths homework? – Roland Apr 16 '14 at 14:28
@Roland There don't seem to be, but it's not clear that all questions are required to be math-specific. I certainly think this question is of interest to the community here. – Jim Belk Apr 16 '14 at 14:49
@Roland the style of homework assignment in a math class is quite different from most humanities classes, and late policies might be correspondingly different. But I agree that this question might be equally applicable to, e.g., CS or physics homework policies. Nonetheless, this is an issue I face every time I teach a class with weekly or biweekly problem sets, and I think the math-ed communitiy will have a lot of specific insight to offer. – Adam Bjorndahl Apr 16 '14 at 14:54
@JimBelk: I'm not saying it's required, and I think that this question is fitting well as it is now. I wouldn't vote for closing it. I was just wondering if there are aspects which are specific to maths. – Roland Apr 16 '14 at 15:16
Motivation is about wanting to do something. A strict deadline does not make students want to do the work, it just makes them more likely to do it through fear of what happens if they don't. If you really want to motivate students, make their work as enjoyable as possible and teach them how to enjoy the subjects you teach. If the work is enjoyable then students are more likely to want to do it. – Pharap Apr 16 '14 at 18:21

5 Answers 5

My policy is that homework has to be turned in by the due time, for each day late 20 points (of 100) are discounted, after the third day no more submissions are allowed and the solution is posted.

As OP says, there is a bit of leeway for exceptional cases, i.e., if somebody was sick or otherwise unavailable they might be allowed to turn it in late with no penalty, or get a replacement homework.

In my experience, a (somewhat) harsh policy, with fixed dates for homework turn in and exams, dates that are only changed in case of extreme circumstances, is best, it isn't really hard and lightens work by not having it pile up at the end of the term.

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The comments that follow pertain mainly to classes at or below the level of the beginning calculus sequence, elementary linear algebra, and a first course in differential equations.

To minimize the effect of situations where someone couldn't make it to class for some reason or had legitimate questions about one or more of the problems, over the years I gradually began to take up the homework in class when it was due, but still accept homework delivered to my mailbox or slid under my office door. I established a absolute due time, which typically was that it should be there before I get to my office and check mail the next morning. I warned them that I sometimes got to work very early (5:00 a.m. or earlier), and sometimes not until after 7:00 a.m., so to not take any chances, they should essentially regard the absolute deadline as the night before.

However, as much as possible (these being departmental or course supervisor constraints), I tried to avoid actually taking up and grading homework as much as possible. Instead, I found it much simpler to have frequent short (5 to 15 minutes) quizzes, averaging at least one quiz per week for the semester, and sometimes averaging nearly two quizzes, these averages being for classes that meet 2 or 3 times a week. Sometimes the quizzes were what others call "homework quizzes" (students get to use their homework on the quiz), but I would instead just make it an open notes quiz. I did this because I did not want to go around to every desk and police whether they were really using their homework (and not class notes), especially when a lot of students did their homework in the same spiral bound notebook they took class notes in. And yes, I realize that some students used photocopies of other students' notes and homework, but I didn't police that either. The only thing I did try to police in these situations was to make sure that they didn't pass notes to each other. You have to watch carefully for this, because once a note is passed and received, you have no way of telling (without careful scrutiny of all the papers on a student's desk) whether a certain student may have gotten worked quiz solutions from a nearby student.

