Like many on this site, I use a Moodle-type online Content Management System to give assignments to my students, and receive the finished work for grading. This is in a traditional context where the students are physically present in the classroom, and the online part is seen as a simple tool to be used in addition to the classic paper-based route. Students' first class for the day usually begins at 8 a.m.

For the last few years, I put the deadline for assignment acceptance at midnight, with plenty of time (2-3 weeks) to do the work, so each student can handle his/her workload as they wish. These are young adults aged 18-25, and are in theory very much responsible for their acts. Observation gives us actual hand-in times with approximately the following distribution:

  • 1-2 days before deadline: 5%
  • 3-24 hours before: 10%
  • 1-2 hours: 10%
  • less than 1 hour: 65%
  • emails in distress after the deadline has expired saying they have encountered a computer glitch or some other excuse: 10%

Which I guess is about par for the course. :-(

So it is clear that while in theory these students are responsible young adults, in practice they tend to plan ahead in a less than stellar way. The impression that is perceived is that the online nature of the submission system makes students take slightly more liberties with deadlines than when assignments had to be handed in, in a face-to-face situation - although it is clear that even then there will always be a certain percentage of people with difficulties respecting deadlines.

OK, here is the question: without getting into considerations on whether students should plan better (and possible ways in which I and other teachers could help them do so), would changing deadline times from midnight to, for example, 10 p.m. be a good move from the standpoint of their getting enough sleep (moral considerations welcome) and actually attending class at the beginning of the next day? Do I get to patent this Great Idea?

No, that last bit was a joke. ;-)

Reactions from people who are not actually teachers, but have experienced this context as a student are also welcome.

Update

I have ended up accepting the answer by Superbest below, basically because I liked his discussion of alternative possibilities. This is a bit subjective, since many other answers are also of very high quality IMHO - and I would certainly encourage the reader to peruse all the answers given here, and the varying points of view expressed (also in comments). Much appreciated.

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    I had to take a take-home exam when I was 25. There was no Internet (this was almost 40 years ago). I had to run 3 miles (about 5 km) trying to meet the 8 a.m. deadline. Yes, I was a responsible adult (I swear). No matter what your schedule is, your observed distribution would look about the same. So, I would suggest move the deadline to 8 p.m. so the students would have plenty of time to get on social media or play games after they submit their assignments.;-) – scaaahu Aug 6 '15 at 8:27
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    Considering the concept of deadlines itself, I really like the idea described elsewhere on this site (or on Math Educators) a while ago to slowly worsen the grade of late submissions until they automatically fail. So you can still get a decent grade for submitting 10 minutes late but not for submitting 48 hours late (depending on the total length of the assignment, of course). Also, I think that computer glitches are today’s “the dog ate my homework” and should not be a valid excuse. – Wrzlprmft Aug 6 '15 at 12:41
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    One trivial advantage of 10pm over midnight - no danger of someone getting confused over which day is meant! – Andrew Aug 6 '15 at 16:05
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    As a student, I am usually part of that 65% who turn their hw in last minute, but it's not because it took that long, it's just that I am usually paranoid about handing in something earlier than I have to and then realizing that I made a mistake or could have done better. So, I tend to turn assignments in last minute, although I finished them much earlier. – dramzy Aug 6 '15 at 17:19
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    As a somewhat recent student, one reason why I often submitted close to the midnight deadline was that evenings and late nights were often when I had the time to work. If a deadline were set to be earlier in the day when I had classes and activities to attend, then I would be much more likely to submit the night before with plenty of time to spare. Then again, that might mean I would just stay up until 3 instead of 12 :) – David K Aug 6 '15 at 18:46

17 Answers 17

up vote 38 down vote accepted

While I admire your concern for the students, I feel that ultimately your endeavor is quixotic.

To be sure, I see nothing wrong with making your deadline be at 10 pm. It won't change anything, so you might as well. But I wouldn't expect it to have any notable effect, and I would be wary of the slippery slope that leads to you blaming yourself for the students' errors.

The reason I am so pessimistic is that I don't think procrastination and irregular sleep are caused by deadline timing (unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, but in college it never is). They are caused by poor personal discipline and bad habits acquired over many years leading up to the present. Regardless of what you do, the procrastinators will still invent ways to procrastinate, because the problem is rooted in their own behavior, not yours. You therefore cannot solve the problem by changing your behavior.

For instance, if you have the deadline at 10 pm, the procrastinator will drop everything that evening to work on your assignment and submit it around 10. Then he will still stay up doing the things he just postponed for the sake of your assignment. Because, recall, this person is not selectively procrastinating on your course only - they have also other courses that have deadlines. Even if all courses had the same early deadline policy, the students would still have their own errands with self-imposed deadlines at later times that they stay up for.

