Actually, Deadlines DO Matter

Steven Volk (Contact at: Steven.Volk@oberlin.edu)

In a recent Reddit post, Tobias Rush, a musicologist at the University of Dayton, remarked that he allows students in “music theory and aural skills classes to turn homework in late and redo it as many times as they want for a higher grade. The students LOVE this policy and it does benefit them in that it gives them opportunity to learn the material by doing.” The posting was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching Newsletter,” where it appeared under a headline offering, “How One Professor Learned to Stop Worrying and Drop the Deadline.” The article notes that it’s a bit more complicated: Rush provides due dates for each assignment but, “they are really just suggestions, since assignments can be turned in late without penalty.” Ultimately, he clarifies, “There is a hard and fast due date at 5:00 pm on the last day before finals week where all materials are due.”

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zen Sutherland, Flickr Creative Commons

The arguments in favor of such an approach are significant, including never having to parse various requests for extensions, from the familiar (computer crashes without any backups; the untimely death of a grandparent), to the outrageous (“I’m going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and won’t have time to complete it before I leave. I’ll bring you back some beads”), to the sadly believable, if eyecatching (“I lost my carabiner which had all my keys, including the one for the lockbox where I keep my ADHD meds, and my father can’t mail me a new prescription until next week…”). One also doesn’t have to calculate grade deductions for assignments turned in late (is that a grade down for every day late, or every CLASS day late?), or trouble one’s mind as to whether it’s better for students to turn in an assignment, however late, vs. discouraging them from doing the work by mandating a failing grade after, say, 5 late days.

Prof. Rush also notes that such a policy requires significant preparation (“we have a big discussion about this on the first day of the first class…”), as well as talking about the final due date continually as the semester draws to a close. He also notes that, in the end, he ends up with a lot more grading at the end of the semester, when everything is finally submitted. And he indicates that the policy works best for certain “lower-level” assignments, not for all assignments.

Yet for Rush, as reported in the Chronicle, the policy paid off: “…His students, all in their first and second year, appreciate having the space to better understand their time-management skills, or lack thereof…His method allows the procrastinators at the margins to understand the material rather than give up.” While Rush hasn’t studied the results of his experiment in a thorough manner, he noticed an increase in the average grades in his course.

Maybe Not?

The idea was so intriguing that I thought I would try it – well, actually I did try it, about a decade ago. In the syllabus for an introductory survey of colonial Latin American history (50 students), I wrote: “This semester, I am adopting a new policy regarding late assignments based on an understanding (and a hope) and it is you who are ultimately responsible for your education.” Much like Prof. Rush, I provided deadlines for every assignment (4 in total), but indicated that assignments could be turned in after the deadline without a grade penalty, up to the date of the final exam; nothing turned in after that date would be accepted. My approach differed from Prof. Rush’s in two other ways: Students who turned in assignments late would be graded normally, but would not receive any written comments – which, I noted, “means that the assignment will lose some of its value as a learning opportunity.” And students could not pass the course unless they (ultimately) turned in all the assignments.

I still have not figured out whether to characterize that approach as a failure or a disaster; suffice it to say I dropped it after one semester. What happened? Probably what I should have known would happen if I had been paying attention. Those students who were best at time management, had the strongest preparation in terms of study skills, and (probably) less immediate causes of stress in their lives turned their work in on time. They received extensive feedback from me; some used it to resubmit their papers; others used the comments to improve their subsequent assignments. Those with poorer time management skills, weaker study skills, or more stress in their lives at that moment – i.e., those who would most benefit from feedback – received none at all. They turned in their work late, most often on the very last day permitted in order to pass the class. Others simply withdrew from the class after the midterm date (we allow a non-graded “Withdrawal” after 8 weeks of classes), since they realized they had fallen too far behind.

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the apostrophe, “Comfort and Release,” Flickr Creative Commons

While recognizing that there can be different outcomes in different settings, I look back at this grading experiment as one in which I simply did not do what I needed to do to help all my students succeed. I was the one who failed them by not recognizing that an absence of deadlines might help me, but it wouldn’t help them.

Is there a better way to deal with deadlines?

Over the years, I’ve found that certain approaches can both remove the sting of deadlines for faculty while helping more students thrive. Since the failure of that experiment, I now tell students that they can request an extension any time before the assignment is due. They don’t need to provide a reason, just a (mutually agreeable) date when they will turn it in – always before the next assignment is due so that the first extension doesn’t simply push the problem down the road. The second time a student asks for an extension, I request a meeting to try to figure out what’s going on, and, hopefully, either to provide the assistance needed or to put them in touch with those individuals or offices who could best help. I also tell students that they cannot get an “Incomplete” in the course (i.e. time after the semester is over to complete the course work) for any work except the final assignment. All other assignments have to be turned in before that.

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Mostphotos. Flickr Creative Commons.

Both of these changes, I believe, have helped those students who need the most scaffolding and guidance while encouraging all students to think about time management issues in a realistic fashion. This is, I believe, the essence of universal design in education. By not asking students to provide a reason for a requested extension, I can remove myself from having to evaluate appeals while perhaps making it easier for students who are undergoing specific (extra-curricular) anxieties from having to disclose personal information. At the same time, if the requests persist, I can try to provide some help in a timely fashion, rather than letting issues pile up until it’s too late to resolve them. Better prepared students are also aided by the policy since they know they can take advantage of an extension to produce better work when they are faced with a pile up of work in other courses. (And, quite frankly, it’s easier for me to grade 50 papers if 35 come in at once and then 15 are turned in over the next 10 days.)

So, while dropping the deadlines might save you some worries, in the end it might not be the best solution for students who most need your attention.

4 thoughts on “Actually, Deadlines DO Matter

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m curious what prompted your decision to withhold written guidance on late papers. Was it intended to protect your grading workload? (I can completely understand if it was!) Or was it a means of subtly encouraging students to turn homework in by the deadline? Perhaps it was a little of both?

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    • Thanks for your comment, Toby (if I may), and I hope I didn’t mis-characterize your thinking on the matter! I was (and continue to be) very much into the idea that students should “own” their education and be responsible for their learning. So, mostly, the non-comment aspect was intended to help them understand that assignments were important aspects of student learning, and that getting feedback was a part of that learning. Turning assignments in on time would yield more learning…As I indicated, it didn’t quite work out that way. Thanks again for your comment.

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      • Steven, your characterization was right on, and I appreciate you pointing out, as the article did, that I’m under no illusion that this system would work for other disciplines, or even other professors in my own field! Really, the success of my own policies can vary from semester to semester.

        And I hope that my comment didn’t come across as critical. Your approach makes a lot of sense, and I appreciate the time you took to write up and share your experience with it. I am constantly tweaking my own policies and this type of information is always enormously helpful!

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