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I recently started teaching activities in an American institution.

I have had a couple of students asking for extensions for problem sets / project deadlines for medical or family reasons, which is obviously acceptable. More unexpectedly, other students asked for extensions because they also had problem sets, quizzes and projects due for other classes during the same period (end of semester). Note that there is a buffer period between classes and exams, so we are not talking about conflicts with finals here.

I studied in a different country, in a notoriously work-intensive institution, so the idea that having homework for class X would somehow be an excuse to turn in homework late for class Y simply never occurred to me. I feel that no class should have priority over other classes - if it was the case, differences in credits would reflect that (my class is not a "small one" with little credit). Yes, sometimes students have a lot of work - but is it not part of real life too? On the other hand, the fact that students made these requests so openly makes me think that it might be normal here in the US, and I wouldn't want to be more strict than the local standards.

Is there any kind of norm regarding what is considered as an acceptable reason to ask for an extension?

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    Do you give deadlines far enough in the future that students should be able to plan around them? – Anyon Dec 5 '18 at 15:04
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    "is it not part of real life too?" - Although I'm in academia still which you can argue might not be real life :), I run into situations in my work where I am juggling multiple projects all the time. Sure, sometimes it's appropriate to stay at work late nights to get a project done, especially when there is a fixed external deadline (grant deadline, conference date); other times it's just as appropriate to talk to my boss(es), let them know what's on my plate, and either outline a revised schedule or ask for priorities. In the real world it isn't inappropriate to ask. – Bryan Krause Dec 5 '18 at 19:01
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    If you don't want to given an extension then don't. This sounds like more of a respect problem with students testing how much they can push you for. I give out a lot of extensions (with grade penalty) but it doesn't work out particularly great in many cases. The worst students quickly find the new level they can sink to and continue pushing downward from there. – A Simple Algorithm Dec 5 '18 at 20:42
  • @Anyon I think they have enough time; the majority of the students turn in their work on time and do a really good job, so it's clearly not an impossible task. Maybe those who can't do that have more work, but then I think it's a matter of how well they manage their time (submission dates are announced in the schedule on the first day of class) – Mowgli Dec 5 '18 at 23:24
  • @BryanKrause - True, there's "hard" and "softer" deadlines in life; I guess it's a matter of deciding in which category class deadlines belong. As you probably guessed, I'm more of the opinion that academic deadlines are not as flexible as work deadlines; the semester is only that long, and I think assignments should be completed early to improve learning. I think work schedules are inherently more flexible in research than in other professional contexts – Mowgli Dec 5 '18 at 23:32
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The short answer is that opinions on granting extensions vary between institutions and even departments. Some universities view extensions as a way to support student learning. They argue that they want students to be able to get the most out of each assignment and so when the student completes the work is less important than that they do eventually complete it and are able to focus their full attention on it.

Other universities hold the same perspective that you do, that learning to manage deadlines is an important piece of being a student, and that allowing for extensions whenever asked is doing a disservice to students.

The chair of your department or even the other faculty should be able to give you insight on expectations that you should follow and on what is customary. I strongly recommend that you talk to them, since they know your students.

Another option is to pre-emptively institute a limited extension system for all students. The mathematics and computer science courses at my undergraduate college used this tactic to great success. On the first day of the semester, the professor told the students that each of them had a certain number of "late days" (usually 4 for a class with weekly assignments), which would grant a student 24 hours of automatic extension. These could be used at any time on any assignment except for group work or exams. Students did not need to provide a reason for using a late day, although they did need to inform the professor/a TA that they were. There was usually a form online for students to fill out. Students could use them as they wanted- all at once or one at a time. Some professors gave small amounts of extra credit for having late days remaining at the end of the semester, and some allowed students to earn extra late days throughout the semester by doing extra credit work, handing in assignments significantly early, or going to relevant talks, etc.

The benefit of a system like late days is that most students will feel less stressed and more in control of their own time. It thus enables you, as the professor, to hold a quite strict "no other extensions unless absolute emergency" policy. It was well understood that if a student used up all of their late days early on and then got minorly sick or had a job interview or had something else come up, that was just too bad. They would turn in what they had. Further extensions were typically only granted if the student or a family member was in the hospital or if they had formal accommodations through the college itself.

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Asking if there is a norm for what is “acceptable” assumes that students care about such norms, but sadly some don’t, and will always try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is up to you to set limits, and this is not especially difficult, and certainly not considered unreasonable in the (U.S., large public university) environment I am familiar with.

I suggest that the next time you start teaching a new class, you include a statement in your course syllabus saying “Deadline extensions for course assignments will not be given except in exceptional, justifiable circumstances”, or something to that effect. Then if students ask, all you need to do is point them to the policy. Problem solved.