By the same logic that makes you consider 10 pm, we can explore other alternatives:

  • 5 pm is a fair time, since it would presumably encourage students to concentrate their last ditch effort in the typical working day. However, there will also be students who have classes right up to the deadline that day, and if they procrastinate (as some certainly shall) they will now skip class to do the assignment, which is arguably worse than staying up!
  • Noon is another time that sounds like a good idea. Being too early, you might expect that it will make students feel they have no choice but to start working on it early since the morning isn't nearly enough time, and if they can't finish it the night before they can safely go to bed, get some sleep, and finish in the morning. But realistically, the procrastinators who stay up late and hand it in at midnight now will just start working at 1 am and stay up all night to finish it.
  • 9 am can be argued for as a realistic time - it's not like you will start grading at midnight, so there isn't really a point in requiring the assignment by midnight - instead of having the students rush their submission to a deadline just so it could sit in your mailbox for several hours, you could tell them to that you will start grading at 9 am and they should have it done by then. This makes the deadline less arbitrary, since there is now a clear logic to being required to meet it (ie. you will be delayed if they don't do their part). But of course you will again have the same problem of students staying up all night because they procrastinated.

For what it's worth, I think the midnight deadline came about as codification of an unspoken tradition. Often deadlines are given as days, without time - with this, there is always much controversy about what exactly counts as meeting an August 6 deadline: Does it have to be done at the beginning of Aug 6? Does it have to be before the instructor leaves the office? Does it have to be before the end of the day, ie. before you go to sleep? Well, what if you never go to sleep, can you squeeze out a few more hours and still "meet your Aug 6 deadline" by submitting at 3:14 am on [technically] Aug 7?

Even though informally "today" means "until I go to sleep", the convention is that the date changes at midnight, which is also reinforced by how computer clocks show the date. Hence, I think the midnight deadline came about as an extension of this - it's just a date delimiter.

As for the students, since you are concerned about how late they go to sleep, surely you will agree that planning ahead and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education. This, then, the students must learn on their own, you cannot help them by tinkering with deadlines, since indeed the deadline is not what is preventing their learning. In fact, one could argue that you should maximize the negative reinforcement, and set the deadline at the worst possible time - say 6 am: The more misery you inflict on the procrastinators, the better they will appreciate how important it is to learn discipline, and the sooner they will take steps to unlearn their bad habits.

Granted, I'm not seriously suggesting you do the above, since it seems like it could go horribly wrong. Realistically, I could instead suggest the following:

  • Set your deadline at some reasonable, early time such as noon.
  • Secretly (ie. do not tell this part to the students) have the "real deadline" (for instance, the one you lose points for missing) be quite a bit later, say 5 pm.
  • In class, say that it is very important they not miss the deadline even by a minute (don't say why), and they should come talk to you if they feel they won't make it.
  • When they inevitably come asking for more time, be liberal with the extensions, but not before making them explain why they were late and lecturing them on the importance of planning ahead. When giving the extension, explain that they absolutely cannot miss the extended deadline, because then you would not be able to meet your own deadline for grading (whether true or not).
  • If anyone misses the noon deadline (but not the 5 pm deadline), confront them about it to discourage submitting late without asking for an extension (which allows bypassing the social discomfort of asking for more time).

With this, you might create something like a low stakes environment (you don't lose massive points just for being a few minutes late) while still creating a fair amount of social pressure to increase the likelihood of a lightbulb appearing and the student thinking, "Hey, Dr. Ward is very nice and reasonable about deadlines and everything, but maybe it's worth for me to try to stop leaving everything to the last minute?". Furthermore, if you force them into an explicit discussion about their procrastination, they have an opportunity to ask you for advice on how to plan their work.

But all of this requires quite a bit of effort from you (much more than just replacing "midnight" with "10 pm" on your syllabus). So if you are not willing to commit the energy, there isn't really much that can be achieved with quick fixes.

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    Basically, you are recommending a holistic approach to the way I use the online platform, am I not correct? ;-) Fair enough. Since I cannot handle the complete discussion in one step, I will be concentrating separately on each aspect. But you are very right to comment on the fact it is a complete process with many aspects to it. – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 20:02
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    "...unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, but in college it never is..." I feel the need to say that this is largely a matter of opinion. What is a piece of cake to one person could very well overwhelm another person. Just because you never got/get overwhelmed by college doesn't mean that nobody does. However, I realize this does not invalidate your answer, nor does it even invalidate the first part of the sentence saying that lack of sleep is probably not tied to the timing of deadlines. – PrinceTyke Aug 7 '15 at 12:20
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    Imagine a single parent with a full-time job who is also going to school full-time. It is certainly possible that they could get overwhelmed at some point. I like your answer other than that part. – Benjamin Hubbard Aug 7 '15 at 14:39
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    +1 to @PrinceTyke, -1 to this answer. Overwhelming is a relative term. Also, you're way too pessimistic about people's reasons for their habits and generally the whole thing. – Mehrdad Aug 7 '15 at 21:00
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    "and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education" -- I learned this is an incredibly effective way of getting s*** done in college. One semester Sundays 8pm - 4am was one problem set, Thursdays 6pm - 6am was another, A's in both courses. Now I go to work and generally do work doing the day so not at night, so it's moot. And as far not procrastinating on things like going to the DMV, getting bloodwork done, paying rent on time, etc., those have nothing to do with things I learned in college. – user18072 Aug 9 '15 at 22:19

First of all, I think the distribution that you're seeing is not very unusual, and indeed looks very similar to the distribution of times that I see coming from mature scientists submitting conference papers and grants.

