Lateness, apology letters and strict liability

I was having an issue with student lateness early in the semester, despite a lateness policy we discussed as a class the first week. Threats of a lower grade and of required meetings with program directors to discuss recurrent lateness seemed to have little effect. So one day, borrowing a concept I picked up from a parenting book, I presented the question to my students: What would be an appropriate consequence for lateness?

After some discussion (including input from me), we decided that an appropriate consequence would be: If you’re late for class, then you must write an apology letter of at least 100 words, print out copies for everyone in the class, and hand out the copies in the subsequent class. I added the caveat that, for each additional instance of lateness, the word count increases by 50 words.

This consequence seemed to strike the right balance of being inconvenient enough that students prefer to avoid it yet not so harsh that would end up feeling like an empty threat because I would hesitate to implement it. Plus, it had the added benefit of being directly related to the kind of learning my students need.

I also decided that the new lateness policy would be “strict liability,” which led to an engaging discussion of the meaning of the term (i.e., “no excuses”) with concepts of negligence and intention in a legal context. And I extended the policy to lateness when returning from lunch for our afternoon classes.

Since the start of the new policy, lateness has decreased dramatically. Nonetheless, there have been a few instances, and the students have come through with appropriate apology letters. The letters, in turn, have led to useful discussions about proper headings for a letter along with examination of different ways to soften language when apologizing.

Additionally, the explanations have offered insights into the students’ cultures, including one student’s explanation of lateness due to a phone call with a senior relative right before class and how it would be culturally inappropriate to end the call with an older relative–a nice opening to the idea of a “conflict of interest”!


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