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As a student, it frustrates me when a professor gives us an assignment with a deadline, but then waits a month (or sometimes more!) before returning the assignment to us.

I realize that professors are busy people and are often teaching many classes, but it feels unfair when I as a student have consequences for not meeting my deadline, but the professor doesn't have any consequences when they don't grade our first test until after we take our second test.

I want to hear the perspectives of professors and other academics: should professors have deadlines for returning graded assignments (beyond just the end of the semester)? If so, what would reasonable deadlines be for different assignments? I'm sure, after all, that papers and tests take longer to grade than pass/fail reflection papers. Do other universities already have systems like this in place?

I realize that waiting to grade assignments does give the professor a chance to show mercy to students who sometimes turn in their assignments late and that I've been a beneficiary of this mercy before, but the fairness of that to students who do put in the time to finish an assignment on time is a whole other issue that I'm sure is covered elsewhere on this site. I just want to hear from others what their perspective on assignments being graded late is.

I also know that some larger universities employ teacher assistants to manage this part of the job, so how does this effect the issue?

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  • 1
    What field is this? What sort of assignments?
    – Buffy
    May 7 at 11:06
  • Depends on the class size, existence of graders, length of the assignment, how urgent it is, etc. This question is impossible to answer.
    – markvs
    May 8 at 14:03
  • 2
    It sounds like you're framing this as unfair because different rules apply to the teacher than to you. But class isn't some medieval duel in which your teacher challenges you to an equal fight for some weapon of choice. Your job is to learn according to the rules the teacher specifies. Your teacher's job is to teach. Which is not at all constrained by the same rules. For example you may not be allowed to use a calculator but your teacher is...! You may not be allowed to google your homework answers while your teacher may be using google too find suitable homework questions etc. May 8 at 17:37

4 Answers 4

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There is such a requirement at my institution - currently coursework marks and feedback has to be returned within 20 working days, and there is pressure for this to be reduced.

However, if you have a large class and a (necessarily) complex coursework then it can be very difficult to turn around the marking in that timespan. I try to avoid doing nothing but marking all day everyday for weeks because it is difficult to maintain the required concentration/fairness when you get tired.

One solution is to have more than one marker, but that introduces variability and the need for second marking/moderation, which has to be done afterwards, and that means parallel marking by N markers is no where near N times faster. The moderation has to be done by one person (for consistency) and the more markers you have, the greater the proportion of the total time must be reserved for moderation.

Another solution is to have purely summative assessment (mark but no feedback - e.g. most formal exams) which can make marking more efficient. Unfortunately there are some topics where this is not the case (e.g. marking code style/structure in programming). It also means that the students don't get feedback that might help them improve, however some students never look at feedback, just the marks (back in the day when feedback was written on paper, but the marks available on-line, a fair fraction of scripts were never collected).

There is also the problem with student having extensions due to "extenuating circumstances" (e.g. health problems). They can't have a submission date that is after the coursework and feedback is returned to the students as that potentially gives them an unfair academic advantage. So reducing the time available for returning marks also reduces the scope for accommodating student's extenuating circumstances.

On the other hand, where feedback is given, it needs to be given in time for students to have the opportunity to do something with it (whether they take that opportunity is another matter) and for the coursework to still be reasonably fresh in their minds. For one of my programming courses, the lab session immediately after the first coursework is returned to the students is reserved for them to implement the suggestions in the feedback and get further feedback on the improvments from the teaching assistants. This isn't always feasible, but in this case the lab session is the first of the following semester, so it works quite nicely.

So if students want marks/feedback sooner, it is likely to compromise marking and feedback quality, as a lot of work goes into it already, and it takes time to do well. I should mention that when the deadline for marking was introduced, there was no commensurate reduction in expectations for the other activities, such as research and administration that I also have to do. Often faculty time is treated as infinitely fungible and inexhaustible - but it isn't!

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I'm leaving the question if this question is on-topic to others.