It is simply that people, including your students, tend to overcommit themselves and to underestimate the difficulty of work. When that is combined with tasks on which there is a flexible amount of effort that can be invested (e.g., quality of work on an assignment), it is generally the case that "this work is done" is an ill-defined notion, and instead it gets triaged at some point of time shortly before the assignment. Better and more prepared students (or whoever) simply climb farther up in quality before triaging.

Given that, I generally advocate for a policy of "tight deadlines, lots of mercy." That means setting the deadline slightly before when you really want the assignment turned in, and then being very liberal about accepting requests for extension up until your secret "real deadline."

Addressing your specific question about timing, I think that if you want your students to get more sleep, moving the deadline up a couple of hours is a totally reasonable tactic: given the phenomena at work, it is unlikely to affect the distribution or quality of the assignments you receive. Depending on how your automated system works, you may also be able to explicitly support an official deadline of 10pm, with the de facto ability to leave the submission system open longer to receive the main tranche of "just a little bit late" assignments.

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    Yes, this strategy is indeed possible with our (Moodle-based) system. The only point that hinders me in applying it is the fact that students will rapidly become aware of the rules actually being applied. It is worth some thought, though - and the analysis is well appreciated. – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 12:12
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    I think this is unfair to students who take deadlines seriously. If they had problems with a homework, they would turn in what they had shortly before the stated deadline. They lose the points they could have gained if they had known the real deadline, and taken a few more hours. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 6 '15 at 13:29
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    A good policy they had at my university was staggered penalties. IIRC you'd lose 1 point out of 22 for missing the deadline, no excuses, then another point for each additional 24 hours. So those who overcommit learn a valuable life lesson without their work being completely wasted, and those who plan ahead are rewarded. And if, like me, you discover a catestrophic error 24 hours before deadline, you make a tradeoff between submitting fixed work a day late at -1 point and incorrect work on time at -?? points – user568458 Aug 6 '15 at 14:17
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    Set the official deadline to 22:00 and let the system accept submissions until 22:30 - this will not really be unfair to diligent students, because 30min will not likely decide between life&dead - but many students will be happy akin wow... already 21:59 and the internet is slow as hell.... 22:03 uploading - yeah I got lucky it sill worked! – Falco Aug 6 '15 at 14:48
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    @O.R.Mapper you can easily add this as a benefit rather than penalty - if your submission is more than 3 days before the deadline you get 3 extra points for free. Because with an overall assignemtn time of 3 weeks, most students start to work on the problem 1-2 days before deadline... so either you start early to get the bonus, or you are already one of the late ones and don't complain if someone was 20minutes slower... – Falco Aug 6 '15 at 14:51

I would consider a deadline at around 10p.m. very wise and student-friendly. I remember staying up late night as long as the submission system allows to post a new version and polishing the hell out of my assignment, although it probably made little difference.

As a lecturer I have always readily given small extensions to people who asked at least a little (about a day) in advance before the deadline, because I think that this fosters good habits in life: it is OK to fail sometimes, but you should handle the failure responsibly and warn people depending on you in advance.

I like the "tight deadlines, lots of mercy" policy mentioned in another answer (which I think is one of the good solutions). If you are worried that students will learn and exploit this policy, you can have a deadline that is openly less strict: for example subtracting 10 points from the evaluation of the assignment for every hour of delay or letting the students to submit until the next lecture, but for half the points. I experienced this a few times as a student and it was motivational yet forgiving to small lapses.

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    Nice solution. I have applied at times a variant, which is to waive the penalty the first time - but not on successive occasions. As you say, I was aiming for the motivational aspect. – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 12:35
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    +1 for the second paragraph; this advice is especially useful in professional life. If you have a team of people waiting for 'your piece', then letting them know in advance that you won't have it ready until a day after the deadline is nothing but helpful. At that point, they can work on something else that doesn't need your piece. This applies to group projects especially (university or professional). – Chris Cirefice Aug 7 '15 at 15:27

I'd like to add my two cents as a current student with three years of college behind me. In my experience, I've always preferred having a deadline of midnight to a deadline of 10pm because during the school year, I'm often up until midnight regardless, and sometimes my workload requires me to prioritize my assignments in such a way that many things get submitted in the eleventh hour, so to speak. Furthermore, I tend to do much of my work in the late evening, as that's when I personally am able to focus on assignments the best. This experience comes from three years from a Computer Science undergrad, so take it with whatever that information brings. I think the deadline will mean different things to different students regardless of when it actually is, and I think students will still end up submitting just before the deadline is due, but I personally prefer midnight to 10pm.

