A clock with wings flying in the air, with another one in the background out of focus. The background is a blurry tan.

Reflecting on “suggested deadlines” for assignments

Over the Fall 2020 semester, I changed my assignment deadline policy, creating “suggested deadlines” instead of enforced ones. I altered the language to “suggested deadline” in my syllabus semester timeline (in which I provide due dates for all assignments), I left submission portals open in the online teaching software, and I did not manually penalize grades for lateness. I made the change out of practicality for the fall semester, and I was personally pleased by the results; however, I wanted to hear from students. After being able to formally obtain student feedback during course evaluations, I wanted to reflect on that change and how I will implement it in future courses.

Previously, when grading policies were up to me, I accepted late assignments with a possible -10% grade penalty reduction per day, although I would waive it for a variety of circumstances. It was easy to enforce using online teaching software which timestamped submissions. This policy seemed to motivate some students, but in retrospect, it made students feel like they had to share their reasons for lateness and justify why they needed an extension. Not only did this late assignment policy increase the number of emails I received and time spent replying that yes, I would still accept it, but it also meant that students were sharing more personal information with me. I suspect that students who did not ask for deadline extensions probably had a reason but didn’t want to share than information in asking for an extension, and really, it is none of my business what else is going on in their life.

However, I made the decision to allow any assignments to be turned in after the due date without a penalty, in part because the pandemic shifted the amount and type of work most students were doing. Many of them reported an increased workload, having to attend remote classes in their car, trouble with internet access with so many other users on their network, and of course, power and internet outages are common in Maine when trees topple utility lines. If I had enforced assignment deadlines, then a third to a half of my students were in danger of failing the course because of lack of work, but not because of poor quality of work. This was unreasonable to me, especially in my undergraduate research course where I would be effectively be penalizing students for delays caused by their research mentors or haled research on campus.

So, I made the decision to trust my students to manage their own motivations and time management. After all, they are legal adults, they are not first years, and they have chosen to continue their education despite the financial burden and other constraints. More than that, almost all of my graded assignments with significant weight in the class are essay based, which means I can get a feel for the students’ writing voice and it is really easy to identify plagiarism by the change in tone or maturity of the writing. If being able to turn in an assignment late meant students’ could copy each other’s assignments, I should be able to catch it even without the online plagiarism checking software.

I was concerned that I would receive all the assignments on the very last day, and was dreading the avalanche of grading that would unleash on me. Instead, assignments trickled in on a regular basis, several hours to several months late depending on the students’ circumstances, some of which were later disclosed to me. Instead of getting sloppy, thrown-together assignments, I think the quality of writing and the depth of student critical thinking were improved. Students later reported being able to spend more time on the assignment when they had control over when that time could be spent. And, despite having the most students in the most difficult semester to get through, I discovered no instances of plagiarism.

I think I will make the move to suggested deadlines semi-permanent (some deadlines will be enforced based on if it is time-sensitive). The online teaching software I use can be set to assign a 0 to missing assignments, to email me when submissions are received, and to add conditions to submission portals, such as having first submitted another assignment or having received feedback on a previous assignment (like a previous draft of a paper). I can schedule automatic email reminders about assignments, email only students who are missing assignments, and students can check their grades and assignment lists online at any time. Not only does this dramatically reduce the time I spend chasing after assignments, but it gives students more agency in being able to participate in the class on their own time.

Certainly not every class can be structured this way or allow for flexible deadlines. But, I think a lot of them could be, and I think in most cases it would improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Below, you can find the comments on my two fall course evaluations, and you can check out my previous posts on curricula development or my teaching statements.


For much of the fall semester, assignment deadlines were open ended. Do you think keeping open ended deadlines (as in, you turn in things when they are ready but [not] on a specific date) next year would make this class better? Do you think you would be able to keep up with assignments without deadlines? Or do you think the deadlines help keep you on track?

