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How to get your students to turn in work


How many times have you seen this picture: a student failing because of missing assignments. They’re intelligent, they seem to get it, they appear to work hard, so why oh why aren’t they turning in work?

Most grading systems will count missing assignments as zeros which can quickly tank a student’s average. 

How do you solve this seemingly relentless problem? We’ve got you covered! Here are 8 sure fire strategies to get your students to turn in work!

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1. Diagnose the problem

Before doing anything else, ask yourself: WHY didn’t they turn this in? 

The easy (self-serving) answer is that they were lazy. That can sometimes be the case but much more often the issue is something else. 

If most or all of your students didn’t turn something in the more likely causes are:

  1. They didn’t understand it
  2. You didn’t give them enough time to complete it
  3. Some other class dumped a mountain of other work on them which counts for more of their grade in that class
  4. It was a big assignment and you didn’t include intermediate deadlines
  5. Some frothy mix of all of the above

If one of your students consistently doesn’t turn in work, it could still be the above. However, when it’s one kid, I find it’s usually organization, understanding and / or home life. Remember work completion and turn-in is absolutely a skill and not all of your students will have been taught it or mastered it yet. 

One additional thought: always consider incentive. People do things or don’t do them for reasons. Students will generally want to do what they’re told to be done with it. If they’re not doing it, then they have incentive not to. 

Put on your Sherlock hat and investigate: What are the incentives? What could be preventing a student from finishing? Is there something going on here I’m missing? And the most important: How can I help/support their increase in work completion and independence?  

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2. Partial credit is your friend

As a special education teacher, I saw a lot of students who didn’t get work done. I worked with them from kindergarten to high school classrooms in my teaching career. The number one reason they gave for not turning something in was this:

“I haven’t finished it.”

For some kids this meant it didn’t so much as have a name on it, but for MOST it was just a sentence at the end, a few problems at the bottom or some other small missing piece. 

Kids have had the awful experience of turning in work in such a state, mostly done and getting it returned to them with a zero on the top. 

Remember I mentioned incentives? That’s a huge negative incentive to turn in work. It’s a  huge negative incentive to not even DO work you don’t think you can finish. 

The remedy for this is very simple. Give partial credit, with the ability to turn it back in later for full credit. 

Partial credit is much more realistic anyway. If you do part of something you usually get paid, credit etc for that thing, a portion anyway. 

Be clear with your students that you give partial credit. Heck, I gave my students a point just for turning in the paper with their name on it. It shows they care at least a little. 

Partial credit can solve so many turn-in problems! 

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3. Consider less damaging options

A missing or a zero in a grade book is often devastating to grades. They can really make a situation look hopeless to a student. 

You can solve that problem by exploring less mathematically devastating options. 

In most of the schools (and grade books) I worked with, there were other options that didn’t burn a kid’s grade to the ground. 

Think of what is actually happening here. Is the assignment really missing? If so, then missing is a good option. Most of the time though, it was just currently unaccounted for. 

In those cases often the student was absent and hasn’t turned in their late work yet. In other cases the assignment wasn’t complete yet (especially true of students using their extended time). Luckily there was usually an “i” for “incomplete” that didn’t hurt grades. 

Maybe you’re waiting for a revision on a piece of work. Put in the old score instead of a missing assignment. 

Speaking of your grade book…

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4. Remember who’s in control in your grade book

Although you may have some mandates on your grading from your school or district, most of the time, you are the one who controls the conditions for success in your class. 

You decide what counts for a grade. You decide how much that grade is weighted. You decided when those items are due. You decide how many questions you ask and how difficult they are. You are in control. 

Here’s how to use that control to get work turn-in to happen:

Completion grades are your best friend

Although some people side-eye the idea of completion grades, they’re actually a great idea. 

If you want to see what students can do, what their skill level is, a completion grade is a good way to get that data. 

If students have the pressure of being “right” taken off of them, they are more likely to turn in what they can do. You will get to see their level of knowledge: warts, sparkles and all the in between. 

They’re also less likely to copy or otherwise cheat. What would be the point? They get the same grade regardless. Cheating just sounds like more steps. 

Use late penalties sparingly 

Late penalties are the worst, aren’t they? You get things done when you can. A late penalty doesn’t mean you have the money to pay a bill sooner or the ability to send something in the mail faster. 

No one likes late penalties. 

Sometimes, if the penalty is high enough, it isn’t even worth doing the thing. 