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    Agreed; also as a Computer Science undergrad, our CS labs are usually just about empty between 8 PM and midnight. I don't like to work from home because there are too many distractions, and an empty CS lab at night is the perfect working environment (for me). Those are the only assignments that I put off (which is a bad idea because coding is prone to a million errors for simple mistakes), but for me it makes the most sense to do that. Midnight for me is a good deadline time. – Chris Cirefice Aug 7 '15 at 15:29
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    I completely agree with the sentiment that an empty (I'll settle for simply sparsely-populated, provided I have some headphones) CS lab at night is the perfect working environment. Putting off programming assignments is awful, but I think the vast majority of CS students do so. I know I do. – PrinceTyke Aug 7 '15 at 15:36
  • @ChrisCirefice, I have fond memories of allnighters in the computer lab to which I had a key as a graduate student, as regular labs were closed and the machines weren't hopelessly overloaded at night. But there was no staff on hand to unwedge your account (happened regularly as a result of some stupid command combinations). That was time to go home ;-) – vonbrand Aug 26 '15 at 20:37

As a PhD candidate who has taught (as in was the primary lecturer, not just a TA) and recently taken classes I have a different opinion than to move assignments to an early time, e.g. 10PM. My solution for a programming intensive class that I taught was to make the assignments always due at 5AM on Saturday. I picked Saturday specifically because if they wanted to stay up late it would not affect attending class that day. My reasoning behind the 5AM time was that the time you make assignments due can actually relate to your late policy.

By making assignments due at 5AM on Saturday I could be very strict about late assignments. My late policy was simple: it's late, it's a zero grade, no exceptions. I had a script that would grab all the assignments at 5:02AM (okay so they got a 2 minute window) and that was the only thing I would look at. If they submitted at 5:04AM it was never graded. If a student would come back and complain that they just missed the deadline my response was simple:

Look you had all night to work on the assignment and you obviously had to stay up extremely late which means you didn't budget your time well or you thought it would be so simple you could do it in a night. Both of those assumptions were wrong. I hope for the next assignment you do not make the same mistake.

Finally, I had a draconian late policy (which might be a bit off topic to the question but is relevant to my answer) for a very simple reason. As a TA who has had to grade countless number of homework assignments, you spend probably about 25% to 50% of your time dealing with the 5% of the assignments that were late, either because you have to schedule a demo on a different day than the rest, or you have to go back to problems to see how you previously took points of for a (semi-)wrong answer, etc. This is a huge unnecessary drain on human resources and can greatly affect research progress. Now this usually doesn't matter if the assignment is just 5 minutes late but by having a strict late policy I avoided all the: "it was only a day late can I get partial credit", arguments and those assignments do add an unnecessary burden on grader/TA.

And as for how this policy works in practice. Per semester, I usually have only one student submit one assignment that is just barely late, say submitted after 5AM and before 5:30AM. The rest get a very clear picture.

I should add that this policy did result in piazza, which we used for class communication, exploding the night the assignment was due but I made it very clear to the students that after 9PM I was not answering any piazza or email questions. If they wanted to use piazza to ask each other questions that was fine but I did not participate.

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    Yours seems like yet another good justification for moving the deadline into the middle of a night. The only slight disadvantage that I could see with having it on a Saturday night is that (probably (?)) you aren't going to grade the assignments on Sunday, anyway, and some students may specifically plan to use their weekend, including Sundays, for working on assignments. On the other hand, it might of course help them arrive at a work-on-Saturday-get-a-free-Sunday schedule to some extent. – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 18:51
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    @O.R.Mapper actually it was due on Saturday 5AM specifically so I could use the weekend to grade and have the grades given back by Monday, when the class would meet. This reaffirmed the "its done don't talk to be about an extension" mindset. You could push it back 24 hours so it was due on Sunday at 5AM, same idea basically. – missimer Aug 6 '15 at 18:55
  • Oh, and one remark on your text: I take it "piazza" is the name of your online submission system, but it suddenly appears somewhat out of nowhere in your last paragraph. – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 19:18
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    @ALANWARD actually the assignments were somewhat large, 3-4 weeks, but I did automate some of the grading as it was a programming class. I would argue that it would work if it took longer to grade as that was not a key thing in my experience just a nice bonus, but I can't say with any level of certainty. If the assignments took longer to grade, perhaps students would argue for the assignment to be extended to include the weekend. – missimer Aug 6 '15 at 20:01
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    5am on Saturday morning seems an excellent time. Nobody can claim with a straight face that they intended to work until five minutes before the deadline and were a bit too late if the deadline is at 5am in the morning. – gnasher729 Aug 8 '15 at 8:26

Remember: it's not your duty to clean your students noses and make sure they submit everything on time or weeks before the deadline. If you want to be merciful you can apply increasing penalties or you can set a hard cutoff if you're not feeling merciful. You'll probably get less pleading emails and headaches if you apply a sliding scale of penalties but it's up to you and you shouldn't feel you have to.

You have no duty to hand everyone a pass. Don't feel bad if some people screw themselves over by not submitting on time.

I encountered lots of variation as a student and have few strong feelings about it though I always somewhat preferred late-night deadlines because I worked better in the evening.

As long as the deadlines don't change: the only time a deadline ever pissed me off was when the professor kept changing it. 3 weeks, no 2 weeks, no 4 weeks, no 1 week etc.

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    You have no duty to hand everyone a pass. He is being paid to teach them. So you could say it is his duty to have as many pass as possible. Every failed student is a failed teacher, to some degree. – Jonathon Aug 10 '15 at 17:37
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    @JonathonWisnoski no, if he was teaching 4 year olds that might be true but at collage the students are adults. He's being paid to provide an opportunity to learn and an opportunity for the person to prove they've learned. If people don't take one or the other opportunity when provided with a fair chance that is 100% on them. Universities also provide a third service to the rest of society: They certify that their graduates were competent enough to pass a university course. If they pass someone too inept to hand in assignments they've failed utterly in that last duty. – Murphy Aug 10 '15 at 19:16

I suggest the opposite course of action by moving the deadline further into the night. Set it at a time where no-one voluntarily would want to hand in their work. In my opinion, that is the best incentive to have them reconsider their personal scheduling.

