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Traditionally assignments handed in on paper need to be handed in at the same time due to time constraints on the instructor, to prevent plagiarism, to maintain pace since most of the teaching happens through physical lectures and if someone is behind they will miss out etc.

Since a massive chunk of grading is automated nowadays with online access to materials, not to mention practically all teaching being online for the time being, most of the reasons that make assignment deadlines necessary do not apply anymore. After all if someone demonstrates the same learning goals as the next person, what is the difference if they do it a couple weeks later? It's not like the instructor needs to spare extra special treatment time for the student doing it slower for grading or even lectures, it's all asynchronous anyway.

So what is the point of maintaining the practice? Some common arguments I see include "deadlines are part of life, students need to deal with it" or "course design requires so" which are not really arguments if you think about it. Another common one is preventing students from getting too collaborative, which also fails since time constraints do not apply anymore, given the resources and technology and whatnot - people can plagiarize entire job interviews spontaneously these days.

The only big argument that holds any water that I have seen is the issue of students suddenly hitting the end of the semester with massive amounts of work piled up and all the cramming and health issues and stress with that, so it is really for their benefit to impose hard deadlines to avoid that. Paternalism in this aside, that to me seems like more of a consequence of the persisting work philosophy of meeting smaller deadlines with whatever one can put together, rather than meeting learning objectives as completely as possible within a given semester. This in turn causes a great deal of common procrastination that it is offered as a solution for.

So what else am I missing that makes it actually beneficial to set traditional deadlines and penalties even for completely asynchronous classes?

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    What is the online automated grading you are talking about? I’ve seen it for quizzes, but not for things which are a large part of the grade... – Dawn Jul 28 at 0:02
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    There are many false premises here and I've only read half the question. (1) "a massive chunk of grading is automated nowadays" -- skeptical, citation needed. (2) "It's not like the instructor needs to spare extra special treatment time" -- false, there is overhead involved in setting up to grade such that batch-grading makes a big difference. I teach CS. See also: "Context switching can eat up to 80% of your productive time", per CS/psychologist Gerald Weinberg blog.rescuetime.com/context-switching – Daniel R. Collins Jul 28 at 1:27
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    Helps teach “timeliness” many students are so “last minute”... – Solar Mike Jul 28 at 4:13
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    @SolarMike, if anyone is learning timeliness solely from academics, they're doomed :) – Matt Jul 28 at 16:03
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    @VictorS "deadlines are part of life, students need to deal with it" I think this a better argument than you are giving it credit. The time it takes to do something has a bearing on whether you have really demonstrated that you learned the material. If it takes you two months to write a program that the instructor expects to take two weeks, you haven't reached the expected level of mastery yet. – Tyberius Jul 28 at 17:56

12 Answers 12

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1: You can't give out model answers or detailed corrections until the deadline has passed.

After all, it'd be pretty unfair if Student A submitted on time without having seen model answers, and Student B submitted late and had model answers (or a friend's work with the academic's corrections) to copy from.

And if you delay giving out corrections or grades until the end of term, whence comes the feedback so students can improve their grades?

2: Providing motivation - i.e. downsides to procrastination - is a key part of the university product

There’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy. -- Anthony Bourdain

Everyone knows that, in theory you could get a college education by just checking out textbooks from the public library, reading them cover to cover and doing all the exercises. Or following some of the better online courses from the vast wealth available these days.

But everyone also knows very few people do that successfully; that MOOC students often fall behind on watching videos; that loads of people have things books they mean to read and suchlike that they haven't got around to; and that it's very common for learners to do assignments at the last minute and cram study right before exams.

And even if the most studious 20% of your students arrive with top tier self-motivation and time-management skills, not all of them will. And having lecture attendance be optional is already a big step up in self-control from high school.

Deadlines reduce a student's option from "study now, study later, or fail at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars" by removing the option to study later - and thereby helping them overcome the temptation of procrastination.

3: Having people who are on course to fail know that early is a good thing.

Sometimes a student will find they're out of their depth with their choice of classes. If they discover that early, they can step up the amount of effort they're making, find more support, switch to an easier major, or drop out to get a partial refund.

