Periodically pedagogy Twitter veers in the direction of reasons students miss due dates, and inevitably ends up with someone suggesting that we should abolish due dates altogether. The pro-abolition side argues that students have complex schedules and many responsibilities to juggle, and that due dates are an unnecessary and outdated hoop for them to jump through. The anti-abolition side argues that due dates matter in the “real world,” and it behooves students to learn time management skills.
I come at this discussion having taught courses where the only due date was the course end-date. If you’re thinking of abolishing due dates, there are a few things you should consider.
Going Due-Date Commando
First, here is my (admittedly anecdotal, and potentially foggy memory of) experience with the no due-date arrangement:
- Students who started their work early tended to submit their work consistently, and had it done with time to prepare for the final exam.
- Roughly 50% of students paid a fee to extend their course end-date by 2 months. Of these, the majority did not start early, and a good chunk had not submitted any assignments prior to their original end date.
- It was common for students who paid for one extension to pay for a second extension.
- A non-trivial number of students did not complete the course work before they had to write the final exam. After failing the final exam, they paid a fee for a second attempt at the exam, and used the intervening time to complete course work, for which they still got credit.
Students were given a recommended schedule at the start of the course, but I can’t help but think that the absence of official due dates gave the impression that students could succeed without working on the course regularly. An absence of due dates early in the course most certainly contributed to students starting the course late, and thus the negative outcomes mentioned above.
Pedagogical Arguments Against Going Commando*
*for due dates
Here are the reasons I have due dates, and why I think it would be a mistake to run my courses without them. If none of these apply to you, then maybe you don’t need due dates after all. If they do apply, then perhaps consider the consequences of abolishing due dates in that context.
Reason 1. My Workload
I use due dates to distribute my grading evenly through the term, and make sure I have time to give students meaningful feedback. If students can hand in their work whenever it suits them, it will suit many of them to prioritize other course work with due dates over coursework without. It’s reasonable to expect a glut of grading at the end of the term, and that means marathon grading sessions for which I am entirely too old at this point.
Reason 2. Students Have Time to Use Feedback
In the courses where students handed in their work at the last minute, there was very little time before the final exam to review the feedback I gave them. Who knows if they even had the mental wherewithal to process it, after focusing on the work so intently for so long? There are more useful things I can do than write detailed comments that no-one will ever read. Not that I’m guaranteed they’ll be read on assignments with due dates, but I’d lay better odds on it.
Reason 3. Academic Integrity
The more work students have to do in a short period of time, the more stress is involved, and the greater the likelihood that they cut corners. There were a number of reasons that I quit the no-due-dates teaching job, but a big one was that the courses were rendered pointless by cheating. The assignments submitted at the last minute were not infrequently copied from graded work that other students had submitted earlier.
Now imagine a desperate email from a student that you just reported for submitting someone else’s work, wherein the student pleads for leniency because they need the course to graduate, and their parents are already on a flight from overseas to see them get their degree. (In case you’re wondering, that student had an awkward conversation with their parents.)
Reason 4. Course Organization
The assignments in my courses are meant to reinforce particular concepts and skills. The assignments are most meaningful when I’ve just finished covering the relevant topics. The assignments are meant to sort out issues students had with those topics, and prepare them for the next thing on the list. Those kinds of assignments would have little value if students did not do them at the right time and in the right order.
In addition to impacting the relevance of assignments, no due dates would mean having to answer the same questions about assignments over and over again, because individual students would be focusing on them at different times. And as per Reason 3, I’d either have to not grade the work at all, wait until all assignments were submitted to grade the work, or just accept that some students won’t do their own work, and either disregard academic misconduct (not gonna happen) or spend time writing academic misconduct reports.
Getting that Breezy Feeling of Flexibility without Actually Going Commando*
*for due dates
If any of those reasons resonate with you, but you still feel the need to build in some flexibility, I’ve seen that done in a few ways, and have some of my own.
1. By the Book
In the syllabus, set out the scenarios under which a student will be permitted an extension. Be specific about whether you require an explanation, or some evidence that they need an extension. Be careful here about asking for personal information or making evidence burdensome. If you really want to help a student out, you don’t want them to not ask for an extension for fear of having to explain their mental health issue to you, or describe embarrassing or traumatic life circumstances.
Here is where we venture into another sore spot for pedagogy Twitter (the last time this conversation happened, people were bashing each other for a full week), the Great Asking for Granny’s Obituary Debate. On the one side were those tired of being lied to about grannies (metaphorically or otherwise) having become deceased as due dates approached. On the other were those whose metaphorical (or literal) grannies had died, and were furious and hurt about being treated as liars at one of the worst times of their lives.
My own approach to this is making a decision in the student’s favour unless I have specific evidence suggesting otherwise. My trust battery runs a little low most days, so this is the best way to sidestep the issue of honesty entirely. Aside from which, I prefer policies that work consistently, and a gut check isn’t one of those.
2. The Oprah Method*
*YOU get and extension! And YOU get an extension! EVERYONE gets an extension!
Some simply permit extensions to students who ask, whenever they ask, with no explanations required. But either you tell all students you’ll do that, or you risk the benefit only being used by students who feel confident questioning due dates. The students who need the extension the most might never think to ask for it. Of course if you make that policy widely known, you have to be prepared for your grading schedule to go sideways, and depending on the size of your course, a snowstorm of extension requests.
3. Get Out of Jail Free Card
You could give all students a one-time due-date extension they can use at their discretion. If you do that, make sure you have a reasonable way to determine what is an appropriate length of extension.
4. Extension Account
A late penalty need not be a bad thing. If you want to emphasize the importance of sticking to due dates, but you also want some flexibility, a small late penalty (between 1% to 5% per day up to some maximum) that students could choose to take is one way to go.
You could combine this with the Get Out of Jail Free Card, or the By The Book method, or just give all students an “extension account” of so many points to go against deductions for lateness. This allows students to be in control of how they “spend” the time they have. I use something similar to account for points lost to technical difficulties when students are graded on participation in in-class response system questions.
So In Conclusion…
Before you abolish due dates, think about why you have due dates to begin with. You might be doing your students a favour by getting rid of them, but then again you might not. In my experience, the latter has been the case. To my mind, the better choice involves a consistent application of reasonable flexibility and accountability.