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C'est la Z

Yes, deadlines do matter

I've been seeing a few threads lately talking about the virtues of allowing students to hand in assignments late. Not just late but pretty much whenever they want. This attitude seems to be related with things like mastery or specification grading, which I believe in but it's not the same thing.

The threads start with someone saying that assignments shouldn't have deadlines or some variant and the thread proceeds with a bunch of people chiming in as to why a teacher who actually enforces deadlines is an inhuman monster.


Now, before I dive in, I do think that a teacher should have some flexibility with deadlines but allowing students to hand in anything at any time is probably not a good idea in most cases and any teacher or self styled educator who proudly proclaims that deadlines in all cases are evil should just step off their soap box and maybe look more into their own teaching practice. Of course, the teacher that likewise says strict to the minute deadlines with no flexibility should do the same.

Let's look at both sides.

Advantages of no deadlines

The push here is that students have things going on outside of school and an arbitrary deadline doesn't account for this. Particularly over the past couple of years students have had to contend with all sorts of difficulties that could be unique or semi-unique to them or at least they hit at different times.

The other push is that students might get certain concepts at different times so a student might not be able to finish something when originally assigned but could very well have mastered the concept by the end of the term.

Finally, there's the thought that those most susceptible to missing deadlines are the most in need of support.

I agree with these issues and do feel that some deadline flexibility is warranted or at least some mechanism to mitigate a missed deadline or two or a bad grade and I certainly agree with the idea that the important thing is that the student gets it at the end and not necessarily that they get it when first introduced.

That said, the idea of largely or wholly eliminating deadlines just doesn't fly.

Why deadlines matter

The usual first response is that having no deadlines rewards bad behavior. This can be true but it really depends on circumstances. On the other hand there are some legit reasons for deadlines.

A big one is snowballing - some courses are compartmentalized. The CS topics course I just taught was. Each unit was independent so in theory any could be completed at any time. Here the snowballing is just the overall amount of work. If completing one assignment say, every two weeks is a challenge for a particular student, imagine when they let the deadlines slip and then have to complete 6 at once.

It's worse though in courses that do build. I taught data structures last semester. You can't build your linked lists without understanding your pointers and you can't build an open hash table without those linked lists. If you can't do the pointers you're going to really be at a loss for those other topics. This means making sure a student can successfully master what's needed by the dealine is important and not arbitarary.

Another reason is that, in spite of the no-deadline crowds contentions, deadlines do matter in the real world. You're not getting on that plane once the door at the gate closes. Likewise, I'm sure you'd be pretty unhappy if your house burned down because the fire department had to finish their dinner before heading over to put out the blaze. Also, try getting into college if you miss the application deadline.

Usually, deadlines are more flexible and the penalties for missing them are less severe but they do indeed exist. If you miss a client deadline you might lose the client, if you don't pay your bills, eventually the collectors will come for you.

Even without the penalties there's also a matter of respect - not just for the teacher but also for your classmates. Putting aside the legit reasons for missing deadlines, some students will indeed either be lazy on not focused or might just be taking advantage of a more lenient teacher. This student is then given more attention from the teacher - since teacher time is limited, that's going to be at the expense of the other students - not fair and not cool. If the reason for missing a deadline is legit, then no problem but as we all know there are plenty of people who'll take advantage of any system that lets them.

Another big reason for deadlines that's never talked about is that many students want and/or need them. Over my 30+ years as a teacher, I've tried strict deadlines, no deadlines and everything in between. I can't tell you how many students have told me that they needed deadlines to keep them on task and in fact, deadlines with internal targets to meet helped even more.

Finally, one has to consider the teachers workload and schedule. It's time to drop the "hero teacher" bit. Teachers should have a work life balance and that means not being available to handle student issues 24/7. I hate grading and it takes me a lot of time and effort. When I grade, I set up my systems to be efficient and I get into a grading groove. If a student hands in something late, even with a good reason, it breaks my flow and takes me much longer and also ties me up in other ways. Sure, if I taught at an "elite" private school and only had a dozen kids in a class I could make all sorts of accommodations but when you teach 5 of 34 every day somethings got to give. The teacher also has their own deadlines - students must know this or that before the AP or standardized test and of course the big deadline - getting those grades in.

What do I do?

So, where do I ultimately fall on this? I do believe in deadlines but I believe in some flexibility. I also like to have enough information on my students so that by the end of the term I can assess them even if one or two things are missing.

Are my deadlines hard? Not really - anyone can ask for an extension but my two requirements are:

  1. They have to have shown that up to the request they've tried to make some headway on the project. This is easy since I use Git and GitHub so I can just log at their logs.
  2. They speak to me about the extension before the deadline and by this I mean as soon as there might be an issue, not the evening before the project is due. I encourage them to speak to me even if they think there might be an issue to get my okay and then, more often than not, they don't use the extension.

Some teachers don't like the fact that I require that the student actually talk to me about an extension and that they do it in what I consider a timely manner but I think at some point the students must advocate for themselves.

So, how does it work for my classes? I think pretty well. I'll take almost any reason - sickness, family event, lots of other things due, something's unclear or almost anything else. We discuss it and come up with a fair extension. I usually ask "what do you need" in terms of time, resources, and in some cases help and then I try to give that plus a cushion.

So, what do you think? Are you part of the no deadline crowd? What am I missing? Got other strategies and techniques? Let's hear them as well.

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