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How strict should you be? A guide to assignment due dates.

Colleges typically require instructors to include a calendar of assignment due dates in every course syllabus. But most syllabi also include a disclaimer that assignment deadlines are subject to change.  

So, how flexible should deadlines really be in a college course?  

Be Flexible, or be Rigid, but Always be Consistent 

Be consistent in your approach to deadline flexibility, whether you never accept late work or are always willing to make an exception. Nothing irritates strong students more than their instructor announcing, “Since so many of you asked for more time on the assignment that was due today, I’m extending its deadline to next week.”  

Syllabi should always include a clearly stated policy about the circumstances under which late work might be accepted, if at all.  

But should this policy be applied equally to low-stakes and high-stakes assignments? 

Low-Stakes Assessments  

If a course has many low-stakes assessments, like quizzes or homework problems, those assignments are usually due on the same day each week.  

For example, if class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there might a reading quiz due every Monday, to ensure that students are prepared for the week’s in-class discussions, and a homework problem due every Friday, to verify understanding of the week’s concepts. 

Here are three solid approaches to deadline flexibility for low-stakes assessments: 

1. Not flexible: Late work is never accepted  

  • If a student misses a deadline, they receive zero points on that assignment. 

This approach works best in courses that have many low-stakes assignments, such as reading quizzes on every textbook chapter, where missing one or two deadlines will not jeopardize a student’s understanding of the core concepts nor greatly impact their final letter grade. 

2. Somewhat flexible: Late work is accepted, at a penalty  

  • If a student misses a deadline, they can submit the assignment late, but their score will be penalized a specified amount (e.g. -5 points). 

This approach works best in courses where content acquisition is scaffolded such that missing one assignment will negatively impact a student’s understanding of core concepts and successful completion of future assignments. In this case, students who miss deadlines should be permitted to complete the missed assignments, but with a small scoring penalty to encourage on-time submissions in future weeks. 

3. Very flexible: Late work is made up, with instructor permission 

  • If a student misses a deadline, they must contact the instructor and arrange an alternate way to complete the assignment (e.g. by taking a make-up quiz during the instructor’s office hours). 

This approach works best in courses where low-stakes assessments are considered part of a student’s participation grade. In this case, missing a deadline is like missing a class meeting. Students should be encouraged to initiate contact with the instructor to arrange a way to verify their understanding of the missed assignment’s concepts.  

High-Stakes Assessments  

Every course has one or more high-stakes assessments, such as exams or research papers. These assessments are weighted more heavily (worth more of the overall course grade) than lower-stakes assessments because these are higher-level demonstrations of students’ proficiency in the course outcomes. Failure to successfully complete high-stakes assessments generally leads to failure of the entire course. 

What kind of flexibility is appropriate then for key, high-stakes course assessments? 

1. Not flexible: Deadlines do not change, under any circumstances  

  • If a student misses a deadline, they receive zero points on that assessment. 

This is the most common approach to deadlines for high-stakes assessments. It is rare for a college instructor to permit students to make up a missed midterm or final exam because students making up an exam would receive the unfair advantage of more time to prepare for the exam. Also, many final exams are scheduled for the very end of term, when there is no time remaining for make-up testing before instructors must report course grades to the college. 

2. Somewhat flexible: Deadlines are extended, at a penalty 

  • If a student misses a deadline, they can submit the assessment late, but their score will be penalized a specified amount (e.g. one letter grade per day). 

This approach is more common for midterm assessments, or for courses with single high-stakes assessments, such as a research paper that students work on throughout the term. If students who miss the deadline for a high-stakes assessment can still submit their work, but their score is heavily penalized, the course grades will accurately reflect the students’ term-long proficiency in the course outcomes. For example, a student who earned “A” scores all term but submitted their final paper one day late could still finish the course with a “B” grade. 

Remember, flexibility around assignments should be geared towards what makes sense in your course and for your students. While there are a lot of possible variations in regards to policy, the most critical element is to be clear and upfront with your students early in the term. This will help avoid confusion and complaints – and help you keep your sanity at the end of the term when students come looking for extra chances to make up missed work! 

About the Author

Anna Johnson is an award-winning instructor at Mt Hood Community College in Oregon where she has worn many hats since 2005. Joining the faculty as an instruction librarian, Anna then spent 10 years as a career-technical instructor, preparing students for living-wage jobs as administrative assistants and front-end web developers, and now leads the college’s Business transfer degree program. Anna enjoys using problem-based learning and flipped classroom methodologies to prepare students for future workplace challenges. When she's not teaching, Anna is an avid cook, formidable fantasy football player, National Park enthusiast, and volunteer usher and tour guide for Portland's performing arts center. Anna has supported other instructors in their use of SIMnet as an MHE Digital Faculty Consultant since 2015.

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