As for the online system, you write:

The impression that is perceived is that the online nature of the submission system makes students take slightly more liberties with deadlines than when assignments had to be handed in, in a face-to-face situation

I suspect this is coupled to how the online system is generally presented, as I have made the opposite experience. We generally communicate a very strict "hand in via the system, or do not hand in at all" policy. That is, e-mails will generally not be accepted as an alternative to submission via the system (as long as the system is not actually having internal technical issues). As opposed to e-mails, where there is always a certain leeway for asking for exceptional treatment along the lines of "the e-mail sent at 09:59 was routed in a way so it only arrived at 10:01", when the online system is announced to close down at 10, it will automatically close down at 10 (ideally, while displaying the server time in its web-based interface). This way, non-uniform acceptance of delayed submissions between different instructors for one class is avoided.

although it is clear that even then there will always be a certain percentage of people with difficulties respecting deadlines

Indeed, unfortunately, that is unavoidable - but as being able to stick to deadlines is one of the factors expected of a professional, these people simply will not get their degree in the end.

would changing deadline times from midnight to, for example, 10 p.m. be a good move from the standpoint of their getting enough sleep (moral considerations welcome) and actually attending class at the beginning of the next day?

I would somewhat doubt it. A pattern that I seem to perceive in people around me, both students and non-students, is that either they work until late at night and are very exhausted from that, or they work slightly shorter, are not totally exhausted ... and instead stay up doing whatever they like doing until they are equally exhausted. Maybe yours is not even the only deadline in the same evening, and changing your deadline only changes the order in which the tasks will be treated. I simply do not see a strong connection between your submission deadline and the time they actually go to bed.

EDIT: Reading Ángel's answer made me aware that it cannot be taken for granted in an online submission system that students can replace their submission once they have uploaded something. I consider such a feature essential. I am fully in favour of encouraging students to plan thoroughly and be on time, but if a satisfactory submission that solves the declared task has been made well within the deadline, I see no point in disallowing the respective student from replacing it with an updated version that is even a bit more tidy or well-explained.

  • Interesting take on the problem. You make an assessment of the email system that corresponds very well to what we have observed here: it is just does not precise enough (as regards timing) to use it for submissions. However, as regards enforcing a very strict system, unfortunately some excuses will inevitably be receivable ("my father just died" has happened to me - and it was actually true :-( ). So, we are back to the dilemma of where do we draw the line between receivable and non-receivable reasons. Hmmm... some flexibility seems unavoidable. – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 14:08
  • @ALANWARD: Well, it may be a question of how obvious the path to stating the excuses are. E-mail is a means of communication, and accordingly, students may readily use it not only to submit their homework, but also to communicate why it is arriving late. A web-based submission form that does not allow for any "message", on the other hand, may not to the same extent signal readiness to accept any additional information, and it is primarily only students that actually have compelling reasons for excuses that will, in addition to the submission, send a message some other way. With that said, ... – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 14:11
  • ... in cases like the one you alluded to we usually do not extend the submission deadline, but rather tell the respective people to wait until the end of the semester. Should they be missing points compared to the score required for "passing" the course, we can work something out then (e.g. a brief oral exam, or an extra task, ...). That minimizes the administrative hassle and does not imply any penalty for the student. (Of course, it works only if the overall course result is binary, or discrete enough for a missing submission not to have any effect.) – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 14:14
  • @O.R.Mapper, passing is not sufficient for most students in the US. Grades are basically numerical scores in the end, so good students have the right to try to maximize them. I agree that we can accommodate true emergencies, but it often has to be in a way equivalent to them having handed in on time. – Bill Barth Aug 6 '15 at 15:57
  • @BillBarth: In such a case, a more immediate solution is probably adviseable indeed. In my place, the system mostly works by each course coming with assignments during the semester from which a score can be accumulated, and only if a minimum score is reached from those assignments (thus making this a binary choice), the student is allowed to take the exam on the course, which will then result in a grade (a numerical score) that will form a part of the final degree grade (also a numerical score). Hence, there are some places where binary decisions sometimes appear, as a preliminary step. – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 16:07

Without getting into considerations on whether students should plan better [...] would changing deadline times from midnight to, for example, 10 p.m. be a good move from the standpoint of their getting enough sleep.

Most likely, yes, students on average would get more sleep. I was TAing a class last term (a computer science class for 4th-year undergraduate students in college), the weekly assignment deadline was 10 AM on Sunday. Here is the typical submission time distribution we would get:

enter image description here

As we discussed with the professor when to set the deadline, we simply based our decision on when the assignments would be graded, and left students freedom to organize their schedule. While some need to sleep early, others prefer to work at night.

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    Please, is the graph cumulative? Does it show number of submissions submitted until time t or number of submissions submitted around time t? – yo' Aug 7 '15 at 7:56
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    @yo' cumulative – Franck Dernoncourt Aug 7 '15 at 15:44

I have dealt with this issue in setting closing times for Webwork assignments, which is a kind of online Content Management System specific to mathematics.

