Update: Due Week Results

Before the semester began, I wrote about my resolution to improve response times on student work by assigning due weeks and having students sign up for their due dates within the weeks, rather than having a set due date for the entire class. Last week I wrote about building revision into the syllabus, which was part of this experiment. I am now finishing up the second volley of assignments under this policy, so I’m able to draw a few conclusions and observations about it.

This is sort of what grading looks like, really. I run a paperless classroom after all.
Image by Alejandro Escamilla via StockSnap

Overall, I think the policy is a success, and I’ll be happy to implement it again. It’s had some unexpected results, and for the most part, the gains from these unexpected results make the policy well worth its disadvantages.

As a reminder, the policy consists of two things:

  1. Students choose their due dates within a range of a week, but only a limited number of students may register for any given day in that week.
  2. Students may submit a revision with a short reflection within a week of receiving feedback, and the grade on the revision entirely replaces the grade on the original assignment.

To review, here is the verbatim policy as written into the syllabus:

Due Dates
Reading quizzes will be due at a certain time, and grade automatically. You may, however, take reading quizzes at your convenience, and you may retake them.
For all major assignments, you will select a due date during the “due week”. This will be done via a Google Doc link. Up to five students may select each day during the week; this will be done on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Because of the self-selected nature of due dates in this course, late work will not be accepted. I reserve the right to make exceptions at my discretion.
Revision Policy
You may revise any major assignment that earns less a B or lower in order to have the revised version regraded. To revise, you must notify Dr. Cox in writing of your intention to revise and submit your revised assignment along with a short (1 page, double spaced) reflection on what choices you made in the revision process and why. This must all be submitted within 1 week of receiving your original assignment feedback and grade, unless you make alternate arrangements with Dr. Cox. Dr. Cox will then re-grade the revised assignment, and the new grade will replace the original assignment’s grade.

This is really two policies, but I’m finding that they really have to go hand in hand. If they don’t, then the students at the beginning of the week lose the advantage they get by signing up early. And, as I shall explain here, the policy has the unexpected effect of making students more eager for second chances, apparently.

So here’s a quick pro/con list of what this policy seems to have done to my classes:

Negative EffectsPositive Effects
-Exhausting for instructor
-Competition for later due dates among students
-Challenges in planning class activities during the due week
-Students are more proactive about their schedules
-More office hours visits/drafts submitted for ungraded feedback
-Faster feedback from the student perspective
-More active, deep revisions in response to feedback
-Built in plagiarism solution
-Smaller grading piles, more distributed work load
Table of positive and negative effects of the policies on class

Let’s talk about the first thing I noticed with this policy: I am seeing my students more in my emails or office hours. I honestly didn’t expect this result. I am not at all sure why this is even happening. But this point encompasses a number of things on the table, both good and bad: more contact with students is, as far as achieving quality instruction, a very good thing. It’s also an exhausting thing, so it takes some getting used to. Students are sending me drafts before their due dates more than they ever did before, even though my ungraded feedback policy hasn’t changed at all. Students are dropping in on my office hours more often. Students are asking questions about their grades more–and instead of simply “Why did I get this grade?” it’s become “How do I do the revision?” and I think that’s definitely a win, because while the grade is still the extrinsic motivation, they’re able to do something productive about it that reinforces the pedagogical goals of the course (to learn about writing processes, get better at specific writing skills, etc). This creates more work for me, of course: I am spending more time working with students outside of class, and for many students I’m grading their assignments twice each. But it’s good praxis, really. Students are actively engaged in their writing processes, and recruiting me as an ally in the process, instead of as an adversary to be outsmarted.

In general, at least. I have to admit that there are still some problems coming up that you might expect. I’ve already had to deal with at least one plagiarism case. Of course, I can’t and won’t speak to the specifics of the case here, but I will say that I learned something else unexpected and wonderful about this set of policies in the process: they work excellently as a resolution to academic integrity violations. Mine is a course that teaches students how to do research and handle sources ethically; because of that, I don’t see academic integrity violations as something to be punished, but rather as failures in my own teaching to guide the student sufficiently before they get into a bad situation. Institutional policies can do as they please, but in a course where the goal is to teach students who may not have had to do extensive research before how to handle sources, a punitive approach is simply cruel, punishing students for violating rules they may not have even known they had to follow, much less have understood the finer points of.