Kids feel the same way. 

If you insist on having a late penalty, then keep it small. 10% is enough to convince a student to turn something in on time. Heck, even taking away one point can be enough. 

Don’t make the penalty exorbitant and you’ll get in a lot more work. 

Use early or on-time incentives generously

In the same vein, if you want something to happen, give kids a reason to do it. 

If you want students to turn things in on time, give a random “turned in on time” bonus. Again, it can be very modest, 5%, a single point, whatever. The point is, it makes the student’s hard work be seen. 

Maybe turning it in on time was a big struggle for them. Show them you see them and appreciate their extra work. 

Let students know up front if this is a random incentive or if you plan on offering it to everyone to avoid issues. 

Don’t want a huge pile of grading all at once? You can do the same with an early bonus. You can give bonus points, extra helpful feedback with the chance to make edits for those bonus points, or any incentive that may encourage students to turn in work before the deadline. 

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5. Explicitly teach organization

In my “why I didn’t turn it in” excuses greatest hits album, track two after “It wasn’t done” was “I lost it / can’t find it”. 

This can be frustrating for teachers. It’s hard to make more copies or email it again for the zillionth time. 

The best way to stop this cycle is to explicitly teach students how to organize their work. Remind them where their work goes at the end of a lesson with ques. 

Take one day at a regular interval to have students go through their papers or files if you’re online. Model for them how to put things in logical places. 

You may even want to teach a lesson on how to organize their planners and give reminders about writing in due dates. Organization can be both your physical space and your time. 

Most schools don’t teach organization, which is a pity since it’s not an innate skill. It is learned. Teach your students and you’ll be surprised by how much more work you get in from them. 

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6. Routines, like always, save the day

Like with most things, routines can really help. 

Have a clear system for how and when late work gets turned in. 

Sometimes students have a hard time knowing when to turn in late work. They may try to do it in the middle of you teaching a lesson. They may put it errantly on your desk. They may email it to you with no subject line and it goes to your spam. 

These are all easily solved with clear and reinforced routines. 

This will look different for every teacher. Maybe you’ll remind students as they enter your class to turn in work to a designated bin. 

Maybe every quarter you offer a day when students turn in all back work. Maybe you give a lesson on how to write emails that contain missing work, with a set subject line.

Whatever your system is, have one and be really clear about it. Practice. If you notice students falling off the routine/system, take a little time to review and practice it. This will save you so much time and sanity in the long run 🙂 

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7. Embrace work / catch-up days

Again, this can be a distasteful concept for teachers. Some think they’re holding up the rest of the class by offering class time for work. That’s just not true. 

School work is one thing, and that is practice for skills. If students are always practicing wrong and out of your sight, how are you supposed to correct them?

Those students you have that completed their work, it may not have been satisfactory. Turning in awful work is a good strategy for a student who would like to squeak by with a D-. They can use this time to refine and resubmit their work.

Those that are doing very well, and don’t need additional work time can do extension activities (they probably like the subject if they’re doing well). You can also let them take care of something else. They may embrace this time to work on a class that’s going less well. 

You know your students. You can bake these days into your weekly or monthly routine, or you can give them at random when you see them struggling. However you give them, there is nothing wrong with a work catch-up day and should be part of a healthy classroom. 

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8. Have small milestone due-dates for big assignments

Some of the hardest assignments to get turned in on time and in full are essays. 

Although they are not the only work that comes in late they are a frequent offender. 

This is because they’re large assignments. They often require complex thinking and diverse skills. They may require research and revising. 

These complex assignments are very good candidates for chunking. 

If you’re giving a large scale assignment, from a presentation, to an essay, to a play, have smaller milestones. 

These milestones make the grade for an assignment into smaller grades less likely to kill an overall average if one or more is missed. It gives credit as work is done. It also shows you when your students are getting behind or struggling on a section. 

Small, graded milestones help immensely in knowing your students will have more than a fist full of nothing when the final due date rolls around. 

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No one solution will work

With getting students to turn in work, no one strategy is going to work. 

In fact even while doing all 8, you may have some special cases that resist turning in work. 

That’s ok. The more students you can get comfortable with turning in work, the more time you’ll have for those few kids still not producing work. 

Do what works for you and your students. Don’t give up. Something will work and soon you’ll be so buried under grading, you’ll wonder why you ever worried about getting students to turn it in! 

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