After having tried out various times, I have converged on 7pm. Why?

Originally I had it due at 5pm. There is something about 5pm that is hard to complain about: in the US it is widely regarded as the end of the work day. It is the latest in the day you could set a meeting or an appointment without apologizing or confirming in advance that it is okay. There is a wide cultural feeling that people should be working until 5pm, at which point they want to go home.

Well, I said hard to complain about. The complaints I got were that people were submitting their solutions at 4:59:47 and not getting accepted by the system. Such complaints are very hard to verify (especially if you don't try) and pretty annoying. So what I said was, "You should think of the assignment as being due at 5pm and work accordingly. The extra two hours is a grace period that will nullify any technical difficulties."

Two other benefits of having roughly this due time:

1) If students want to ask questions before it's due (or rather, until 5pm), those questions will come during my normal work day. I might get a chance to answer them, and I certainly will not resent them. It can be annoying to get an email at 11:47pm for an assignment which is due at midnight with the implication that if you do not reply in time you are impeding their learning.

2) I post the solutions after a two hour delay. This time frame makes it more feasible to push back the due date a few hours before the deadline if that really seems like a good idea. If the due time were, say, 3 am, this would not be as convenient.

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    As a current student and full time worker I think 5 pm is way too early for a due date, this would force me to have to finish the assignment the night before because I work all day. I think midnight is much more flexible and fair to night owls like me – reggaeguitar Aug 6 '15 at 15:41
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    @reggaeguitar: Yes, part of the point of this due time is to discourage students from waiting until the last day. There is no problem in finishing the assignment the night before. The number of late nights that you have to do the assignment is the same. – Pete L. Clark Aug 6 '15 at 15:55
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    Also, I should clarify that this policy was for a course taught in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia. Students who work all day could not attend such courses, since they are only scheduled during the 8am-5pm work day. – Pete L. Clark Aug 6 '15 at 16:00
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    I've been a procrastinator my whole life and never run into problems because of it; I wait until the last day for literally all of my assignments. In my opinion the teacher's job is to teach, not to "discourage students from waiting until the last day". – reggaeguitar Aug 6 '15 at 16:09
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    @reggaeguitar: Many instructors believe that encouraging students to spend more time rather than less engaging the material is one of the most important parts of the teaching process. If you stay in academia long enough, you will unavoidably receive assignments that it is literally impossible to complete in a single day, e.g. a PhD dissertation. Even as an undergraduate, if you never receive assignments that require more than one day of work, you are probably missing out on some important learning experiences. Consider whether you are taking courses that really challenge you. – Pete L. Clark Aug 6 '15 at 16:17

The system is flexible precisely for allowing that. For those 65% students sending in-the-hour, you can't know if they did it at 23:00 or if they had the assignment ready in their hard disk for a week, but didn't hand in until then.

I agree they are probably doing the work at 23:00, but a big point to take into account shall be their other duties. If yours was their only commitment, the graphic would probably change, but other subjects will be placing their own tasks, they may be practising sports, etc.

The main reason for delaying a task was having many other assignments due earlier. I should also note that if you open a task before it has been fully explained, it will actually deter from trying to complete it early, since you transmit the idea that "it can't be done yet".

I would keep the late hour, or perhaps even move it later (the 5 AM proposal is a good idea).

(Hint: Never place a deadline at day X at 00:00 but to day X-1 at 23:59, there's a big UI factor there)

Another option I initally liked was to place it at 7:59 the next day (just before the begin of the next day), but it has the drawback that you may delay the "final submit" when you wake up, and fail for a "computer error". OTOH, you may allow that way that they can hand it in manually to you the next day (or if your class is at 11:00, the deadline could be at 10:59, thus you can start the class asking for phisical submission of anyone that otherwise failed).

Another point to ids that you should allow, if supported by your platform, multiple "draft" uploads. Make clear that you won't be viewing them (until the deadline passes). Thus, you can submit the almost-ready work, and if there's a catastrophic failure after it gets the final revision, the draft would be considered final (you may eg. miss some spell-checking fixes).

A problem I identified is that as you are only allowed to submit once, you delay for the final version, even if it's almost ready, and then problems kick-in like "it takes too long to upload", "you included too many graphics in png, and the generated file is now over the size limit" (and you end up rushing to change all of them to jpeg). Limits which are not always clearly stated (eg. an email filesize limit, the webmail taking forever for accepting an upload...).

I would also accept that they commit a hash of their work in case they have some upload problem (although your students need to be a bit computer-savvy for that). [They provide before the deadline a hash of the file they are going to turn in, so there's no way they can provide a different file later, even if the upload fails at that point in time]

If you want to encourage early submission, I would provide bonus points for submitting early. Sending an automatic reminder to people who hasn't submitted yet may also improve the submission times (the right timing is very important here, though. The due date shouldn't be far away, and the email should be received at an , you are unlikely to remember at home -or in the weekend!- the email reminder received on Monday morning).

PS: There are cases where the students program meeting during a break previous to the class for doing the task, so I don't think it is right to consider that they take "more liberties with [online] deadlines than when they are handed in in a face-to-face situation".