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After long consideration of (somewhat related) "cheating in homework" I came to the conclusion that I should be interested in what the know/can do, not in what they turn in. What you describe is perfectly in line with that. – vonbrand Apr 16 '14 at 15:36
I am very sympathetic to using quizzes to supplant homework assignments. Some of the same issues persist, however. How do you handle it when students miss a quiz? – Adam Bjorndahl Apr 16 '14 at 16:48
Almost always I made each quiz $10$ points and at the end of the semester the total of their top $10$ quiz grades became an additional major test grade (almost always their best test grade). The number of quizzes they got to drop varied, depending on how many I gave (almost always at least $4$ or $5$ were dropped, so I also didn't worry much if sometimes a "quiz experiment" didn't work and grades on it were low), and the nice thing about this method is that you never have students groaning about having to take yet another quiz! – Dave L Renfro Apr 16 '14 at 17:38
Speaking as the student... I had a calc prof who never collected homework, though he assigned a lot. It was a good idea to do it. He had office hours, which were always crowded, but I at least was motivated enough to go, and having other students there to chew on assignments over helped a lot. The quiz system @DaveLRenfro describes is also one I like because it helps me figure out if I missed the plot somewhere, and it cuts down the anxiety over exams, as well as telling me what I should study. But YMMV. – Jesse Apr 17 '14 at 0:33
@Jesse: Other reasons besides those you stated are that quizzes are easier to grade (the uniformity makes grading easier), tests are easier to write and type (several questions arise by simply copying and pasting quiz questions, making appropriate alterations), and tests are easier to tell students how to prepare for (30% to 60% of the test typically consists of things just like former quiz questions). Also, see these Math Forum posts of mine: 16 December 2009 and 2 March 2010 – Dave L Renfro Apr 17 '14 at 14:25

Since I'm not exactly timely in grading homework, my policy is: You have until I grade the stack to hand it in. If you do so, I just put it into the middle of the stack and no big deal. But if I'm done grading the stack (or took the stack home before you slid yours under my door), you're out of luck. This means that there's sort of a probabilistic decay in the chances that a late homework will be accepted. Students realize the risk of waiting too long, but appreciate the ability to sometimes hand things in just a tad late.

Disclaimer: If I'm publishing solutions to be studied from for an exam, then the deadline is firm on being in before solutions are posted.

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My policy is that late work is not accepted, but I also give students multiple ways to turn in work, most of which revolve around electronic submissions.

The vast majority of work that I assign students is done electronically -- computer programs, Geogebra constructions, LaTeX-ed up proofs, etc. and so all they have to do is attach the file to an email and send it. Having electronic submissions cuts down on physical stuff happening, like missing the bus, that would prevent timely submission.

Last semester I experimented with having students use Dropbox folders to hold all their work and then sharing the folder with me. As they worked, they kept their works-in-progress in the Dropbox folder. Once they were done, they just added the word FINAL to the file name so I would know what to grade. This way they never "turned in" homework -- all the versions of the work were in the Dropbox folder at all times, and they didn't have to "remember" to turn something in. I've been doing the same thing with SageMath Cloud this semester with my discrete structures students.

If you use paper submissions, then tell students that if they are prevented from being physically present to submit their work on paper, they can (and should) scan it with their phones and send it to you. Not every student has a smart phone, but most do.

TL;DR -- "Late homework gets a 0" is a perfectly fine policy to have as long as you give students multiple avenues of submitting work.

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I spent this morning working on code for automating submission of homework in SageMathCloud, making all the students' projects visible (as subfolders) of the instructor's project, and automating peer-grading so one can assign deeper problems. Course workflow will be the next big feature of SMC. Stay tuned. Also, of course SMC has snapshots every 2 minutes, so you can tell exactly when students did what. – William Stein Apr 21 '14 at 18:15
SageMath Cloud is amazing and getting...amazinger. – Robert Talbert Apr 23 '14 at 0:11

I'm with VonBrand, mostly. My way of dealing with it is to say that if you turn in your homework on time you can resubmit before the end of the semester to raise your grade for half credit. So if I give out a ten problem set, and a student turns in five problems that are 100% correct that's still 50%, F. Three weeks later the student can come in with the remaining five problems. Assuming they're 100% correct, minus 50% late penalty = 75% or C, but still better than an F. Of course if the student turns in nothing at the due date then the student gets zero.

Imparts a sense of understanding the importance of meeting deadlines while allowing for some flexibility. I know that some students save up for the week of Spring Break to catch up.

I'm also flexible on before-the-fact excuses. Come to me two days before the homework is due and say Fluffy had an accident and needs to go to the vet, fine, I'll grant an appropriate extension. Come to me on the day the assignment is due or after the assignment is due, sorry, no extension.

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