Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Working without deadlines?

Doubtless my previous posts have made clear my general antipathy toward what I think of as the grading beast: the unstoppable need to have students do tasks that we professors then evaluate. The main reasons for said antipathy is that the grading beast is mostly about pronouncing judgments (with all the potential for animosity that carries) rather than the collaboration and inquiry that actually help students learn.

With that in mind, I came across this 'no deadlines' idea recently and have thought about trying it on a very limited basis. I'd be curious to know other people's reactions to this experiment:

In a class with three short papers and a longer writing project, a professor crafted a “no deadlines” policy. He provided some suggested early deadlines, but students could turn in any of the papers at any time, up to the final exam date.

The catch was this:

  • Papers that were turned in by the suggested early dates received extensive commentary and could be rewritten without penalty. Students could essentially work for any grade they wanted if they got on the job and handed things in.
  • Papers that were turned in before the final week of the term were not eligible for rewrites and re-grading, but the professor would comment on them and make suggestions for future work.
  • Papers received during or after the last week of the term received only a grade – no comments, no suggestions, no rewrites. Grades could not be appealed.

The professor found that his grading load during the term was better distributed; he received a few papers at a time that he could easily attend to. He did receive a load of papers at the end of term, but because he was merely grading without commentary, the workload was significantly lower at that time as well.

After a few terms of doing this, he found that about half the students took the rewrite option on at least one paper. Only about 10% of the students completed all their work in time to rewrite, and of course these were students who did not need much reworking anyway. A few “trait,” or habitual, procrastinators turned everything in at the last minute and took their chances.

Student feedback, he discovered, was mostly positive. Students appreciated the flexibility to plan their own work and the implied trust that he placed in them to manage their own schedules and lives. A few students, though, really wanted deadlines.


  1. I've been using a very similar policy for a few years now with my Grade 12 High School Philosophy Class. Because none of them have written philosophy papers before their first few tries always need to be rewritten.

    My policy:
    -If it is in on time I will make extensive comments and you will be able to rewrite based on my feedback

    -If it is late ( 1day or 2 months) you will not loose any marks (rare for high school), but you will not receive any comments either, nor will you be able to rewrite.

    Overall my marking load is about the same, but I am able to concentrate my time on the students who actually want to have feedback. It also makes marking the late papers a breeze. I often mark a few while walking to pick up lunch.

  2. I'm tempted by this sort of policy, but I'm not sure the temptation is for the right reasons. I suspect the reason I'm tempted is because the policy will help me, not because it will help the students. Or at least, it won't help most of them.

    The posting adds (after the end of the text you quote) that one shouldn't try this with students fresh from high school. Good advice. Perhaps worth trying with upper-level students though. I do get very tired of reminding such students that they have to do their essays, when they absolutely ought to be organizing these things for themselves. If I were to do it (and I may do so), I'd probably drill the system into their heads by having them read and sign some sort of agreement on the first day of class. (At the very least, this would give me something I could show at the end of the semester to those who came to me pleading that they hadn't realized how strict the consequences of procrastinating would be.)

  3. I'm also somewhat tempted, but for the wrong reasons. I worry that most students will learn less this way than they would under a "normal" policy. The professional procrastinators might learn less this way than with a deadlines-but-no-comments policy, since they'll do all their papers at once.

    I did once meet a professor who has long offered a successful "self-paced" logic course. I don't remember all the details, but students could come in once a week and take any of the semester's tests that they wanted. Once they finished all the tests, they were done with the course. Some students finished in six weeks; some took the whole semester.

  4. I think it's a great idea. Sure, I understand the issue about being motivated by the wrong things. But for me it comes down to the question: does the student benefit?

    Some students (or many!) will turn in their work last minute, and get no comments. I don't think this is harmful to them IF we are very clear to them that this is detrimental to their education. In other words, although they are not learning in the way we'd like, they are learning something. They are learning that their education is in their own hands, that their choices have consequences, and that we are there to help them, not to pester them. I think this is a net plus, because if you force them to learn not much will happen anyway.

    I also think many students greatly appreciate greater autonomy. I'm intrigued by David's comment about the Logic course, actually, because that's exactly how I teach mine. I wonder if the course he's referring to is the one I TAd for in grad school under Clark at UConn. Although I don't allow students pure self-pace (they can't finish in 6 weeks) they can take unit exams numerous times, and can reasonably set their own pace through the class. Of course, they can also not show up, take one test per unit, and rob themselves of those benefits. What I've found is that of the students who take advantage (60% or so), they LOVE it. What I've also found is that the remaining students, who mostly due badly in the course, always take full responsibility for their own failures. Which I think is important in today's student world of "it's always someone else's fault when I fail."

  5. Chris,

    Yes, I was referring to Clark's course at UConn.

    As for the no-deadlines approach, I'm still uneasy with a course policy that results in many students learning less of the course material than they would under other policies. Teaching them responsibility is great, but it's not what we're paid to teach, not what students signed up to learn, and not what I went into philosophy to do.

    Might there be an alternative that teaches them responsibility without sacrificing so much of the other learning objectives for the course? What about periodic, flexible deadlines (e.g., between October 1 and October 15) with a cut-off for rewrites (Oct. 1) and a cut-off for comments (Oct. 8)? This, at least, would spread the procrastinators' work throughout the semester, meaning they're likely to spend a little more time on each paper.

  6. David,

    What a small world (Clark)!

    On one level, I agree with you -- I didn't go into this business to teach people responsibility. That said, it's not like I'm drafting lesson plans on it. As well, I would argue that, for me anyway, I'm not terribly interested in force-feeding students content either. That's not why I went into teaching either. If a student doesn't want to learn, then it's not my job to make them learn. It's their (or their parent's) money.

    I must admit I like approaches that put the possibility for learning into the student's hand. You are always there, willing to teach that content. Most will take advantage (as I noted about self-paced logic -- 60% love it, show up every day, etc). But some won't. I guess the longer I teach the more I wonder why I should employ pedagogical methods that force the remaining students to do what they don't want to do (recalling my earlier post about selling donuts). At the very least, students should learn that it's up to them, and that we're there to help them if they choose to learn.

    That said, your middle-way approach seems totally reasonable to me as a way to accomplish those goals.

  7. Fair enough, Chris. I think I'm a bit more willing than you are to force students to eat the donuts, as you put it. Sometimes I think that one of my roles is that of intellectual personal trainer: I can't do the exercise for you, but I can motivate you (one way or another) to do it, even when you'd rather not. It's not as much fun for either of us if you're not interested, but it can still be done. At other times I think that attitude is far too paternalistic.


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