However, the revision policy turns out to be a perfect remedy; under this policy, the student can still experience failing the assignment for a violation—a natural and common consequence—but can also not only revise the assignment properly and redeem the grade entirely, but gets a chance to reflect and report on their own choices in the process. This revision policy is the equivalent of having an extra life in a video game; you fail at the task, but you get to try again from right before where you failed, now armed with the knowledge of why you failed before and how to avoid it. Yes, it will still feel very bad, and, yes, forms still need to be filed for any truly serious infraction because rules are rules, but inside the class it’s a safe place to fail, and if you are at an institution that will uphold your own penalties in most cases, it works well. (if you are at an institution with a uniform policy on academic ethics violations, you are in a somewhat different situation and don’t have the same latitude to be gracious)

In addition to the benefits in a more process-focused mindset for students, there is something to be said for the way that the grading queue is somewhat more managed under this policy. It is not the fantasy I had imaged of clearing the grading queue before bed each night; it still builds up. But at no point, even with over a hundred students total (that’s including the extra 3-week seminars I’ve got this semester) has the “to do” number on Canvas hit the dreaded “99+” point where progress seems impossible. However, I have to admit that this hasn’t been quite the peace of mind I expected. The problem is that I’m working on bringing down the number while my students are working to bring it up, and there’s more of them than there are of me. It’s effectively trying to bail out a sinking ship with a leaky bucket, at least during the due week. You can have a great grading session, read through 10 or more papers, only to find when you come out of the SpeedGrader your queue has, in fact, gotten bigger than it was when you started. This is a bit disheartening, and I’ve found I have to make a separate tally of what’s in the queue before I start a grading session in order to prove to myself that I actually did something against the rising tide of papers. A small portable dry erase board has proved to be a life saver on that account.

Meticulous to-do lists are necessary to feel like you’re making progress; the grading pile won’t do it for you.
Image by Suzy Hazelwood via StockSnap

Another unexpected consequence (that I really should have been able to see coming) of the due week policy was that lesson planning for class meetings during the due week is really challenging. I’ve found myself having to plan parallel lessons for half the class, giving students who have earlier due dates one set of activities in class and people with later due dates another set. This is not necessarily a bad thing; just a challenging thing.

But returning to the revision aspect of the policy, while on the topic of things I didn’t expect but should have seen coming, I am finding my students are more actively gaming the policies. This isn’t a bad thing, really—I want students thinking strategically and tactically about their work (that’s part of mastering rhetorical situations!). What I mean here is this: I’ve had a number of students knowingly submit poor, unready work—to the point of even leaving notes to me embedded in the work asking for guidance because they weren’t sure how to finish it—with the express and entirely transparent intention of taking advantage of the revision policy as a way to get a de facto extension on their work.

I don’t mind this at all, actually. As I said, it’s encouraging them to pay attention to feedback and engage in revision in ways I’ve never seen in a FYC classroom before. And I’ve found that I’m taking a similar approach to these due dates, encouraging students to submit and resubmit strategically when they seem stuck.

Moreover, I found that I’m not being particularly worried about late work either. Although as written the policy forbids all late work, in practice I’ve found I just don’t care, and I’m granting forgiveness for late work left and right. As long as not everyone is submitting on Friday all at once, what difference does it make if one or two students need an extension by a day or two? I think if I use the policy again (and I likely will) I’ll revise it to more precisely say that late work is only at the instructor’s discretion, rather than saying that it won’t be accepted.

Finally, I want to speak to the goal of the policy: improving feedback times. Regarding this, I think it actually is working. It hasn’t made my experience of grading sessions much different–it’s still 2-3 weeks of work for me to get through all four sections of my FYC courses every time they have a major assignment. However, from the students’ perspective, the grading times have significantly reduced. For the first paper, no student waited more than two weeks for their feedback; that wasn’t great, I admit, but better than some semesters when the depression or other things have hit and students waited as much as a month. For the second round of assignments, which I’m just finishing up now, I was better prepared for what this policy would do for me, and so no student will have waited more than a week for feedback. That’s a big deal.

I can’t understate how important that is. Sure, I’m exhausted by by the work load (aren’t we all?), and from my view it hasn’t been much different. But I know for a fact it’s different from the students’ viewpoints. In previous semesters, I’ve been worn down with students asking “So, um, when will our papers be graded?” But this semester, I overheard a student saying to another before class “She’s really fast at grading!” “No, I’m not,” I answered, recalling my previous semesters’ student evaluations, which all scored low for timely feedback. But no sooner had my protest escaped my lips than I realized: from their perspective, I was. Not because I’m suddenly better at grading (I’m not), but because I’d given the students more control over their own deadlines.

2 thoughts on “Update: Due Week Results

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