Mathematics Educators Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those involved in the field of teaching mathematics. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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"?

share|improve this question
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
I'm wary of "case by case exceptions", it is too easy to be unfair. Worse, this tends to favour the ones that are cutting corners and teaches them they can get away with it, not those who deserve help. – vonbrand Jan 27 at 10:58

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.

share|improve this answer
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

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.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer
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.

share|improve this answer

To a degree I think it depends on the age of the students. I would not have the same policy for high school and college.

For high school I had a longstanding policy of on time for full credit, 1 day late half credit and none after that. The only exceptions were excused absences, and for students that missed significant time I would usually work out a plan for catching up that contained modified homework assignments and due dates for groups of assignments.

I wouldn't say that this helped with student motivation. I chose this because I couldn't manage the homework load when it was being turned in at odd times. I needed to reduce variability in order to effectively check the assignments quickly. Also, students can become overwhelmed if they're trying to complete too many assignments. I wanted to limit the number of items that could be on a students plate at any time. When a student missed assignments I tried to talk to them about "what are we going to do differently?" and move them away from mistakes that they may have made previously. I don't have any proof that this helped, but I think it did.

For more advanced classes this was more problematic, students were less likely to be able to catch up on their own. I still kept the same policy, but it felt like I was less successful at getting students to change their behavior and had to make exceptions more often to offer credit for late assignments if a student was willing to make the effort to catch up.

Last, homework does not count for much in my classes. My homework assignments were not busywork, but they tended to be short reviews of work we did together. When I have tried more significant home assignments I have used different criteria for lateness. I have given a few application problems as take home quizzes, and most often those have had a generous but firm deadline for full credit and no late assignments accepted.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer
Agree with the "ask before" extension policy. – vonbrand Jan 27 at 2:57
Using the example you gave in the first paragraph, would a student that completed all 10 problems, but with only 50% accuracy have the same opportunity to resubmit for 75% credit? – BBS Jan 27 at 23:21
Yep. Or turn in 100% wrong answers and resubmit for 50% credit. Still better than 0. Not saying this is the right approach for every academic situation, but it works in the types of classes I teach (computer programming) where some students get everything on the first try and some take longer. I try not to penalize students for being in the latter category as long as they're making an honest effort. – Dave Kaye Jan 27 at 23:38

Students should be graded on the quality of their work (their ability to meet the desired learning targets) rather than how punctual the assignment is. Late Penalties lead to inaccuracy, which leads to deflated grades, which distorts the students’ achievement; their true ability to meet the intended learning outcomes. Some students predictably struggle with deadlines. Quality work should trump timeliness. By the way: The flood of assignments at the end of the year that you think you are going to get; it won’t happen, at least that wasn’t my experience. In fact, in every school I’ve worked in where teachers eliminated their late penalties they did not experience the flood.

share|improve this answer
This supposes that you only want the grade to reflect understanding of material, or ability to produce quality work. Sometimes we might really want the grade to reflect time management ability. – Steven Gubkin Jan 27 at 2:22
It might be true that quality of the work itself is the goal of teaching, but teaching is next to impossible if the students are unable to accept any definite schedule. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 27 at 7:33
Another point: Homework is not only used to grade students but also to get insight into the progress the students make. – Dirk Jan 27 at 12:23

Regarding the question in the title on how to deal with late submissions: First some background. I collect hand written homework and no electronic submissions. Usually the the submission is before class (in the lecture room) or via some mailbox. I do not accept late submissions after class and empty the mailbox at the time I announced (give or take some minutes). So my policy with late submissions is

Late submissions without warning are not accepted.

Most students have phones and can call, text or write emails from anywhere. If I get an email saying "I stuck in a traffic jam due to some accident and my submission will be late." I am going to accept the submission (unless there is evidence that the student lies, e.g. seeing him on campus at the same time). One important thing is:

This is not an official rule.

If it were, people could easily abuse it. So I handle all exceptional late submissions individually. By not making this a rule, the students need be proactive.

But there is another guideline that I find helpful here:

Once does not count but twice is a general phenomenon.

This is not meant per individual but in the following sense. If some reason for a late submission pops up once, I treat it individually. But if the same reason pops up twice (with a different student), I think about a general procedure how to handle these cases and make a rule with an announcement. This has the advantage that I do not have to make too many rules since many exception just occur once. (Finally: There are exceptions to this rule - sometimes even twice or thrice does not count…)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.