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Unproductive Student Behaviors- DEADLINES & LAME EXCUSES

Today’s post on deadlines & lame excuses is the third in a series on unproductive student behaviors. It’s depressing to see students making poor decisions about learning.  They don’t come to class, or they arrive unprepared. They miss deadlines and make excuses. (How many times can one grandmother die?!) Many teachers try to prevent negative learning behaviors through policies that punish the offenses.

Highly specific syllabus policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) Inflexible policies have an implied message we may, or may not really intend: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the deadline. Deal with it.” Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse making. Rigid policies may discourage fraudulent excuse making, but at what cost? Blanket policies requiring “written documentation” can be tough to enforce, and who really wants to know about the specifics of a student’s or their family member’s health crisis? In the age of FERPA, this approach isn’t optimal.

Instead of focusing on creating airtight syllabus policies, teachers should ask themselves:

What is your educational rationale for the deadlines?

Have you recently, if ever, considered this question? Do you provide that rationale to students? If students need to be prepared to face strict deadlines after graduation, then firm deadlines in college make sense. But is this necessary in every class? At every level? For all assignments? Explaining the rationale goes a long way toward helping students understand faculty aren’t focused on making life difficult for them. Instead, teachers are interested in preparing students for life after college.

Do you accept late work? What is your reasoning? Have you shared your thinking with students? How much advance warning do you provide about firm deadlines? Do you provide reminders? Faculty often cringe at the idea of reminders. “It’s in the syllabus;” or “I don’t have time to send reminders” are common justifications. But look through your work email.  How many reminder messages do you get each week?

Stuff Happens- How will we deal with it?

I’m proposing a shift in focus from teacher-set cutoffs to deadlines created with some student input. Consider the work we do as faculty. Sometimes, we’re asked to share in setting the structure or timing of commitments: classes, committee meetings, report deadlines, etc. We appreciate having a say in when work is due. A policy we help shape is one we own, and one that we are more likely to live up to.

Instead of a top-down approach, perhaps we need a conversation about why deadlines are important and why they are missed. Do the deadlines only matter to the teacher? Or are deadlines necessary to ensure students make progress in their learning at an appropriate pace throughout the term? What other reasons do teachers have for setting deadlines?  What reasons might students offer for wanting deadlines?  Why are they missed?

The teacher’s role is to provide course structure, including the timing and flow of learning. Can students have some say in the policies regarding late work and the consequences of missed deadlines? Including students in setting guidelines and expectations suggests they are responsible participants in the learning process. Incorporating student input fosters student ownership of the deadline and the learning process.

Here are a few interesting articles (oldies but goodies) discussing collaborative policies and practices that increase student commitment to learning.

Giampetro-Meyer, A. 1997. Encouraging students to demonstrate intellectual behavior that professors respect. College Teaching, 45(3):92-95.

Hiller, T.B., Hietapelto, A.B. 2001. Contract Grading: Encouraging commitment to the learning process through voice in the evaluation process. Journal of Marketing Education, 25(6): 660-684.

Jester, P.V., Duncan, D.D. 1987. Creating a Context of Commitment: Course Agreements as a Foundation. Journal of Management Education, 11(3): 60-71.

What are your views, policies and practices dealing with course deadlines and student excuses in the context of students’ ownership of their learning? Please share!