A farewell to deadlines

A farewell to deadlines

I haven't yet posted a complete rundown of what I call specs grading iteration 4 -- the version of specifications grading that I am using in my classes this semester, the fourth semester after first rolling that system out last year. That would be more like an e-book than a post. So I am posting in bits and pieces. In this post I wanted to focus on an aspect of my assignments in my discrete structures course that is connected to the grading system: Namely, how I am handling deadlines for significant, untimed student work.

How I am handling deadlines is that I eliminated them.

Students in the class do three major kinds of work: timed assessments on learning targets, which are done in class; course management items that include guided practice assignments and weekly syllabus quizzes; and what we call miniprojects, which are like homework assignments targeted at applications of basic content to new problems. The miniprojects are what this no-deadline policy targets.

Miniprojects are significant assignments that are challenging in nature, graded using the EMRF rubric. Students are allowed to revise work that isn't "passing" (E or M grades) as well as to attempt to push "M" work up to "E" level. In fact students should expect to have to revise their work on these since an "M" is not always easy to get. I am planning on writing 10-12 of these for the semester and students have to pass 8 of them, including at least 2 "E" grades, to get an "A" in the course. (The full grading system is here in the syllabus starting on page 5.)

I used to have hard deadlines on these. In fact the first two this semester I assigned had hard deadlines. Students could spend a token to get a 24-hour extension on that deadline (and up to three tokens to get up to 72 hours of extension) but those deadlines were fixed. About two weeks into the semester, however, I decided that deadlines were not in harmony with the spirit of specs grading. More on this below. So I replaced the deadline policy with this:

  1. Students are allowed to submit up to two miniproject-related submissions per week (= Monday through Sunday). This can be two first submissions, a first submission and a revision, or two revisions. Their choice.
  2. No submissions are accepted past 11:59pm EST on Friday, April 22 (the last day of classes).

I'm calling this the quota/single deadline system. Students get the freedom to choose what they submit on a weekly basis; and they cannot put it all off until the end of the semester because they can only submit up to two items a week, and there is a fixed no-exceptions single deadline for the whole semester.

Why did I do away with fixed deadlines and replace them with this?

  1. I don't think it's true that having to work with fixed deadlines on every assignment promotes the kind of behavior some people think it promotes. I've often heard the line that having to work with deadlines prepares you for the working world. After being in the working world for 20+ years, I think the value of deadlines as a means of personal growth is vastly overrated. When I look at my own work, the majority of the tasks that I need to do -- and I have hundreds of them at any given moment -- either have no deadlines at all, or the deadlines are self-imposed or can be re-negotiated if needed. And somehow, I learned to be a responsible adult anyway. I tend to think that this happened not because I was compliant, but because I had freedom to choose my work within reasonable guidelines. I changed the deadline structure on these assignments in my class because I want students to experience how cool and empowering it is to be invested in one's own work for a class, just like I learned it, by being given some freedom to study what they want and do it on something resembling their own schedule.
  2. I also disagree with the notion that having to work with deadlines teaches responsibility and self-motivation. If I complete a task against my will because there is a deadline attached, that might be considered "being responsible" but it is most certainly not being "self-motivated". It's sort of the opposite of being self-motivated, specifically being extrinsically motivated. Self-motivation -- or more importantly, self-regulation -- requires some kind of individual agency and a sense of self-efficacy. Getting the work done needs to be the student's idea.
  3. I also came to realize that most of the complaints that I was getting from students -- and I get several of them every time the semester starts -- had nothing to do with the class but rather were expressions of frustration and stress that were amplified by the presence of deadlines. Sometimes putting boundaries around tasks creates some productive energy. I do this myself sometimes by self-imposing deadlines on projects that have gotten stuck in neutral. But other times -- quite often, when you're a student working two jobs and commuting an hour to and from campus and carrying 16-18 credits of courses -- deadlines just cause stress that is completely _un_productive.
  4. Finally I realized that having fixed deadlines on the assignments goes against the flipped learning design that I employ in the class. According to the "F" in the four pillars of FLIP, a good flipped learning environment is a flexible learning environment in a number of senses, including the flexibility to choose what and how and when you learn something if you're a student, within reason and within the instructors framework for the course. Additionally the whole point of having specs grading is to give students choices on when and how they are assessed, and fixed deadlines don't work in harmony with that idea.

So far the results have been great. Far from procrastinating, students have been very productive. I've been getting about 30-40 submissions a week from 60 students total. Many of them do the math and realize that they need to maintain forward motion on getting things done so as not to wind up in an untenable position at the end. Also, since no single miniproject is required -- they just have to pick from among the ones that are posted -- the students' investment and energy level on these has really improved. (They still have to pass a sequence of timed assessments on the core learning targets of the course, so there's no worry that by not choosing a particular miniproject that they'll miss out on demonstrating mastery on something.) I also have stopped getting those panicky emails at 11:58pm about SageMath Cloud or Blackboard not working. Everybody's stress level has dropped.

So the freedom they get to choose their work and their work schedule has made them exactly what deadlines did not make them: happy, productive, and interested in the material. Maybe deadlines are necessary on some level but I would caution against giving them too much credit for students' development.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.