Justice or Mercy?

karenThe recent spell of bad weather forced a lot of exercise routines indoors, including mine. While I’m ever so grateful for the local YMCA, too many laps on its small track had me feeling like a hamster on wheel. A chance meeting with my colleague Pat offered a welcome distraction and good conversation. Predictably, the topic was teaching, and we both voiced our frustration with students who don’t seem to realize that work needs to be turned in on time.

While we teach in different disciplines, Pat and I both use web-based learning programs, and we both post frequent assignments. We both encounter students who are capable of doing the work, but have apparent problems with completing it in the prescribed time frame. The reason for the tardiness might be a genuine emergency, procrastination, chronic disorganization, too many responsibilities other than school, or…sigh….lack of motivation/laziness. late

Our conundrum: how to motivate the struggler to improve his or her performance without dishonoring all the students who did complete the work on time. When are we helping to improve performance, and when are we enabling? When do we show “mercy” by accepting late work, and when do we use the firm hand of “justice” to teach a much-needed life lesson? At some level, this may be the seminal question for any teacher, especially in a community college.

I’m officially declaring that Pat’s strategy is brilliant. When a student attempts to submit a late assignment for the first time, Pat advises, “Hold on to that, and if there are no more problems the rest of the term, I’ll accept it.” The ball of responsibility is back in the student’s court, with the onus on the student to shape up. At the same time, Pat allows the student to learn from the mistake without a disastrous effect on the grade in the course. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

oops1Because I post a lot of reading and homework assignments, I offer my students two “OOPS” coupons each term. An “OOPS” may be used to get credit for a late assignment or to rework one that the student has made a loblolly mess of. They are not transferable, and the student must fill the coupon out with her name, the assignment title, and her request for late acceptance or redo. Students treat them like gold, and I am no longer besieged by excuses and requests to change online grades.



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