But when you're in that situation, even thinking about it is stressful - much like someone in debt will come to dread opening their mail. Far easier to say to yourself that you'll rewatch those video lecture and do those assignments later, putting off the tough realisations. But in the long term, delaying can turn a solvable problem into an unsolvable one.

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  • Your « whence » here is confusing... dictionary gives « from what place or source », but I assume the source is still « the academic »—it’s more a matter of when, no? Or are you suggesting that, sans timely corrections, no other provision for feedback is made in the proposal? – D. Ben Knoble Jul 28 at 16:31
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    @D.BenKnoble It just means "from where" here...Where will the feedback come from, if there's no opportunity to give it? It's a rhetorical question since the answer is visibly "nowhere." – Kevin Arlin Jul 29 at 4:15
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    +1, though I don't agree completely with your first point. There are ways to grade in which you can discuss things (or pass out answers) before everyone has completed the assignment. But that would take a long discussion to explain. – Buffy Jul 29 at 18:24
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    I'd say #1 falls into the practicality area - if assignments require detailed feedback with solutions then it is obvious submissions can't be accepted afterwards. As for #2 and #3, I personally find it a bit too paternalistic to impose artificial motivators or pacing styles like such - it should be a matter of interest in the subject and what works best can vary wildly between people. But it's a matter of pedagogical style and I think you are making an excellent point bringing it up regardless – Layman Jul 30 at 14:11
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Your proposed system reduces to the case where all assignments have their deadlines effectively at the end of the course. Courses with such a system do exist, but I am not aware how common this is.

One reason I can think of as to why early deadlines may help is the ability to give feedback. Providing feedback for each assignment before the next allows the students to catch misconceptions and flaws in problem solving approaches early, which in turn can help them perform better in subsequent assignments. While this reason still does not require that there be early "hard" deadlines (e.g. students could get feedback whenever they submit), I still think it counts as an argument in its favour as it helps in better achieving the learning objectives.

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    Feedback works in both directions. Assessments with hard deadlines mid-course allow the teacher to identify common misunderstandings/difficulties while there is still time to address them. Without hard deadlines it will inevitably be the strongest students that turn in work first, providing a misleading impression of progress. – avid Jul 28 at 0:32
  • @avid that's a great point – Layman Jul 28 at 0:35
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Way back in prehistory (i.e. 25 years ago), I experimented with flexible deadlines, staggered deadlines, or no deadlines for papers and problem sets in math courses in several institutions. (Yes, I had students write papers in a math course.) It was a mixed success.

There is rationale for timed work and firm deadlines, some stronger and some weaker, from both the instructor’s convenience and student individual learning outcome point of view. Other answers are covering that.

What I’d add is that you're in competition for students’ attention versus their other courses. And for many, each academic term is stressful, and (like all of us) perceived urgency easily becomes the default prioritization heuristic. If your policy on deadlines is significantly more lenient than other courses, your work will be put off. Yes, its paternalistic, and not all students need the pressure of deadlines, but it’s dangerous if your course can easily become the pressure valve in their academic lives.

There’s actually a spectrum of paternalism, from requiring and taking attendance at every class and requiring documented excuses on one extreme, and on the other extreme a laissez faire attitude of “I don't care if you ever showed up; write a final exam / submit a single comprehensive paper whenever you get around to it, and I’ll give you a grade in that term". For an optimal student learning outcome, it’s probably best to be slightly more lenient than average at your institution, i.e., to avoid being too close to either extreme relative to what else they’re experiencing in other courses.

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    +1 for "spectrum of paternalism". – Taladris Jul 29 at 4:03
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Marking papers is about more than just the grades; students can learn from their mistakes and improve, and teachers can reinforce concepts and topics in areas of weakness

Regular assessment throughout a course not only helps stabilise grades at the end of a course, it is also a key part of the teaching process. By marking promptly and giving students feedback you are able to helping your students to learn and improve. It can also help you as a course teacher, if you know a large amount of students have struggled with a particular topic, then you can make time in the remainder of the course to review that material and ensure that it's understood.

In the sciences later parts of courses often build on the techniques taught in the early part of the course, it is essential that students know if they have misunderstood a topic as soon as possible, to enable them to access the later material in the course.

