The pandemic has had educators across the globe revisiting why they do what they do. We were all urged to be flexible for students, and so during this time I decided to revisit hard and fast due dates, or what I call the “Pumpkin Rule”. You know the rule; the one that says students must submit assignments by midnight on a specific date or fail to have the assignment accepted. Perhaps my eagerness to re-examine hard and fast due dates was influenced by the fact that my earliest childhood memory of the education system is of a first-grade experience when I did not receive back a paper I had worked hard on. The teacher announced that several students had failed to put their names on their papers and as such had received an F. They could come retrieve them, she added; I didn’t. Pierced into my memory was an image of my paper with carefully colored pictures on the classroom floor with a large F written in red ink and circled. It had been walked over and was torn up. I dared not pick it up. Let’s just say I entered the educational world with a sense of suspicion about the rules and penalties some teachers employed. Conversations with my students today lead me to believe that many of my colleagues are practicing similar arbitrary approaches to handling tardiness, lateness, no names, etc. We know the argument: If there are no consequences, students will continue to engage in these behaviors. But I’ve never been a strong proponent of such ideas. Is the penalty really a detriment or just a way to penalize students with attentional issues? Since the pandemic, I’ve learned to let go of some of these ideas completely.
Beginning in the spring of 2020, I started using a new method: The Date To Keep on Track (DTKOT). I instructed students to aim to submit assignments by these dates. There was no penalty for not submitting by the DTKOT, and I did this for all assignments including the final project. I encouraged students to examine their schedules and decide what worked best for them as a deadline for the major project. I let them know that as long as I got their assignment in time to submit my grades on time, I was fine with it. I admit, I was a bit apprehensive as to what might happen if everyone decided to submit their projects in late December. As a way to hedge my bets though, I let my students know that if they submitted the project before the exam (and with enough time for me to grade it before the exam), and if their grade at that point was an A (including their grade on the project), they would be exempt from the exam. To my surprise, I did not receive an abundance of submissions on the last possible due date. Instead, the projects came trickling in at a steady rate. Some before Thanksgiving break, some during, and some after. I got three to five submissions a day for several weeks.
The amazing by-product was that I no longer became incredibly anxious about having to do all of my grading at once. Who wants 60 projects handed in on the same day to grade? Having a DTKOT paced me. I could grade a few projects at a time, and I could give immediate feedback to my students on their projects. Previously, students would leave for the semester before I could give them back their projects with feedback. Sometimes I’d think to myself, “What was the point of all that tedious writing and feedback if the students never saw it?” Now, I am able to ensure students get their feedback when the assignment is still fresh in their mind. I am loving it and my students are too. I can actually enjoy the time before the holidays and alleviate stress, both for myself and for my students. This December marks my fourth run of the DTKOT. Students can allocate and spread out their time to complete the final project while also working on other assignments for other classes. Because of this, grades in my classes have improved. Students report they wish more professors did this. One student told me she would take any course I offered, even one on a subject she disliked because of the flexibility the DTKOT afforded her.
We know from research on the self-determination theory that a sense of control is important for motivation. Allowing students flexibility and the ability to control their end of semester experience helps motivate them through it. Additionally, providing timely feedback is an added benefit and potential motivator. In the workplace, adults are not always subject to arbitrary, hard and fast deadlines. Often, we can work with our employers to set a pace that feels feasible and likely to produce quality work. Why are we denying our students this opportunity? And just as importantly, why are we adding stress to both ourselves and students by waiting for the clock to chime at midnight?
Dr. Kathy Glyshaw is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where she teaches in the psychology department. She has also taught at Loyola University of Maryland, American University, and the University of Delaware, where she received her PhD in clinical psychology. Dr. Glyshaw worked for nearly 20 years in the field of college mental health before devoting herself more fully to teaching.