Due diligence

Is it wrong to pretend deadlines matter when they don’t?


Over my twenty-something years associated with universities, I have come to terms with a lot of things. I know how I like to teach and how to talk to students in my office. I have personal policies about electronic devices and when a personal touch is too personal. Yes, years after tenure, I pretty much have this professor thing figured out.

But I still haven’t found a way to handle due dates for assignments.

You would think it would be simple. Set a date and expect students to hand it in on that date. But what if the student gets sick or her mom dies or what if the student just didn’t bother and is willing to make up a story to get an extension? In short, in addition to the due date, you need a policy for extensions. For a while I had a policy borrowed from one of my own undergraduate classes which said you could have an extension if you requested it in writing and in advance. One year I tried giving two dates, one that was the official due date and one a week later that was the extended due date — in other words, I gave everyone an extension in advance on everything.

Sadly, whatever your policy on extensions, some will always try to get you to make an exception. Instead of asking in advance, they ask you the day of or the day after. Instead of taking the extra week as an extension, they think of the extended date as the real due date and then want an extension on that. And so it goes. At some point you always end up in an awkward conversation with a student (very awkward if the student is crying) and trying to figure out if he is telling the truth or not and if the allowance you are making for him is equivalent to what you allowed to someone else. And what if you have already said no to someone else?

And this is to say nothing about late papers. What happens when the student simply hands it in after the due date? Do you refuse to accept it? Or dock so many marks per day? How many? Do weekends count? Is there a maximum?

The whole thing is a nightmare.

The last few years, I abandoned due dates altogether. I simply indicated how many assignments were to be done and reminded my students (ad nauseum) that they needed to plan ahead to make sure they got them all done by the end of the course. This arrangement has the benefit, for me, of not having to deal with the issues related above.  I don’t have to entertain requests for extensions because there is no due date to be extended. Hand it in when it’s done.

By the same token, no due dates means no paper is ever late. So there are no late marks to worry about. Simple, elegant, and, best of all, great for students who (in theory) are free to work on my papers when they have time according to their own particular schedules. There’s just one problem with not having due dates.

Students don’t hand anything in.

As far as I can tell, without a specific deadline hanging over the heads of our young Damocleses, students, for the most part, simply put off doing the papers at all until its too late. I have precisely one student this year (in all my courses) who has kept up to the expected pace on paper writing in the absence of due dates. I have one course where the grand total of all papers handed in over the whole year is exactly one. Since September.

In a sense, the problem lies not with the students, but with every other professor in the university besides me. If other professors adopted my beautiful system, it would work for everyone. But since everyone else uses old-fashioned due dates, everyone else’s paper seems more pressing than mine. My students reason that they can always push mine off another week because mine can be handed in any time, but their paper for Professor Urgent is due tomorrow.

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to convince everyone to change their policies for my sake. So, what am I to do? Go back to the old system of due dates, extensions, and late marks? Never! I have a plan, but I’m unsure about it since I think it might be evil.

Here’s the idea: I set out my course outline with due dates as normal but do not include anything in the syllabus about extensions or late penalties. I am simply silent on that point. But in my mind I already know that students will assume there is some penalty for a late paper or that late papers might not be accepted. But their assumption will actually be wrong, because in my mind, I will have already decided that I will give any student any extension they want without penalty. And I will accept papers late without penalty. I just don’t tell them that. Then, when they come to my office worried that I will not accept their late paper or refuse an extension, I can be all magnanimous and say, “Oh, I understand. A dead gerbil can be very trying. When do you think you can have it in? Monday? Great.”

The student will think that I have been kind and generous and understanding. They will think I treated them as a person (which supposedly students like) when really I was going to give them whatever they asked for anyhow.

I feel a bit bad about this plan because it seems deceitful in a way. For one thing, there would be a policy in force that is not stated on the syllabus. On the other hand, the policy would still be applied equally, or at least, equally to everyone who asks.  Still, I worry that more diligent students might feel hard done by if they knew that others were getting extensions that they didn’t know were even an option. But then, as far as I can tell, even good students need to have a deadline, so maybe my lie by omission would be doing everyone a favour.


Due diligence

  1. At the beginning of each school semester I type out a list, in chronological order of everything I need to complete/be responsible for (tests, assignments, papers, discussion postings, readings, etc). It takes me awhile to compile everything, but it is totally worth it.

    I also keep a dry erase calendar and put this information on the calendar as I go through each month.

    It works, it feels good to cross something off the list, and see semester’s progress unfold.

    I always laugh when my peers say they have yet to start their paper (when it is due the next day). It makes me wonder what they have been doing the last, 30, 60, 90 days?

  2. I think your idea is interesting, but something really bothers me about it.

    I find it very frustrating when I work really hard, for many hours, giving up various social activities, to finish a paper on time. Then the next day, a fellow student asks for an extension for a trivial reason and they get it without penalty. I kind of feel that if I pushed myself to submit it as is, with all my work and other real-world commitments, it’s not right for others to get away by doing the opposite.

    Of course if a parent dies or whatever, it’s understandable. However, my gerbil died (haha), or I had 5 billion essays that somehow managed to be due for Professors Urgent, Pressing and NoExtensions on the same day, does not seem right to those that make the effort.

    Also, as an aside, I know the way I work. I would be one of many who would postpone all my work indefinitely with your current policy. Having set due dates, and penalties for being late, is the only proper way to work. Besides, it teaches us students the importance of keeping a commitment and that in real-world jobs you can’t just ask to submit a report late, when the board meeting is today, because your hamster had kids.

  3. Very great idea. I find it would be helpful, and self serving to do this on my own. I also like another poster find it helpful to benchmark my own success off of completing things on a timely basis. I would provide a little bit of advice. I find that professors who give marking ruberics, and who don’t focus so much on APA / MLA so much and more marks allotted to the content have a much better response from student as well.

    Thank you for being fair, honest, and genuine with us students, I only hoped I had someone like you in my stream, just to be able to say that I felt like an adult, and knew that my priorities were mine to be made, and gave me the benefit of the doubt to be responsible to get it done on time.


    Every student who should be able to things on their own.

  4. Question – what’s to stop your students from reading this proposal online?

    • Dan, I thought of that, but then it occurred to me that my students cannot be made to read even what’s required. I doubt they will go looking for more reading online. Even so, good for them for doing extra research!

  5. I agree with R.’s statement that having a deadline “teaches … students the importance of keeping a commitment,” which is a real-world skill that most undergrads have not yet mastered. That goes double for time management, so when students come to me at the 11th hour, confessing they haven’t written a word yet, I have to hope they’re learning a valuable lesson, even as their grades suffer.

    I impose a consistent penalty for late assignments (-2% per day). When students approach me to request extensions, I try to consider how their explanations/excuses would be received in a professional setting. There aren’t many excuses that hold much water; personal illness or death in the family are about the only winners.

  6. @ R. I respectfully disagree on the point of the policy not teaching students to work to a deadline and honor a committment. I also feel this skill is vital in the workplace, however, I believe the policy teaches it in a better way. It teaches students to set their own deadlines and work towards that. This, in my experience, is a skill far more important then relying on a manager or supervisor to set the deadline. The reason? In my experience, most managers (unless you happen to have a job that is severely micro managed) will not create those deadlines for you. The deadlines they set tend to be much looser and depend more so on upper bureaucratic happenings that almost always take longer then the original deadlines anyway. Furthermore, a significant portion of jobs do not have the same strict structure as a university education generally dictates. This policy is going one step beyond teaching students to work to a deadline. Its teaching them to create their own struture in the workplace, which has proved to be a far more valuable skill in my career thus far.

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