In essay based subjects the feedback is possibly even more crucial. Most students are hoping to improve their reasoning and writing technique during the course and prompt feedback will help them do so. I would argue that there is relatively little value in a course that doesn't provide feedback to help students improve their work.

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    Also with courses that build things up, early assignments are ridiculously easy a month later, and a waste of everyone's time. – Owen Reynolds Jul 28 at 14:26
  • You mean I shouldn't put the Hello World assignment 12 weeks into the course? – H. Green Jul 30 at 8:40
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I like to discuss coursework in classes, giving general advice on how students tackled the problem, common mistakes, and advice on how to tackle this type of problem in future.

I cannot do that when some students could still submit in future, as it would be telling them the answers.

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    The question assumes all information is provided asynchronously. What you describe is synchronous. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 29 at 4:50
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the issue of students suddenly hitting the end of the semester with massive amounts of work piled up and all the cramming and health issues and stress with that, so it is really for their benefit to impose hard deadlines to avoid that. Paternalism in this aside....

I think this is a key factor. Students are rational and will make choices based on what (they believe) will most improve their outcomes (grades). Therefore, instructors need to think carefully about how to align the students' goals (higher grades) with the course goals. This is true in both content and schedule:

  • In content, we should carefully consider which assignments are worth our students' time, and make sure the most important assignments are weighted accordingly.
  • And in schedule, it is logical to incentivize learning a little each week -- this leads to better outcomes than cramming the day before the final exam. Discounting late work is usually a compromise between learning outcomes (who cares if it's a day late?) and necessity (if there is no late penalty, then there is no deadline) -- though in some cases, learning to conform to deadlines is one of the learning outcomes.

Two responses to your comment on paternalism. First, classes are by their nature paternalistic -- you could just as easily ask: why give homework, let the students decide how much practice they need. Or why give lectures, it's all in the book or on youtube. We naturally accept that instructors should curate content rather than just answering questions and giving exams. It is similarly natural that instructors should curate the schedule to facilitate their desired outcomes.

And second, it is often not so easy to fail students who do procrastinate and then end up with unmanageable amounts of work at the end of the semester. Students tend to appeal and make excuses (e.g., "I got sick right at the end of the semester, not my fault"). Even when instructors win such cases, it is a lot of work with little upside.

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    "Students are rational": citation needed ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Jul 28 at 7:10
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    it is often not so easy to fail students who do procrastinate and then end up with unmanageable amounts of work at the end of the semester. – This may be worse in systems where the student is a customer and thus king, but I never heard of serious appeals based on that. – Wrzlprmft Jul 28 at 10:23
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    Ah, yes, "I had too much work" would not fly; I was thinking more of students who say "I got sick / my grandma died / my mental health collapsed at the end of the semester" (ignoring the many weeks they were heathy and procrastinating). You can still defend failing those students, but it makes a bit of a mess. – cag51 Jul 28 at 15:29
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    @cag51: Eh... I would say to avoid making assumptions about their mental health being fine before the end of the semester. While strategies certainly exist to avoid/reduce the effect of mental health leading them to procrastinate (so mental health isn't just a free pass to let work pile up and then complain later), it's not like mental health is totally unrelated to their procrastination in the first place. – V2Blast Jul 30 at 23:33
  • This is exactly what I meant when I said "it is often not so easy to fail [these] students." The instructor says "sorry, regardless of the reason, you had 14 weeks and didn't do enough work to pass. As for alleged health issues, you don't have any evidence there was a problem until four days before the deadline." The student (sincerely or otherwise) makes an argument similar to yours. And you end up with a messy, time-consuming situation. This can still happen with a traditional schedule, of course, but having a high-stakes deadline will exacerbate the issue. – cag51 Jul 31 at 3:20
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Many excellent answers here covering most of the points, but one more I have not seen: it depends on precise rubric and grading practice, but it can be easier to grade consistently when you grade all the material in the same block of time, and to go back and change or correct grading in early assignments before releasing grades, rather than having to remember several weeks later how you handled particular situations.

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One point I haven't seen specifically addressed in the other good answers: Grading takes time. I set strict homework deadlines to be fair to the course staff who are doing the actual grading.

