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Fact Check: Are Flexible Student Deadlines at Odds With Real Life?

Will flexibility around due dates deliver a reprieve for stressed-out students—or ruin them for real-world work? A high school teacher examines the practice.

September 30, 2022

One Sunday evening last spring, I opened my work email to see a request from a student: He was very sorry, but he had underestimated how much work he needed to do for an important oral presentation. Could he receive an extension?

Teachers are familiar with these emails that arrive the day—or night—before a project is due. I considered writing back that the deadline had been set a month ago and that since we’d met to discuss his plan already, he should just do his best. But the student, Alex (a pseudonym), had been sick the prior week with Covid-19 and had missed work in all classes. Alex also noted that he had worked through multiple revisions of the presentation, but he felt stuck. His request could be seen as an example of honest self-assessment and critical reflection.

Deadlines set by teachers are a source of student stress but can have clear value. Check-in dates help students break complex processes into manageable chunks as they plan and progress through course goals, and final deadlines can help them organize and prioritize work, complete tasks that are required to move to the next sequential skills, and avoid the anxiety of missed work piling up at the end of the term. (Having a due date for this article, for instance, helped me decide which of my many tasks to tackle when.) Teachers benefit too: Managing moving due dates for 150 students can quickly turn into chaos.

For many educators, strict adherence to deadlines is just one of many important skills they expect students to master before entering college and the world of work. “There is a camp that believes that setting deadlines and meeting deadlines is a life skill, and if we don’t hold kids accountable in K–12, then they won’t know how to perform in jobs,” says Denise Clark Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education and cofounder of Challenge Success. “But a lot of us who teach have realized flexibility is key.”

It’s almost certainly not a zero-sum game in life, or in classrooms, and the challenge for teachers such as me, and for leaders in business for that matter, is to judge when flexibility can improve work outcomes and lessen stress—and when it’s important to firmly enforce deadlines.

What Is Flexible and What Isn’t?

Middle and high school-aged students are stressed—and that’s been going on since before the pandemic. Research points to excessive homework loads, pressure to compete for coveted spots at competitive colleges, and lives increasingly shaped by smartphones and social media use. Even the word deadline is stress-inducing, with roots in a Civil War–era line drawn around a prison that an inmate crossed “at the risk of being shot,” according to Merriam-Webster. Some teachers are almost that deadly serious about grades, opting to mark zeros for late work or docking 10 percent each day, making completion after four days nearly pointless.

In the much-cited “real world,” however, when a challenge to an anticipated timeline arises, colleagues often meet to discuss how to work with it, whether more people will need to join the task, or which due dates need to be revised. (Plus, few adult workers have as many as eight people they must report to, with separate policies, as students do with their teachers.)

When Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, and her colleagues surveyed working adults in 2021 about their willingness to ask for deadline extensions, they discovered that 53 percent of respondents’ task deadlines were in fact adjustable. In the same study, Whillans and her team found that, based on survey responses from 10,000 working professionals, asking for deadline extensions is generally viewed favorably by managers—and it decreases employee stress while improving performance.

Yet employees, especially women, rarely asked for extensions, even when it was clear that due dates were flexible. They worried that managers “would think they were incompetent and unmotivated,” the researchers wrote, even though “in contrast to employees’ predictions, managers judged both male and female employees who asked for an extension as more motivated than those who did not,” the researchers concluded.

If emulating real work conditions is an end goal, then perhaps holding your ground on all student extension requests doesn’t make sense, given the Harvard workplace findings. To figure out which due dates are fixed and which are mutable, teachers might consider whether students are asking for extensions too frequently, whether adjusting the due date impacts any other student work, whether the completion date of the particular assignment is inherently difficult to gauge, or whether providing a little breathing space might allow the student to do better work.

Especially for students dealing with organizational issues, unilaterally inflexible deadlines without opportunity to revise contribute to high levels of anxiety around work completion. New Jersey parent Maureen Gallagher has found that homework zeros can accumulate very quickly for her child who has ADHD. Even though he tests well, his grades reflect attentiveness to tasks outside the classroom rather than mastery of material. To add to the frustration, teachers often are strict with students but then late themselves to enter grades, so students don’t realize how many zeros they have until it’s too late.