My question from the course evaluations for this fall

Comments

  • I think the soft deadlines kept me in check, however it’s nice to know that if things unexpectedly get crazy for me that I won’t be penalized for taking extra time to make sure that I submit quality work.
  • I very much appreciated the flexibility in deadlines for this class as many other classes ramp up at the end of the semester. I felt as though I could control my workload with the assignments set up like this, and would recommend keeping the deadlines as suggestions to where you should be up to date in the course, but the actual submission deadline remains later in the semester.
  • You could do once a month check ins or something to verify nobody is completely slacking off. Maybe have three major deadlines to force people to keep up – one at the end of October, end of November and then the final submission?
  • The deadlines really helped keep me on track. Dr. Sue Ishaq was more than lenient with due dates and the work load, so I do not think anyone would have an excuse to not do well in this course (although this was really helpful with the troubling times humanity is facing). I think being more strict would be more fair to her as a professor and would help students not take advantage of being able to put things off and not learn the material.
  • I think the open ended deadlines was really helpful. It allowed me to put the time in when I could rather than rushing to get it done and turned in for the due date.
  • I appreciated having the due dates so I could try to get stuff in at a reasonable time but also that the deadlines were flexible so if something came up I wouldn’t turn in something I wasn’t happy with. I had a different class with no deadlines and it was horrible, I need the structure to be there but to also have the leniency for when things aren’t going well.
  • In this new quarantined world, the open deadlines were essential to academic success. While I didn’t struggle in this class necessarily, I did struggle in chemistry, pre calculus and lab with out the aid of study groups, math labs, and lab partners. Having open dead lines in this course not only affected my academic success in this course, but it also snow balled in a positive way and helped my GPA overall.
  • I think open ended deadlines with a suggested deadline would be the most helpful, because it will reduce the stress of deadlines, and allow for leeway in the case of multiple courses having work do on the same day, but it also gives a time frame around when the work should be done
  • The lack of deadlines required self–discipline but also removed the daunting aspect of the due date, which I often find myself deterred by and ultimately more likely to put off the work. I felt that the assignments were more inviting this way.
  • I think that this semester it was very beneficial to have the open ended deadlines. For me personally, I prefer to have deadlines to keep me on track, but I appreciate the flexibility of the open–ended deadlines.
  • I think having the open ended, suggestive deadlines made for a much easier semester. It took off a lot of stress to know that I could have an extra day if needed. Sometimes we get peaks in the semester where we’re slammed with work and knowing that if I needed an extra day or two to complete an assignment was really reassuring.
  • Thank you for being understanding on deadlines as this semester has been crazy, although the soft deadlines kept me on track without penalizing me for taking extra time if needed.
  • I think ended open deadlines do help due to things become crazier as the whole covid thing continues
  • I feel that open ended deadlines next year would make this class better because due to recent events in the world it is sometimes difficult communicating with project mentors. By having open ended deadlines, I know when it is supposed to be due, but if I am missing some information from someone on the project I do not worry as much about getting in trouble for handing it in late.
  • yes this is hard to juggle long term projects with weekly class deadlines. So open ended is the best for this class.
  • I believe the structure of fall semester deadlines was great.
  • I feel like open ended deadlines are very helpful because you would be able create better quality work with your research. I feel like I would be about to keep up with work without deadlines or just create the deadline for the end of the semester and put reminders.
  • I think a more strict set of deadlines could’ve been helpful as far as tracking progress. Exceptions could still be made for those struggling on a topic, or who are unable to start for some reason out of their control.
  • This semester, while everyone has been adjusting to the new way of pandemic life, the open ended deadlines were extremely helpful and stress relieving.
  • yes I think there should be soft deadlines, there is a date that it should be done but we didn’t have to have it done by then
  • Having a general guideline about when things should be turned in has been helpful, but keeping the deadlines open ended has relieved a lot of stress and has enabled me to produce better work because I was not rushed.
  • The deadlines kept me on track and having no deadlines would have me just turn everything in at the end which is bad.
  • I liked the deadlines. I would have kept all the work till the last minute if we didn’t. However, the open ended deadlines meant that even if you were behind, you wouldn’t be penalized which really helped.
  • I think open ended deadlines are a great idea because it allowed me to not feel pressured to submit something that I did not feel was ready. Without that stress, I was able to submit all of my assignments on time with the open ended deadline and not during the later one, which was helpful!

Featured Image Credit

Perspective on developing curricula

At the University of Maine, I am currently developing two new courses based on similar material I’ve taught previously at the University of Oregon and Montana State University. I’ve written about several of those classes, including a retrospective after teaching ‘Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes’ to humanities students. Here, with the spring semester commencing this week, I thought I would share my approaches to developing coursework. While a class doesn’t stand on organizational physique alone, it can go a long way to facilitating your communication with your students, their understanding of course expectations, and their ability to assimilate the information you are disseminating.

Organization of materials

The nature of my teaching means means that I don’t assign readings from a textbook, I curate reading lists for my students from current scientific literature, which changes a little each year. Because of this, and the need for file management, I have a few tricks. First, I have a folder (on my computer and the online teaching tool) specific to readings for that class. I curate the file name with first author, year, and few words from the title so I can keep track of what it is (ex. Zhulin_2015_databases_review). I duplicate that file name in my syllabus, so I can copy and paste instead of writing it out again.

I format my syllabus as a table, and add each reading to the day on which it is assigned. If I move lectures around, I move the whole table row, so I can migrate assignments and readings along with lecture titles. Lastly, because the readings are specific to lecture and date assigned, I mimic that order in my file names by numbering them all instead of leaving them in alphabetic order (ex. 10_Zhulin_2015_databases_review), to facilitate knowing when and which is assigned.

And I don’t just number them by order, I number them by lecture so students or I can just match the lecture number across the lecture files, assigned readings, etc.

Written assignments (when logistically possible)

A stack of papers facedown on a table.

