Incentivize! Don’t Penalize: Revisiting Late Policies for Online Students

Coming from a culture of storytellers, I’d like to share a story that inspired this post.

I was at my local supermarket in the northeast side of Los Angeles when a former student, Ignacio (Nacho), recognized me and approached me. “Are you Ms. Fabi?” He then reminded me of who he was. I also met his Mama. His Mama started to tell me in Spanish what a good son Nacho is and how proud she is of him. I felt confused because, as I recall, he had dropped my class. As I listened to Nacho, there in the store, the reason he dropped hit me hard. He dropped the class because his mother had lost her job and he needed to work more hours to take care of his family.  This caused him to struggle with time management. Nacho had a formative assessment due in my class and he couldn’t complete it by the due date. So, he dropped the class. Of course, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”  He said, “Well you were very clear about late papers.  You set your rule and I broke it.”  To him, talking to me meant asking for help, and he didn’t want to ask for a favor. A “favor” was not an option for him.  I could even see it in the eyes of his mother.  She stood by his decision. “Se porta bien” – He behaves.

Like many working class immigrant households, we were raised to be proud, which meant not breaking the rules.  Since many of our parents lived in fear of breaking rules in the US, the goal of behaving was instilled in us. Good behavior builds character. Character becomes more important than achievement. Nacho was the epitome of character. He was a good son of a single-family household, an Army Reserve Serviceman (another environment requiring good behavior) and a college student. Yet my policy became a barrier. I did not set up an environment to encourage communication and support him to succeed.

The next semester, Nacho registered for my course again.  I learned he was a hard worker who also learned how to advocate for himself when he needed to. He never took advantage of my kindness and appreciated my personalized feedback. After all, I had met his Mama. Nacho earned an A, completed his bachelors at a Cal State, and is now a college recruiter. After Nacho, my journey as an online instructor was forever changed.

When I started teaching online, I struggled with late policies.  I remember a colleague telling me I needed to be strict with deadlines to “show them how it will be in the real world.” I learned my lesson after my Nacho encounter. After that, I began to imagine a learning environment where submitting late assignments could still be a method to encourage student effort and communicate that I believe in my students’ abilities. I have wondered how this change might remove barriers for students and foster a more equitable learning experience. 

What Students Want

Our goal should not be to translate our face-to-face learning environments into our online courses. Both are unique and should be designed to leverage the characteristics of the modality. Also, our students have reasons for choosing to take an online vs. a face-to-face course. Kelly Ann Gleason, a student at Cuesta College, stated during the student panel for Digital Learning Day 2019, “We are taking online classes because we have life outside the classroom, so the very reason that we are taking this [an online class] communicates what we expect.”  And what do they expect?  Flexibility. Today, more than 24% of enrollments in the California Community College system are from online courses. Most of these students are blending their schedules with a mix of face-to-face and online courses to develop a flexible schedule that allows them to advance their academic goals while also fulfilling their work and life responsibilities. To put it another way, being on campus full-time is a privilege that many students do not have.

The student panelists who participated with Kelly Ann continued to advocate the need to respect faculty and their time, yet they want to see online faculty design an online environment where students are given a fair chance to submit quality work when time management becomes challenging.  As Henry Fan, a student from Foothill College, stated, “Not all time is created equal.”

The full archive of the student panel is embedded below. To jump to the segment on late policies, click here.

How to Promote an Equitable Culture of Excellence

Equity means ensuring each student has what they need to succeed. Is it equitable to apply the same late policy to every student in every situation? It is our responsibility to measure the quality of student learning rather than how punctual an assignment is.  And if it’s not punctual, how can we use that as an opportunity to understand our students’ realities and encourage them to keep going?

Here are some suggestions to incentivize responsibility by placing a culture of excellence and care on your end.

  • Spend time in preparing and designing Canvas Assignments. Make sure every student is clear about what to do and how to do it.  Students might need models, templates or deeper explanations before they are ready.  Include a rubric so your expectations are clearly communicated. Embed a video encouraging excellence within the Assignment page.
  • Use Canvas Announcements to nudge students on upcoming deadlines.  We know some students struggle with deadlines and it would be irresponsible as a teacher to not act upon that knowledge before it’s too late.
  • Monitor submissions throughout the week.  As the due date approaches, use the Grades area of Canvas to send a personal message to students who have not yet submitted.  Ask if they are OK.  Encourage them to talk to you if they need to.
  • For students who do not submit by the deadline, use the Canvas Inbox to message these students and ask if they are OK.  Provide them an opportunity to negotiate.  If a response is still missing, send your campus’ Distance Education policy language on Last Day of Attendance (LDA) for online courses. Be sure they know the last date they have to withdraw and receive a W, as it is better than an F.
  • Grade and provide comments in a timely manner so you reciprocate your culture of responsibility by providing meaningful feedback.
  • Plan your life around knowing you will always receive late submissions.  So, when you don’t, you will feel happy and spend extra time with your loved ones.

We are content specialists.  Not life specialists.  Yet we can create an equitable culture of excellence, so all students can achieve academic excellence.

My Submission Policy:

Plan on submitting work on time.I immediately review work and provide meaningful feedback with in 48-72 hours.

Because time management is challenging, deadlines might not be met. But, you’re in luck. I’m on your side.  Late submissions will be accepted with a penalty. Assignments submitted after the deadline may receive a 10% grade point deduction for each day following the due date and time.

Don’t want the penalty? Here’s an incentive.

If you recognize a due date might be a problem, advocate for your success by following these steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Contact me to propose a solution
  3. Let’s negotiate

Do you have a submission policy you’d like to share? I warmly invite you to leave a reply below to keep the conversation going!

Posted in Articles, equity, humanizing.

Fabiola Torres is an online Ethnic Studies professor at Glendale Community College, an Equity facilitator for the CVC/Online Network of Educators (@ONE). During the pandemic, Fabiola collaborated with a number of colleges throughout the country in offering professional development workshops and keynote presentations focussing on applying equity-minded methods such as culturally responsive teaching in the online environment, and humanizing online teaching and learning. Fabiola’s teaching principles are inspired by her M.A. in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge and M.A. in Learning Technology from Pepperdine’s School of Education and Psychology. She was awarded the Online Learning Consortium Advocate Award for Diversity and Inclusion in July of 2020. Fabiola is a fur-mommy of Luke, Leia and Wookie.


  1. LOVE this post, Fabiola! What a powerful story. You asked us to share our late work policies. Here is mine:

    Everyone has an automatic 2-day grace period for late submissions – no questions asked! This means that you can always submit work up to 2 days late without having to ask for an extension, and without losing any points. After the grace period, late work may still be accepted. Contact me so we can develop a plan to get you caught up!

  2. I love this! Thanks for making me think more about how to help students with what they really need.

  3. Hi Aloha!!! Thank you… Developing a plan is so valuable. I love how we can communicate via Canvas throughout the semester to set a welcoming tone. So when the time comes to speak up, we enable the “door” to be open for possibilities.

  4. I use a “virtual” token system. Students are given a set amount of tokens at the beginning of the semester and a few opportunities to earn tokens throughout the semester. They can use a token to submit late work no questions asked. (They can also use a token to revise submitted assignments.)

  5. Fabiola,

    Your Nacho story hits home in many aspects. I also echo your statements regarding working class immigrant and their pride for not breaking rules and fear associated with such behavior.

    Thank you,


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