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Missed Deadlines and Due Dates

For Those Who Teach

Missed Deadlines and Due Dates

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Some students are habitual offenders while others never miss a deadline. So, what’s the best way to deal with late assignments, missed exams, and other deadline delinquencies? A tough hardnosed policy with consequences or something a bit more responsive to busy schedules and complicated lives?

The answer largely depends on what we want student to learn. Those of us who set deadlines and hold students to them do so with their professional destinations in mind. In many jobs, probably closer to most, work is scheduled around deadlines and employees are expected to meet them. Failure to do so results in harsh consequences and little forgiveness. Students should get a taste of that in college.

The problem with a really tough stance on deadlines is there are certain circumstances students cannot control. One of my worst teaching moments happened when a student arrived at my office and announced he was going to miss the upcoming exam. I wasn’t paying attention, fussing around with stuff on my desk. I firmly delivered the usual message: “No make-up exams. You’ve known the exam dates since the first day of class.” The student didn’t respond. I looked up and he was on the verge of tears. “I have to go to my Dad’s funeral.” I felt sick.

That’s an easy example that justifies an exception. Most requests aren’t that clear cut. Students tell us long stories that include poor planning, unanticipated problems, apologies, and pleading. Or, it’s a student who’s trying but still doesn’t quite have it all together. And news of exceptions granted travels quickly. Give one and get more requests. Say yes to some and no to others and find yourself needing Solomon’s wisdom.

I’ve seen policies that allow students to apply for an extension, usually only one and the application must be submitted before the due date rather than after it. That accommodates some unforeseen circumstances at the same time it requires forethought and planning. In some policies, the student proposes a new deadline which the faculty member must approve or there’s a faculty designated extension due date.

What if the student admits that the paper is taking longer than expected, owns the problem with time management but really wants to do good work on the paper? “Three more days and I’ll be able to turn in a paper I can be proud of,” she promises. Assuming the student is being honest (sometimes a stretch, I know), now it’s a decision between whether it’s more important to meet a deadline vs. have the opportunity for more learning. That’s a tough one. I had a colleague who let students revise any paper as many times as they liked so long as each revision earned a higher grade. That’s a policy that prizes improvement over promptness. He said that a few students did turn in junk on the due date thereby using the policy to get an extension. What convinced him of its merits, however, were the few C students who ended up rewriting their way to A papers. Maybe that’s a good approach to take with the first paper in a course or the one with the lowest grade.

As a culture, our response to deadlines is mixed. It’s not all that hard to get an extension from the IRS. Our DMW has a designated line for those with expired driver’s licenses. On the other hand, credit card companies don’t take interest charges off, even for good excuses. But deadlines at most of our institutions are pretty flexible. How many faculty committees get their reports submitted on time?

I can see merit in letting students set their own deadlines. Policies can define a middle ground. They set a time window. If the goal is giving students practice meeting deadlines, let them designate their due date within that time window and propose a consequence if they turn it in late. This gives students the chance to work around assignment and exam schedules in their other classes and it helps develop time management skills.

We have the opportunity to teach students a variety of things in our courses, some of them unrelated to the content. It gets interesting when learning the content bumps up against learning a skill (like meeting deadlines and staying organized). Do we give students a make-up exam because exams make it likely they’ll learn at least some of the content or do we say no in the hopes they learn that a failure to meet one’s obligations has consequences?

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