When Flexibility Is Baked In

A Universal Design for Learning framework acknowledges these contradictions and frustrations by emphasizing student choice and participation in task designs and goal-setting and helps support all learners, according to advocates. Students encounter goals, timetables, planning resources, and check-ins, as well as tasks with strong inherent interest, through collaborative planning and strong scaffolding.

Some schools have this process of continuous revision to one’s thinking built in through standards-based or mastery-based grading. “The question of ‘Did you turn it in on time’ becomes even more arbitrary if you are operating under the notion that students have multiple opportunities to do the work and try again throughout the term or year,” says Nataliya Braginsky, a social studies teacher and 2021 National History Teacher of the Year. At Metropolitan Business Academy, the magnet high school in New Haven, Connecticut, where Braginsky teaches, students receive benchmarks and guidelines but are not penalized for late work unless the work never comes.

Research backs up the effectiveness of offering regrading or multiple opportunities to submit drafts, in both humanities and STEM fields. Two different studies show that allowing students to be late without question by one to two days increased both turned-in work and student engagement and learning. That’s the flexibility sweet spot: According to a 2019 research paper, stretching due dates by a week or more resulted in a steep drop in the rate of students turning in work. Students also tend to appreciate and feel they learned more when given the opportunity to get a revised grade on a draft effort, according to a 2022 study.

Deadlines, of course, can help students prioritize, and some students do well with fixed due dates. But even fixed due dates can be generated collaboratively and revised as longer projects and papers wind on—a common practice in the professional world, where deadlines are initially agreed upon, and then often extended as the complexities of a project become clearer. Braginsky, for instance, checks in with her classes throughout a project, especially during new units or work outside the classroom, and revises due dates if students need more time to do good work.

Finding the Right Degree of Flexibility

If extensions are common in the work world, then finding your own sweet spot—the point at which both you and the student are able to function at a reasonably high level—is the sanest way to manage the question of flexibility around deadlines. There are many places to start.

Allow extensions selectively: Teacher approaches to due dates can range from limited to near-total flexibility. Limited flexibility might include giving passes for late work—with two to three passes a semester, no explanation required. Stanford’s Pope says that “just having that lowers the tension; even if they don’t end up using it, it is a way to lower the stress.” A second approach is to allow extensions as long as the student asks 24 to 48 hours before the due date, although this approach does not account for sudden emergencies. A third option is to allow any assignment to be handed in two days late without penalty.

Grade completion and quality separately: I often input two separate grades, one for completion and one for the academic quality of the work submitted. The completion grade is not worth a lot—in fact, I make it a binary of 0–1 in most cases—but it cannot be changed. This separates critical thinking and academic work from compliance or work habits, as Jennifer Gonzalez suggests, without entirely conceding the issue of deadlines. It can also be part of a standards-based grading approach, where students and teachers are clearly and continuously communicating goals and how to reach them, and therefore feel safer taking risks.

Take a mastery approach: Greater flexibility by necessity invokes mastery-based approaches, in which students have an array of tasks throughout the semester where they may set the due dates or check-ins collaboratively. Kathy Gentle, a chemistry teacher in Stamford, Connecticut, says her deadline is really the end of the marking period. Work in chemistry does build on prior work, and she reviews the sequence at the beginning of the year. But turning in something on time doesn’t mean the work is good, she notes, and having a strict deadline doesn’t mean students observe it. “I know that kids have other things going on in their lives,” she says. “I let them be a little more responsible for deciding what they need to get done when.”

With all of this in mind, I considered my response to Alex. Yes, I wrote, you can present at a later date. But, I added, come in at your originally scheduled time to discuss your ideas. In the end, Alex was learning how to manage due dates, stress, and his sense of what was possible both in his analysis and in his relationship to authority. This was as important an insight as one he might have about Hamlet or any other text we studied.

As teachers, we have to evaluate how much the deadline is part of the progression of student learning and how much it is for our own convenience (important too!) or sense of power and order. In the end-of-year class survey, Alex wrote that he felt “immense relief” when he received my email granting the extension. With extra time to discuss and revise, he decided to fully change a text he was discussing. He had a breakthrough, he wrote, and actually enjoyed the work.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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