Flexible Due Dates: How it Works in College & K12

due dates
(Image credit: Image by Mint Miller from Pixabay)

The concept of loosening due dates used to terrify me. 

However, recently thanks to the advice of some innovative educators, I instituted flexible due dates in my classes with positive results. Through my experience and conversations with these educators, I've learned that there are many misconceptions about flexible due dates and our collective thinking around deadlines is overdue for an update. 

Flexible Due Dates are Implemented on a Spectrum 

Not all flexible due dates course design looks the same. For example, Holly Owens, who teaches graduate instructional design classes at Touro College and hosts the EdUp EdTech podcast, includes due dates on her course schedule. However, these are soft due dates, as students have a four- or five-day grace period afterward in which they can submit work without penalty. 

If they miss that grace period, they can still submit up until the end of the semester with only a 5-point deduction out of a 100-point submission. 

Dr. Kathryn J. Biacindo’s online education courses at Fresno State are more truly self-paced. Though there is a course calendar that provides students with a sense of the order in which they can complete assignments, they’re free to finish the course early or binge on several assignments at the end of the semester. There is no pressure to stick to the course schedule.  

Briana Breen, a grad student of Biacindo's at Fresno State and a second-grade teacher in California, links flexible due dates with mastery learning, which also eliminates grading. Her students are given time to gain proficiency in a topic before moving on to the next phase of the class. If that means a student needs more time to complete an assignment, Breen is perfectly fine with that. “I don't penalize students for not doing homework because outside the classroom, I can't control what happens. Students have a million things going on in their life just like I do,” she says. But structuring her classes around mastery and student achievement instead of grades and due dates has made students more enthusiastic about completing assignments. 

In my classes, I tend to take an approach that is similar to Owens. I still have due dates but now include brief "grace periods" during which students can submit work without penalties. If they miss the grace period, small penalties start to accrue. In the workshop writing classes I teach, keeping as close to a schedule is important. However, building some flexibility into the class helps provide students who have fallen behind a lifeline to catch up to their classmates. 

Flexible Due Dates Can Reduce Stress and Increase Productivity  

The goal behind flexible due dates is to reduce stress while maximizing opportunities for student success. Giving students who miss a due date an opportunity to catch up encourages them to keep engaging with the class rather than give up. “It's kind of like when you start eating healthy or exercising and you miss one day, you're like, ‘I just give up.’ I don't want that,” Owens says. 

Both Biacindo and Breen have researched the impact of due dates and other mastery-based strategies on their students. Their results overwhelmingly favor the more flexible approach. 

Breen says letting her students know that a writing assignment is due at the end of the week, but they can take more time if they need to, reduces student panic, which helps drive the increase in productivity she sees from students. “The worst thing to see in a student is a panic because it closes their mind. It takes away their growth mindset,” she says. 

I found that to be the case as well. In the past students who have missed assignments early often fall too far behind to succeed and end up either dropping or failing the class. Since I've included more opportunities for students to catch up, I've seen certain students excel who may not have in the past. 

Not Everyone Waits Until The Last Minute Without Due Dates 

My nightmare scenario before I started offering flexible due dates was being buried under a mountain of ungraded assignments at the end of the semester. But that doesn’t actually happen, say flexible due date practitioners. 

“The majority of students are on deadline or right next to it,” Owens says. “It's a few students who you're accommodating.” To manage her time, Owens lets students know that if a submission is late, she may not grade it right away but will instead wait until her next scheduled grading session. 

Even in Biacindo’s self-paced courses, not every student waits until the end of the semester to submit work. “About a third of my students will finish early, then I have a third who are normal, and then I have a third who are bingers, but that's their personal learning style and they’re allowed to express it,” she says. 

While this flexible schedule does give her more to grade during the final week of each semester, she factors that time in from the beginning and says it remains manageable. 

Another common misconception about flexible due dates is that courses that employ this approach are less rigorous. Flexible due dates should not be linked to academic rigor. For instance, I teach graduate writing courses that require students to complete a great deal of work that includes producing a lot of original writing and providing detailed feedback on the writing of their classmates. The course is a lot of work, and giving students a little more breathing room on an assignment doesn't change that.

Instructor Feedback Still Matters Without Due Dates  

When I teach writing, assignments build progressively and my hope is that students improve based upon my feedback throughout the semester. On the surface, this seems undoable with flexible due dates. However, the idea of learning new skills and then building on these skills is at the heart of mastery education – and even without due dates instructor feedback remains key. 

Instead of keeping students to a preconceived schedule, Breen makes sure they’ve learned a previous lesson before they advance to the next. “Most of the material, especially in K through 12, it's all building bridges,” she says. “When we push the kids through on [a topic] without it being completely mastered, it just weakens their learning for the next step of it.” 

In her classes, Owens says she’s often able to provide more feedback in a condensed amount of time to students who have fallen behind. However, there are times when students fall too far behind and will need to withdraw from the course or take an incomplete. 

Group Work Without Due Dates and "Real Life"  

Another concern I've had with due dates is group work and peer review. I teach a writing workshop in which students are required to read 15-20 page submissions from classmates and provide detailed feedback and line edits. It feels unfair to ask others to adjust their schedules to accommodate students who submit late work, which is why I still have due dates, just more flexible ones. 

When it comes to this type of work and due dates,  it can be necessary to find creative ways to incorporate group work and assignments more flexibly. For instance, Biacindo makes group work optional. “There are people who like to run solo, but if you do things in a group, it will be a little easier, and so I give them that option,” she says. 

One common argument in favor of a due date is that’s how the real world works. Only it isn’t.

Supervisors who give rigid arbitrary deadlines are also supervisors who have trouble keeping employees. Even in the world of journalism, in which a due date is as important as almost any professional field, it is not generally etched in stone. It’s common for journalists working outside of breaking news to ask for, and be granted, small extensions. I ask for these regularly. I even asked for one for this story. Thankfully, I wasn’t penalized. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.