“I thought it was a fairer and more inclusive policy,” says Kassor, an associate professor of religious studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He hoped the flexibility would provide much-needed breathing room for students dealing with challenges outside the classroom.
But he found that too many students waited until the last day of term to complete eight weeks of work, and he couldn’t tell which of them struggled along the way. “The learning didn’t happen the way I planned,” says Kassor.
Deadlines are a building block of college courses—they help students stay on track and ensure that teachers aren’t overwhelmed with an overwhelming workload for grades at the end of the term. And many professors have long championed deadlines, arguing that it’s part of preparing students for their post-college lives. But late work policies were a natural point of adjustment for professors during the pandemic: Many veered in the opposite direction, replacing punitive policies like point deductions with broad flexibility.
Most of the teachers are back in the physical classroom this school year, but the context in which they teach has changed. The pandemic made student stressors—from mental health issues to financial and family responsibilities—more widespread and harder to ignore. It also made professors more open to different ways of teaching. As instructors ponder what pandemic-era accommodations to keep, a new question has emerged: When it comes to assignment deadlines, what is the right flexibility to offer students?
He had always been pretty lenient about giving extensions. But when he saw how badly the pandemic was affecting his students, he decided to make it clear in his syllabus that he would not deduct points for late work. “It felt like one less trauma for them,” he says.
In most cases, he has found that students still turn in their work on time. And those who take advantage of his policy are often students whose skills improve a lot over the course of the semester, he says. Most of her students come from vulnerable populations, and Halstead thinks “they just needed a little extra time.”
“I’m looking forward to the semester where I regret it,” she says. “And I haven’t come across it yet.”
Professors who support total leniency say flexible policies on late work recognize that students are human and that balancing non-academic responsibilities and personal challenges with coursework requires a degree of grace on the part of the instructor. Some academics also argue that traditional ways of dealing with late work are fundamentally unfair.
Occasional policies such as assigning grades for each day late are intended to motivate students to stay on top of their work. But some professors are uneasy about the idea of deducting points for otherwise high-quality work; they fear that it unfairly penalizes students for living conditions that make it difficult to complete assignments on time.
This includes a student who is struggling with housing or food needs, or who is caring for a sick family member. That includes neurodivergent students, says Rua Williams, assistant professor of computer graphics technology at Purdue University, who uses their/their pronouns.
Too often, it is the student who is empowered, confident, or socialized enough to know that they can request an extension.
Williams does not penalize students for missing deadlines. Getting formal accommodations through a university’s disability office can be expensive and inaccessible, Williams says — especially for students with neurocognitive disabilities.
Williams would rather “treat everyone as if they were technically disabled in some way.” Instead, they use deadlines to track which students are falling behind so they can provide them with individualized support.
“You can’t just be flexible,” Williams says. “You must be engaged too.”
Gurung, who also teaches psychology courses at Oregon State, says he was “implicitly flexible” before the pandemic. Although flexible policies may not be specifically outlined in the course syllabus, she and many of her colleagues understood when students requested leniency — and assumed that if a student needed an extension, they would ask for it. The problem with this approach, he notes, is that “too often it’s the student who is empowered or confident or socialized enough to know that they can request an extension.”
This puts first-generation students and other students from marginalized groups at a disadvantage. Georgetown University senior Sarah Craig says she didn’t ask for an extension until her junior year of college. “As a first-generation college student, I didn’t feel like I had the credibility or understanding of how to navigate higher education to do well in it,” says Craig.
Gurung says he was generally flexible in the early stages of the pandemic. Now he’s trying to find ways to add deadline flexibility to his 400-person introductory course. For example, he recently created a 24-hour buffer for all of his assignment deadlines. And if students need extra time, they can fill out a Google form to get a two-day extension. Such “limited flexibility” is meant to be “an equalizer between students who have a great high school education and are well socialized for college and those who haven’t,” says Gurung. Therefore, structure is an important part of the inclusive teaching puzzle.
But highly structured, he notes, is not the same as rigid. Arguments for rigidity have long centered on the idea that strict policies teach time management and personal responsibility, preparing students for their working lives. Proponents of the modified flexibility point out that in the real world, some deadlines are important, while others are not. They say the best they can do is let their students know which deadlines are firm and which are flexible.
The structure can be especially useful for teachers who teach large classes, where the administrative implications of generally flexible tardy policies are significant, says Viji Sathy, associate dean for assessment and evaluation in the University of North Carolina’s Office of Undergraduate Studies. Chapel Hill, where he is also a professor of psychology and neuroscience. Late work piles up, extension requests flood teachers’ inboxes, and the difficulty of tracking the progress of 40 or 50 students can be overwhelming.
Leaving Covid, Sathy and her colleagues are developing resources for instructors to think about how they can balance responsibility and compassion. “We don’t want people to revert too hard to a rigid policy,” he says. But at the same time, “you can’t give students complete flexibility and still feel like you have gas in the tank for yourself.”
While research may suggest that a late-changing structured approach to work promotes engagement, Sathy says there is little research on which policies are fairer or more effective. “The shell pathway is there, but in this case, the middle pathway is very diverse and its effects are not really well understood,” he says.
Sathy decided that there was no point in throwing deadlines out the window in his own courses; he often teaches more than 400 students per semester, and most assignments consist of weekly sets of assignments that build on each other. In his class, deadlines have pedagogical value.
“We need to give you timely feedback to meet the course objectives,” says Sathy. “And the best way for that to happen is if we switch things around on a regular schedule.”
Still, he wanted to offer his students some flexibility, so he offers a 24-hour deadline buffer for his weekly assignments. He also lowers his students’ lowest assignment score and changed his scoring system to encourage punctuality over perfection.
Steven D. Krause, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University, had met the deadlines. He was one of the “older white men who stuck to being really strict,” as he puts it. But he says the pandemic humanized him and he’s now more lenient about extensions. That’s partly because he’s had to contend with the pandemic’s lingering impact on student preparedness and well-being. He noticed that a handful of students in his first-year writing course — which he’s teaching in person for the first time since 2018 — had to adjust to the demands of an in-person college course. She had to lower her expectations for things like deadlines and attendance, especially at the beginning of the semester.
Kassor thinks that’s partly why so many of her students waited until the last minute to submit their work, when she stopped deducting points related to deadlines. While some were engaged in intense challenges, he suspected that others—especially those who had just graduated from high school online—simply didn’t know how to manage their time.
After a semester-long experiment with extensive flexibility, Kassor decided to radically change his policy: He would not accept late work for any reason, he told his students.
Instead, he redesigned his course so that all assignments were low; instead of submitting a paper worth 20 percent of their grade, students would submit an outline for 5 percent, a first draft for another 5 percent, and so on. He also scored 10 extra points on the course. Both changes were intended to ensure that students could skip an assignment or two and still succeed in the course.
According to Kassor, now he can better identify which students are struggling with the material and intervene if necessary. Nor does it have to decide what constitutes a valid excuse for an extension.
“Is someone helping a family member with Covid or did someone just sleep through the alarm and not come to class? Often I don’t know the whole story and it’s not my job,” he said.