  • I somewhat disagree with your examples for other duties. While it is true there are also other courses with assignments as a part of the studies, at least at my place, university rules generally make it very clear that studying a major is a full-time job that must be granted the first priority in the student's life. Part-time jobs, if any, and hobbies such as practising sports have to be scheduled in a way so as to not conflict with the university courses. At least in such a setting, only another university assignment can serve as a valid excuse. Good point about the option to submit ... – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 18:43
  • ... several versions of an assignment, though. In my answer, I had taken that option for granted, but I will add a remark that such a feature is essential and should always be there. – O. R. Mapper Aug 6 '15 at 18:44
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    @O.R.Mapper, I was not talking about additionally having a job, but different subjects, all of them setting tasks and fighting for the student time. At least in my experience, teachers tend to be completely unaware of each other assignments, and there's not even one with a whole view of the students duties (even for a "classic" students with the expected subjects). – Ángel Aug 6 '15 at 19:28
  • @O.R.Mapper And I mentioned sports as a reason for scheduling the assignments late at night. So, with the original midnight deadline, you could plan ahead and probably prefer to practise X at 7pm, after all university courses, and do the assignment later at night, instead of doing the assignment early and playing football at 1am ;) – Ángel Aug 6 '15 at 19:32
  • Interestingly enough, I can take your comments to heart since I have recently passed another Master's at an online university. This last semester I had four subjects. Most assignments were due on precisely the same day, and the others within a three-day window. So, I agree teachers do not (and perhaps cannot) reliably take into account other subjects' calendars. This is perhaps an area where online systems should allow us to better synchronize, but the underlying problem is complex when handling a large number of subjects and an even larger number of students. – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 19:57

I think midnight is reasonable. I've been known to set certain cut off times with the same thing in mind. My students had to have their online workbooks done by 2:00 am when I started realizing some of them were working on them all night long the night before the test (traditionally due by the start of the test). Because our department policy was 50% late credit for those assignments, I would tell them to just stop at 2:00 and get sleep and take the test fully rested, and finish up their (now late) work the next day.

Back in the day, I'd tend to turn in papers at the last minute, but only because I wanted to have the maximum amount of "rest time" between writing it and doing a final check for those typos you can only find after removing yoursef a bit, so I'd caution against saying they're rushing the writing bit just because they turn it in at the last minute.

The only way you can address people trying to rush to finish an assignment is to have periodic due dates for particular elements of the paper. Not knowing your subject, you could do something like this (not necessarily in sequential days, of course):

  • Day 1: general topic defined
  • Day 2: preliminary bibliography
  • Day 3: 25% ish written
  • Day 4: 75% ish written
  • Day 5: Completed copy

The first four days could just be checks (rather than graded) so as to not add to your workload.

  • OK, basically you are giving the student a bit of extra guidance as to how to manage their time doing the final assignment. This is certainly actually quite helpful and necessary for some students, but perhaps a tad complicated since you now need to think about late submissions for each element of the paper. What happens if the general topic is still in a state of limbo on the day the bibliography is due? Can the students submit the two together? Must they? Decisions, decisions... ;-) – ALAN WARD Aug 6 '15 at 19:46
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    Do not do this except for very long assignments, and do not do this unless you plan on giving the students feedback on each submission they can use to improve the next (and final) product. Don't assume you can manage your student's time better than they can themselves. They have a lot more information about how they work and their schedule than you ever can. I worked full time to pay the mortgage and feed the kids when I was in school. Any attempts at help like this generally resulted in more late (or sleepless) nights as it forced me to work on the instructor's schedule rather than my own. – Mr.Mindor Aug 6 '15 at 22:36
  • @Mr.Mindor if a student has a personal situation and communicates it with me in advance, I'm generally willing make reasonable exceptions to policy for them. But when I've tested distributed due dates versus the single one, student evals (and, honestly, quality of work) pushed me towards preferring distributed dates for work. If due dates posted well in advance, a working student can get things done likewise well in advance or make any other adjustments they need. – guifa Aug 6 '15 at 23:09

I don't think you should be choosing between 10pm and midnight at all; deadlines should not be in the middle of the night, or the small hours of the morning, or at the weekends or... any time outside a standard working day.

Students are not just at university to get grades; they are also preparing for the rest of their lives in employment and society at large. Also, on the whole, university is not a hobby, it is a full-time job. The messages I'm hearing from your question (and some of the answers) is that it is reasonable to expect to not complete your work until the middle of the night, that it is reasonable to expect others to continue working long after they should have gone home, and that expectations should be adjusted to fit your personal preferences. The last of these will not be true when they start being paid. The other two I personally think are negatively affecting our society. I've become aware of a battle quietly raging over whether it is acceptable to not work overnight, at the weekend and while on holiday.

