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Flexible Deadlines Are Awesome

Since I started experimenting with penalty-free flexible deadlines, which was shortly before the pandemic (good timing on that one!), the regular question I’ve gotten was how to avoid the work piling up when students inevitably turn in lots of late work. The answer is actually that the flexible deadlines prevent grading from piling up rather than the other way around.

With traditional deadlines, I open the Canvas app right after a deadline and find the dreaded 99+ on my “to-do” icon. It’s overwhelming. I dread it.

To-do lists that are too long are overwhelming

But with flexible deadlines, I get a trickle of submissions. So far this semester, I’ve been able to end most days with an actual number, usually between 20 and 70, on my to-do notifications on Canvas. That’s despite teaching an overload this semester, so that I have up to 125 students (slightly less per usual attrition rates at the start of the semester).

I’m still working on getting it right. Those of you who have been around this blog space for a while will recognize my semesterly battle with deadline policies, incorporating inclusive pedagogies, and managing the grading pile to a point that it doesn’t overwhelm me.

I think this semester I’ve done something right, although it’s still too early to call.

This semester, I’m letting Canvas enforce my deadlines for me, but in class I’m reminding students regularly that there’s no late penalty, but there is a natural consequence of getting feedback later when you submit later. This results in most students submitting in a bell curve around the deadline.

Apart from letting the work trickle in, I’ve also built in lab time in every class section. That lab time gives students a chance to work on their projects immediately after discussing some concept that might help them with the work and in an environment where they can ask me or a classmate. It’s a great pedagogical device, offering “just in time” delivery of content and in vivo practice for writing with on-demand assistance. However, while there are some days when I’m running around from student to student like a baseball player hitting bases, most of the time I get a decent chunk of time to also be working alongside them. That means that while they’re working on something, I’m commenting on something. It’s a constant churn of writing and feedback between us.

Just like having the dedicated writing time helps them with task management, having the dedicated time is helping me with task management. We’re managing together.

I don’t like working on the big projects while in the classroom for privacy, efficiency, and workspace reasons. But I can clear the little daily tidbits in that time and spend my focused time in the office or at home working on the big stuff.

By having students work in class, I get to intervene directly in their composing process as needed, but I also get a break to communicate in other ways.

But I think regarding the deadlines, I’ve finally struck the balance I was looking for. This is, in part, because I had a deep discussion with my classes about the philosophy and function of deadlines and how they play a role in the classroom and outside the classroom. I explained to them why my deadlines are flexible when other deadlines might not be. We talked about how deadlines help us manage our time, but they also help us collaborate with other people, and how I’m a collaborator with them. I explained that I simply cannot read over a hundred on-time writing assignments in a day, so why should they all need to be submitted at the same time?

This is reinforced by students asking for “extensions” when things come up for which they might reasonably need a bit more time: illness, family matters, extra-curricular involvement, work schedules, etc. In those times, I can simply remind them that it’s no inconvenience to me, that they are in charge of their own schedules and priorities, and that my syllabus is flexible in this matter, so they are free to prioritize things that are not flexible.

I don’t need to train my students to be punctual or respect deadlines. They already came to me with that skill. My task is to train them to be compassionate with themselves, show initiative in planning projects, and to take agency in their own schedules. And my task is to manage my workload so it doesn’t overwhelm or paralyze me. So far, flexible deadlines are helping with those goals.

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