Let's consider the question of why there are deadlines for students for handing in assignments:

  • it introduces a time point at which assignments can be discussed in class
  • it helps with making sure that the assignment parts are "done" before the exam (which has to be scheduled to a fixed date by the core concept of an exam)
  • it also forces students that are intrinsically motivated to invest time in the course's content early so that they have a better chance of following the lectures

There are surely some more that I've forgotten. Some of these reasons are such that the deadlines are actually required to make the course organization work. Let's now consider the question why it would be helpful for the student to have feedback by a certain deadline (or just "early" in general):

  • it helps with finding out early if the student is still on the right track to learning
  • it provides feedback earlier so that the feedback can be "processed" when the concepts are still a bit fresh in the students' minds.

So in both cases, deadlines have a role. But what would happen if the professors have (more) strict deadlines? Then they would suddenly take priority over other tasks of the professors, which many students are not aware of:

  • writing research grants - deadlines for other tasks increase the risk of missing deadlines here
  • administration - other things are likely to become late.
  • publication deadlines are more likely to be missed

The question here is if the positive impact on the students getting feedback early is worth the downsides of a worse performance on these tasks. And it should be noted that different institutions have different answers to this. Some for instance have a maximum span for exam grading, others don't. And homework grading is likely not seen as a priority in many cases.

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  • Also, students need to figure out which classes they have lower grades in and which classes they need to prioritize studying for. If I don't have back my grades, I don't know which tests and assignments I need to spend more time on to boost my grade in the class.
    – 2br-2b
    May 6 at 9:34
  • @2br-2b While of course students have an interest in doing that, it is debatable whether allocating learning time with the primary purpose of grade boosting rather than maximizing the learning progress is an interest that is legitimate enough to the point of having to be considered when balancing when pros and cons of whether professors should have deadlines for grading or not. It can be argued that the combination of "feedback if the student is one right track" already mentioned and the self-feedback after handing in a solution (often, you know if you submitted good stuff or not) are enough.
    – DCTLib
    May 7 at 21:22
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This question as formulated may be opinion-based. Still, I'll take a whack at it.

Should professors have deadlines for returning graded assignments (beyond just the end of the semester)?

Should is a difficult word. Personally, I've long felt that both instructors and students should try to do things right away when possible. There is never a perfect time to do/grade an assignment, and attempting to do it right away will prevent oneself from becoming inundated by deadlines. Both instructors and students seem to have an irrational desire to postpone doing unavoidable work until "the last minute" (or later), which I've never understood.

As a practical matter, I think a policy requiring this would be very hard to enforce. At a major research university (so-called "R1s"), professors are researchers first and teachers second. They have many deadlines: grant proposal deadlines, proposals and reports related to their grants with hard deadlines, presentations that must be prepared for, lectures that must be prepared for, meetings with collaborators at which one must show results, etc. Trying to set a "strict" policy (e.g., return assignments within one week) would rightfully lead to some pushback. Setting a "soft" policy (e.g., return assignments within a week unless you're busy doing something else) would be meaningless; everyone could up with some excuse for being late, and no one wants to tell their colleagues how to manage their time.

If so, what would reasonable deadlines be for different assignments?

As a rule of thumb, I would say that papers and exams should be returned at least a few days before the next one is submitted. Homework should be returned within a few weeks. But again, I am only proposing this as a guideline.

I realize that waiting to grade assignments does give the professor a chance to show mercy to students who sometimes turn in their assignments late

It may make sense for the professor's grading timetable to be intertwined with the late policy. I've suggested this here. But in other cases, the schedule / late policy may have been designed with other considerations in mind, and so these two things are completely unrelated. For example, in a foreign language course, it is essential that students learn the current grammar/vocabulary before moving on, and so due dates should be quite strict regardless of how far behind the professor's grading is.

I also know that some larger universities employ teacher assistants to manage this part of the job, so how does this effect the issue?

Yes, the above reasoning doesn't apply so much to teaching assistants, and perhaps also not to faculty whose primary job is instruction (e.g., at teaching colleges or community colleges). Naively, it seems like stricter policies would make more sense for these institutions (though it's quite possible I'm wrong about this; perhaps someone with more experience at such institutions will correct me).

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https://www.qualitymatters.org/ The Quality Matters instructional standards handle the issue by requiring a syllabus statement about assignment (and communication) turnaround times. Such a statement is not a hard commitment, but once it is out there it is typically followed (except for obvious exceptions like illness etc). At my institution there are not requirements for turnaround, but there are institutional norms and I have been questioned by the other faculty if I am outside of the norms.

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