As for this semester, assuming you have not had such a written policy that students were expected to have read, it might be reasonable to be a bit more merciful if you are so inclined. But you would still be perfectly within your rights and common sense not to give extensions even then.

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Some American students, as members of an individual-oriented consumer culture and economy, will push to get away with as much as they possibly can, in any circumstance, without bounds. The "completion agenda" has given the signal for years that institutions will do everything in their power to guarantee graduation and certification. Especially if students detect that you are unsure or less than confident, they will attempt to get away with more. The US is generally a dog-eat-dog environment.

I sympathize entirely; my first semester had all kinds of missteps on my part like this. The best bet is always say a very clear, confident "No" to any request that you have any doubts about. Maybe say "No" to the first public request no matter the validity to set the tone that you have that in your vocabulary. (E.g.: Once a student asked me, "Can I do X?", and I responded, "Okay, remember, X is prohibited by the syllabus page two...". So she did X anyway and later challenged the penalty mark by saying "But when I asked you said 'okay'!").

Whenever this topic gets brought up, many commenters want to frame it as a debate between (a) good to teach students responsibility vs. (b) good to give students flexibility to learn at any pace. This tends to leave out (c) necessary for the instructor to budget their limited time. Presumably you have some time set aside for grading and assessment and then need to move on to other tasks. (And also (d) good to give speedy feedback on assignments back to the class as a whole.) There's no reason why you should sacrifice your productivity for late student work. They will ask, and there's nothing you can do to stop that. Just say "No".

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Some institutions / courses build an "assessment schedule" prior to the semester starting so that the load on the students for any 1 week can be seen.

Then, assessments can be moved slightly so conflicts can be reduced / avoided. This means that the excuse assignment X conflicts with assignment Y is no longer relevant.

The medical / family excuse is always possible, but asking for evidence can reduce that. One of my professors told me that she had one student (this was in France) that he had to go back to the UK for his grandmother's funeral so would miss class and two exams. Unluckily for him, she was on the same bus to the UK/ France rugby match with him, cue difficult conversation... :)

  • We do have such a schedule. But we have dozens of students, all with different classes; moving the assignment would create as many problems as it would solve. But my question is actually (if I were to formulate it in a very "direct" way): "why should the instructor care?" ie. is it the instructor's responsibility if students chose too many classes / are unable to manage their time correctly? – Mowgli Dec 5 '18 at 7:03
  • If that is your question, it is not at all clear in the original... The case for students choosing too many courses is very particular... – Solar Mike Dec 5 '18 at 7:15
  • @Mowgli What are your goals as an instructor? To make sure your students leave your course with certain knowledge they didn't have before? To identify students that understand the best using grades? To test students' time management abilities? To minimize interference with your other priorities? To make sure students prioritize your course over others? To get good instructor evaluations to put towards promotion/tenure/department good will? Likely some weighted combination of these and others? – Bryan Krause Dec 5 '18 at 19:11
  • @SolarMike: I agree with Mowgli, this seems infeasible. He didn't say "students choosing too many courses", he said there's great variation between different students in a given cohort. This is completely common in the U.S. – Daniel R. Collins Dec 6 '18 at 6:16
  • I did say, which seems to have been missed, moving the assignments PRIOR to the course starting. Also, Mowgli’s exact words are “if students chose too many classes”... – Solar Mike Dec 6 '18 at 6:26
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I would recommend against the practice in general, but with a variation. It is good to tell students at the beginning what happens if deadlines are missed and to stick to those rules except for emergency situations.

You can certainly publish in your course materials the consequences of being late. My own practice would suggest about a 5% (half a grade) penalty for missing the deadline with a limit on how late it can be and still be accepted.

One thing you want to guard against is those few students who want to be late so as to get some feedback from peers before completing their assignment. The penalty will help with this, but also will make the consequences clear.

Some folks even give a small bonus for early completion. This helps get some students moving earlier, which is good for them in general.

Another possible solution is to permit re-work and regrading after the deadline with the rules stating that only a portion of the points lost initially can be regained. This means that some students will submit incomplete work on the deadline and use the feedback you give to improve the work. This can be very helpful to some students and works well if the number of students isn't too big. It isn't as hard to do for the instructor if students doing re-work turn in the old with it (in a folder) so that it is easy to see why points were lost. For some courses, such as computer programming, having the students also mark their changes in the new work makes regrading very quick and easy.

But, whatever your rules, publish them and make them clear at the start of the course. In particular, don't assume that the very strict rules you grew up with are understood generally, or even that they are the best rules. Think about your teaching goals and how to accomplish them.

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