  • Indeed, some active professionals seem be "on duty" 24h/24 and not to have much time for rest and private life at all. I agree this is somewhat not fair. However, I would also like to point out that a student's timetable will typically show some 20+ hours of class, which is not a full work day. If students choose to program their personal study and homework within the 9-to-5 span, fair play to them - they are showing self-discipline which will probably end up in good results. But if they prefer working at night ... I guess I agree with many that is not my business. – ALAN WARD Aug 7 '15 at 7:26
  • Sorry, no, this is not how it works at many places. University is worse than the true company quite often in that they put really varying workload on the students. Sometimes you get loads of free time, and sometimes you work hard and you can't get around it. Ignoring this as a teacher is plain wrong. Many people simply do work late nights and for students, this is more than usual. It is also given by the fact that at their age, they easily get used to such lifestyle etc. -- this is also not true in industry. – yo' Aug 7 '15 at 7:54
  • None of that has anything to do with setting a deadline at a sensible time of day rather than in the night time. You can do your work in the night if you want, but you have to do it the night BEFORE the deadline. arguing that the workload varies for students is not relevant to moving a deadline by a few hours, if they're getting at least a week to do the work. – Jessica B Aug 7 '15 at 18:38
  • And the reason many academics work all night and weekend is it's the only time they can get on with their jobs without students pestering them about the assignments. – Jessica B Aug 7 '15 at 18:39
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    Young people are typically on a later schedule than older adults, which is one reason they shouldn't be coerced into a 9-5 schedule. – user18072 Aug 9 '15 at 22:28

Got interested at the point "Moodle-type" (system); If possible, I would recommend keeping midnight and removing the "hard" deadline, i.e. people can still submit after the deadline, but will be highlighted (at least that's how it works in Moodle) and disable the assignment some time later (e.g. the next day), but state that submissions after the deadline will not be accepted. Why?

  • 5min off doesn't matter: you can overlook anyone who has a slow connection / forgot to check the clock on their "final sprint" / or whatever
  • If someone submits way too late, you can either outright ignore the submission or reduce their points by some value / percentage (e.g. 10% per day)
  • Midnight is feasible for some nights-but-not-overnights-action, so people "learn" there is a deadline, but still can act a litlle short-term-ish

There will be people deliberately abusing this, but in the end, they (could) end up with 0 points.

Seen & used this approach in a few courses (both as student and teacher) and had little to no problems with it.

Clarification Note: I also rarely started grading 1 or 2 days after the deadline, if you cannot afford such a time-frame, such a "tolerant" approach might not be suitable.

Personally, from my experience as a student, I think midnight is a good deadline. Many students have jobs and other obligations and a midnight deadline gives them time to come home from work, have dinner and unwind and then spend a few hours double checking the assignment before they hand it in.

Moving the deadline to 10pm may not give enough time to students who work.

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    well, they have got enough time ... the day before ... and the day before that ... and ... – yo' Aug 7 '15 at 7:54
  • Almost all comments here from students state that they like to proofread or double check before handing in. I was not referring to actually doing the assignment but just a double check. – confused Aug 7 '15 at 17:02

I recommend that you set the deadline to the time that makes the most sense for you. Arbitrarily setting it earlier or later has no effect on student's time management skills.

As an example, I used to set online homework deadlines to be one hour before the class in which we would go over them started. That way, students wouldn't be trying to work on them until the last minute and would be able to get to class on time. That wasn't out of concern for the students - it was for me. I didn't want to deal with "I was doing the homework" as an excuse, or even a temptation, for being late.

Likewise, setting the deadline earlier would have no benefit to me, and would be arbitrary. I don't know what is going on in my students lives, and giving them the maximum possible time to finish the assignment gives them the freedom to manage their time as they see fit.

The only time I deviated from these rules are when I wanted to make sure that multiple classes had the same amount of time to finish an assignment. In that case, it was still for my convenience, since I wanted to use the homework as an evaluation tool and keeping the length of time to work on it consistent helped with that.

If you think about it, the "real world" works this way too - deadlines are not typically set for the convenience or out of concern for the person doing the work. They are there because someone else (the person determining the deadline) needs the work done by a certain time, or something bad will happen.

That said, it is hard to imagine a situation where "at midnight" is a deadline that makes sense for either you or the students.

  • This. If you plan to start grading them at 4pm on tuesday, then that is the deadline. – RemcoGerlich Aug 10 '15 at 9:48

You could also consider setting two deadlines: one deadline for an initial submission, and a second deadline for the final submission. More students might submit the final version shortly after the second deadline, since they would have received a reward: I already completed that much of it.

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    You then need to clearly define what counts as an initial submission. Is a header file enough for a programming exercise? What if it doesn't compile? And if you do so, then you essentially turned the assignment into two assignments with separate deadlines. – liori Aug 6 '15 at 23:20

Submission time may or may not have anything to do with when a student STARTS the assignment, so even the students turning it in at the last minute may not be under pressure.

As long as you give reasonable deadlines and clearly post them to avoid "gotcha" situations, any deadline you give is certainly fair.

Personally, I usually base deadlines on my needs, but make every effort to give the students the most time I can without creating a burdensome situation for myself or my TAs. For example, if I'd like the TAs to be grading over the weekend, I'll usually make the due date late Friday PM. This way, the TAs have time to assemble their weekend work, and if there are students (actually, teams in my case) that need to be tracked down because there was a problem with the submission, there's still time to do it without impacting the work flow.

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    A different issue is whether it is reasonable to expect TAs to grade over the weekend. – J W Aug 7 '15 at 17:16

protected by eykanal Aug 6 '15 at 23:10

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