I teach large upper-division computer science courses where almost nothing can be graded automatically. Each of the homework problems I assign (typically three per week) takes about 8–12 human-hours of actual focused human attention to grade and provide useful feedback. That work (along with other things like discussion sections and office hours) already keeps my course staff running at full capacity. Allowing late submissions would complicate their already overwhelming job. Removing the deadlines entirely would make the job completely impossible.

This is the main reason I do not accept any late homework submissions, under any circumstances, in those large classes. I drop several homework scores in the final grade, I liberally forgive homeworks beyond that (so other course work has more weight) to accommodate unforeseen circumstances like illness or injury, and I'm happy to discuss work that couldn't be submitted on time in office hours. But the deadline is the deadline is the deadline.

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Assignments can build on each other.

Simply put, giving deadlines allows you to give assignments that build on each other. For instance, when I was doing my Introduction to Research unit last year, we had three assignments: a literature review where we analyzed the literature in a given area to identify gaps where further research could be pursues, a problem statement that presented a research problem along with a series of research questions that could be investigated based on that research problem, and finally a grant proposal where we took one of the research questions and wrote a proposal for a research project investigating that question.

If all the assignments were due at the same time, that sort of assignment structure isn't really possible: rather than three assignments that build on each other, they're just one really big assignment.

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It depends on the details of the course and subject, and the impact on others and on learning, of late assignments.

In some courses, those impacts may be very significant. In others, they may be negligible. So you just need to consider the specifics.

I do not think there is a universal need to have deadlines at all. All of the history and literature courses I took in the UK, for example, had no hard deadlines, and frequently none of the students turned in a paper on the due date, with no consequences. Some students even turned in assignments after the class has ended. Late assignments had no impact because the assignments were all essays about subjects that concluded with the essay, didn't build on material learned by writing earlier essays, and involved no dependency/cooperation with other students.

Oh, I should add that the impact of no deadlines on me was that I waited until I had an idea for a theme that truly interested me, and then I took the time to do satisfying treatments of those ideas - instead of forcing myself to choose a theme and get it written, usually by staying up all night before a hard deadline. The effect on me was that I did more and much more interesting and better writing than I had done before. And I got more regular sleep, and was much happier and much less stressed, too.

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First, why deadlines at all? For many of my courses, it just makes running a course an easier job. I know what I need to do, and when I need to do it, and I feel I can serve students best that way. Also, the lectures and material all build on each other, and would be less meaningful for students who fall behind. On the other hand, I have asynchronous courses that are not designed that way, and I don't have rigid deadlines in them. I'm going to put in some, as some students let that freedom turn into emergencies.

When I do use deadlines, I set them far enough in advance for students to plan around issues, create reasonable penalties, and rigidly enforce them (with the only exceptions being true emergencies, medical issues, and requests for student accommodations from the appropriate offices) in order to prevent any confirmational bias on my part from sneaking in, or accidentally treating anyone unfairly.

Let's say I have a paper due, and two students ask me for a last minute extension. One is an outstanding student, and president of the professional society chapter, and will be attending a professional conference. The other I don't know from a hole in the wall, and says work is getting in the way. Absent any other information, both students deserve exactly the same answer.

In fact, the students don't really even need to ask me, as they know that they may hand in the paper late, but will be penalized a letter grade on the assignment, and they can balance that against handing in a rushed assignment.

In fact, I got an email from students while they were at a conference last fall, asking for an extension on a lab report for which they had been holding the data for three weeks. I turned that request down, and explained that honoring it would be inherently unfair to those that might have opted to NOT attend that conference because of their work load.

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Many students will work faster if they have a deadline.

Learning to complete progressively complex tasks on time is one of the benefits of education.

Proper timing of assignments is important to building long-term memory.

It is also possible that some financial aid sources require deadlines.

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    Can you clarify on your last point on financial aid sources requiring deadlines on homework? – justhalf Jul 28 at 7:02
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    @justhalf The question is not specific to homework. Financial aid often is limited to a certain number of years. All the other deadlines must be designed to fit the degree into that time. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 28 at 7:08
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 31 at 13:19

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