There’s no easy way to grade written assignments from students, but I prefer it to exam-style assessments. Particularly in teaching microbial ecology and sequencing data analysis, there’s not a lot of strict memorization like there is in anatomy. The material lends itself more to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing mock scientific manuscripts. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, say, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off.

Written assignments allow me to give them feedback, including grammatical corrections, suggestion on sentence structure, pointing out leaps of logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.

Red pen.
Photo credit: Merriam-Webster

In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more information than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.

Stacking assignments for improved retention

It takes time to become familiar with new information. That’s why school subjects are taught multiple times, or in specific orders, as you progress through education. I have 13 – 15 weeks in a semester (or 10 in a quarter!) to on-board students and teach them a skill. For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first introduction, or their first formal introduction, to the subject.

Especially for my host-associated microbial courses, there are hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that inhabit us. Without that history, an explanation of the available technology, and a discussion of how that technology shaped the view we had, I can’t do justice to the majority of the coursework where I explain how we discovered the relationship between salivation and the microbial community geography in your mouth. The first section of my ‘host-associated’ course includes this background information, and a discussion of current technology, which is reiterated when later discussing literature and how technological shortcomings can hamper our understanding of a microbial community.

To give students more time to practice the material, I give related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and stack assignments. Students start with a non-technical summary of a paper; 1-ish paragraph where they have to introduce the paper and why it was done, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is a great way for students to gain familiarity. When it comes time to write a two-page essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose.

An inclusive syllabus

A syllabus is a document which encompasses the important information for the class, including meeting times and rooms, grading policy, lecture and assignment schedule, required reading materials, and more. It can be used to recruit students to sign up for the class, and once in attendance, it’s the first impression students have. It’s where they refer for questions about the course, what’s expected of them, and where to find instructions on assignments. I write my syllabi in a way that makes sense to me, the instructor, and I welcome feedback from students when my instructions are confusing. But, I also welcome feedback from different student populations in order to make the language and presentation of the document more approachable. Sometimes you just need something to break the ice. Like a paper turkey hat.

Sue wearing a paper hat shaped like a turkey.
Wearing the turkey hat that my mentee and I made.

I haven’t actually worn a turkey hat to teach a class, that’s too informal. I dress up like an anatomically-annotated dissected cat, because I’m a professional. Or, I ran regular class discussions that occasionally got heated and were monopolized by a fraction of the class. The next year, I took a stronger moderator stance and would impose more restrictions (“Ok the next comment HAS to use the word “microbes”). I don’t like calling on students, so the next time I have discussions I think I’m going to give them all D20 dice and have them roll for initiative on the order of presenting comments. I also added this to my syllabi:

Class participation: Students are expected to participate in discussions in class.  I strive to create inclusive discussions, but if students still find it challenging to participate please notify me and I will alter the discussion format as needed.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Most universities also require text or links to their campus policies, driven by federal, state, or university law. These include a statement about accommodations for disabilities, although many faculty are happy to make accommodations without the student receiving prior approval. I started allowing students to occasionally attend lectures by video conferencing, if they notified me ahead of time. It allowed students who were ill or traveling to keep pace with the material, and I have even remotely conference-videoed in to a student’s laptop to present when I was home sick but didn’t want to cancel class.

New this year, I’ve included text about students missing classes for parenting or caregiving responsibilities, something I don’t currently participate in, so it was not something I thought to include information on until someone else (Jenn Perry) gave me their perspective. Now I have this:

Pregnancy, lactation, and parenting: I am happy to make accommodations for students based on pregnancy, lactation, and parental needs, as well as work with the Office of Equal Opportunities. Maine state and UMaine policy allows students to breastfeed in any space, including in class. If a lactation space is required, please contact E.O. for arrangements.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Similarly, a tweet by Dave Baltrus about including inclusive statements such as information for food insecure students led me to add this:

Food insecure? Need clothes? Check out the Black Bear Exchange’s Food Pantry: https://umaine.edu/volunteer/black-bear-exchange/ or Old Town Crossroads Ministry.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

And finally, I added text about mandatory reporting. As a public university employee, I am obligated to notify the University of Maine Title IX office about criminal actions towards or by anyone on campus. If a student reveals information to me, I have to pass it on to the Title IX office which will then discretely reach out to the student with resources. The office advocates for anyone on campus, but they are particular important in situations involving students who are low on the power scale and cannot advocate for themselves. While my door is always open to students looking for help, I felt it was important for them to know that I might not be able to keep the meeting confidential.

Inclusiveness in the classroom is important to me, because if students don’t feel welcome, comfortable, and free from hunger, they can’t learn. Despite what opponents think, this doesn’t involve “coddling” or “being too soft”. It means being realistic in my expectations about how people learn and what else they are dealing with that might be inhibiting that. It means that I learn to be more proficient at communication and personnel management, which are vital skills for academics. And it means that we all elevate our skills together.

Silhouettes of four people jumping in a dark cave.