Shelley Judge, with student co-authors Mazvita M. Chikomo (’22) and Justine Paul Berina (’22)
The College of Wooster, Department of Earth Sciences
Faculty dread receiving late work just as much as some students dread asking for extensions. As faculty, our goal is to create an inclusive teaching and learning space, free of bias and with an established equitable playing field for all students. But late work inherently makes this system messy for everyone involved. Unfortunately, the pandemic has consistently generated situations that required students to turn in late work. Students have isolated and quarantined. They have become caregivers for family members and simultaneously worked several jobs. In addition, many have been impacted by social injustices in the national news and at the local level on our campuses. Students are reliving traumas. Not surprisingly, recent studies of college students point to a rise in mental health issues that impact academic work (e.g., Copeland et al., 2021; Zimmermann et al., 2021; and many others).
My goal was to ease anxiety over late assignments and in doing so maintain equity in the classroom. I did not want health crises or social injustices to lead to educational inequities, so I reworked my late policy and have used tokens with great success during the pandemic (2020-2022).
What are tokens? Tokens (coined by K. Kegley, as described in Nilson, 2015) are a form of academic currency. Students trade in one (or multiple) tokens for an extension on an assignment; some faculty even use tokens so students can redo/rewrite an assignment. Extensions are typically for 24 or 48 hours, depending on faculty preference.
Why change my terminology? I have used the concept of tokens since 2005 at two liberal arts institutions. When I stumbled upon Nilson’s (2015) reference to “tokens” in spring 2020, however, I decided to change my terminology and strategy. Originally, I granted every student 1-2 “free late days” (using terminology similar to “free passes” of J. Pilcher) to begin the semester, after which I imposed a late penalty of points deducted per day. After reading Nilson (2015) at the start of the pandemic, I changed my approach. My original late policy seemed too punitive for our chaotic times. By changing my vocabulary to “tokens” and embracing it conceptually, I showed more empathy to my students.
How do I use tokens? My use of tokens has evolved during the past two academic years. Initially, I granted every student 3 tokens, and that worked for 2020-2021. This academic year my gut told me that some students would struggle to move from remote/hybrid pedagogies to being fully in person. For 2021-2022, I therefore provide 3-4 tokens to students at the beginning of the semester. I also have offered an opportunity to earn an extra token to students in my advanced courses, which typically have weekly assignments and labs. Most students ended the last semester of 2021 with unused tokens.
Token policies are spelled out clearly in my syllabus at the beginning of the semester. This decreases potential confusion regarding token use. For example, some faculty may not allow tokens for take-home quizzes/exams or peer-reviewed projects. I do not allow tokens for assignments due during finals week. During the pandemic, I have additional policies for rare work that students want to submit a week or more past the due date, and I have accounted for unusual circumstances when students require individualized education plans to complete the semester due to extreme illness, personal tragedy, etc. Tokens do not cover all situations.
What benefits do tokens bring to the classroom? Tokens are effortless to administer. By setting up a spreadsheet for each course, I keep track of used tokens easily and quickly when grading. From the faculty perspective, tokens maintain classroom grading equity. McGlynn (2020) discusses how cultural norms in the classroom can be stretched by different types of students. Some students are more likely to ask for special treatment more often, while other students are often deterred from asking for educational allowances. Tokens minimize this discrepancy in the classroom for faculty. Among the many pros to using tokens:
- Tokens encourage students to submit work on time because most try to save tokens for later in the semester.
- With a “no questions asked” policy, tokens show students respect, allowing them (and faculty) to maintain dignity in the educational setting. Students are not compelled to tell me every detail of why an extension is needed; they are not forced to explain their lived traumas, personal problems, tragedies, or even minor reasons for not having their best work completed.
- Tokens give students agency over their educational choices, allowing them to plan and prioritize their workload when there might be several exams on the same day that an assignment is due. Students also can hold onto an assignment they find more challenging to perfect answers.
- Tokens save time by reducing the need for formal documentation for illness or emergencies. In addition, there is a reduction in the time spent emailing back and forth between student and professor when extensions are requested.
Even considering such benefits, I acknowledge that the use of tokens raises some issues. Debate exists over whether late work should even be accepted because there are some professions wherein late work has dire consequences (i.e., law, medicine, accounting, etc.). There is also the concern that tokens could normalize poor decisions and procrastination. Some students might think that tokens can bail them out of poor planning or might use the majority of tokens within the first days to weeks of the semester.
But I have found that few students seek to take advantage of the token system. And I reject that tokens coddle our undergraduates or fail to teach them about deadlines. Prior to the pandemic, my students rarely used their “free late days,” as only 3-4 students a semester would use a day. During the pandemic, however, there has been increased use of tokens. I argue that this is a positive development. In general, students do not merely want to get an assignment done; they want to get it done correctly—because there is too much at stake for them. The majority of my students truly understand the importance of deadlines. Due dates are in fact a primary stressor in their lives even amid the best of times. COVID-19 is unprecedented in many ways, including its compounding student stress. In my classroom, the respectful use of tokens brings agency to young adults at a time when much in their lives seems beyond their control. The reciprocity of grace and kindness via tokens is an empathy-positive (Zaki, 2019) pedagogy.
Copeland, W.E, McGinnis, E., Yang, B., Adams, Z., Nardone, H., Devadanam, V., Rettew, J., and Hudziak, J.J., 2021. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on college student mental health and wellness. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 60(1): 134-141.
McGlynn, T., 2020. The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 198 pp.
Nilson, L.B., 2015. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC., 153 pp.
Zaki, J., 2019. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 261 pp.
Zimmermann, M., Bledsoe, C., and Papa, A., 2021. Initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on college student mental health: A longitudinal examination of risk and protective factors. Psychiatry Research 305:1-9.