You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Mark Sarvary stands next to two seated students working with test tubes in a lab course setting, smiling.

In a new study of two-tiered deadlines, some 41 percent of students opted to use a no-penalty extended deadline for one assignment, while 37 percent used it for more than one assignment. An additional 22 percent of students never used the extension.

Serge Petchenyi/Cornell University

What if coursework deadlines came in two tiers: “ideal” and one-to-two-week extensions without penalty, or “EWPs”? How would students respond, and how would such a system affect student outcomes? A new study puts this hypothetical to the test. Its findings support what many teaching and learning experts have long argued (and argued louder in this post-pandemic “new normal”): that flexible deadlines policies—when clear and accessible—help, not hurt, students.

“Having a student-centered approach, showing empathy and giving flexibility, does not mean we need to give up on the learning objectives,” says the study’s author, Mark Sarvary, senior lecturer and director of Cornell University’s Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories in the department of neurobiology and behavior. “Students must still complete the work and meet the course objectives, but without instructor bias and artificial due dates.”

While a defined flexible deadline policy may not be needed in small courses where students receive individualized attention, Sarvary adds, students in large courses certainly benefit from “this systemic change that helps instructors focus on teaching rather than administrating extension requests.”

How it works: Sarvary’s study, recently published in Frontiers in Education, recounts how he and postdoctoral associate Joseph Ruesch first introduced a two-tiered assignment deadline system with 1) ideal dates 2) EWP dates in a 347-person introductory biology class. That term, fall 2022, the syllabus explicitly identified a primary due date. But it also included the following statement:

“We understand that there can be circumstances when students need more time to complete their assignments. All assignments have ideal due dates, and they also have extension due dates. We highly recommend that you submit the assignments (if you can) by their suggested ideal due dates, to maintain a good rhythm of learning in the class. You can submit assignments by the extension due date without any penalty. We are providing the extension due dates so you can use them for certain times when you have other exams, sickness or you just simply need a break and you do not want to think about an assignment.”

What Do Students Mean When They Say They Want Flexible Deadlines?

Mark Sarvary, senior lecturer and director of Cornell University’s Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories in the department of neurobiology and behavior, and author of a study on assignment extensions, says “students want due dates, as it helps them create a good structure and prioritize tasks. However, when that structure fails due to unforeseen circumstances, that is when students want flexibility.”

A 2023 Student Voice survey of 1,250 two- and four-year students by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, found the following about student preferences on flexible deadlines:

  1. Some 72 percent overall agree that deadlines should be flexible for extenuating circumstances, such as family emergencies and health issues.
  1. More than half (56 percent) agree that it’s helpful when professors break down big tasks into smaller deadlines throughout the term.
  1. Half say they typically rely on deadlines to motivate and keep them on track. By field, arts and humanities students are most likely to say they rely on deadlines (57 percent). Just 10 percent from the full sample say they do not need deadlines to motivate them or keep them on track.
  1. Forty-five percent say that deadlines should be flexible in general—not just in emergencies. Students who are receiving financial aid (n=814) are likelier to say this than are students without financial aid, at 48 percent versus 34 percent.
  1. While just 9 percent say that deadlines should remain firm, doing away with deadlines is also unpopular. Just 12 percent of students say deadlines should be eliminated altogether.

Beyond the syllabus, the instructors verbally encouraged students to meet the ideal deadline while explaining the EWP was available for flexibility.

EWP deadlines were typically set one-to-two weeks after the ideal date.

How students responded: In the end, some 41 percent of students used the EWP for one assignment, while 37 percent used it for more than one assignment. An additional 22 percent of students never used the EWP, which surprised Sarvary. Because Cornell students are “smart and competitive,” he thought more would use the extension due date to perfect their work.

“This system did not make the students procrastinate,” Sarvary says. It did give students “agency to better manage their own time.” (He contrasts this with academics’ propensity, including his own, to “often wait until the last minute to complete our tasks.”)

Beyond tracking usage rates, Sarvary and Ruesch surveyed 563 students that academic year to see if they preferred no due dates, a single due date, or a two-tiered system like theirs. Some eight in 10 said they preferred the tiered option.

Crucially, using the extension due dates did not negatively impact student grades.

What’s the need: Sarvary and Ruesch collected additional feedback data. Students who’d used an EWP reported multiple benefits, including stress reduction (94 percent of the sample) and being able to better manage both outside coursework (82 percent) and unexpected events, like being sick (73 percent). Some six in 10 also cited benefits in the following areas: improved quality of work, time management, instructor empathy and mental health.

What about students who didn’t use an EWP? Even they tended to report benefits, such as stress reduction and improved time management. The study say that such findings “align with the idea of an inclusive classroom that provides flexibility to help students when unexpected difficulty occurs.” With increased attention to mental health issues due to the pandemic, EWPs further present “a promising solution to decreasing stress and improving mental health in the classroom. To analogize, the safety net created by allowing the built-in flexibility of EWP resulted in being able to perform without having to fear the fall.”

“To analogize, the safety net created by allowing the built-in flexibility of EWP resulted in being able to perform without having to fear the fall.”

—Mark Sarvary and Joseph Ruesch, “Structure and Flexibility: Systemic and Explicit Assignment Extensions Foster an Inclusive Learning Environment (Frontiers in Education)

Exploratory results point to additional benefits in some areas for first-generation college students, in particular. The EWP system appeared to aid first-gen students in using extra time to attend office hours for help completing an assignment, for example. Sarvary says one of the main goals of the EWP project overall was to eliminate instructor bias about who gets their one-off extension requests granted or not, as well as the hidden curriculum that makes certain students more likely to reach out for help than others.

Busting myths: Sarvary’s study also does some myth busting of “anecdotal instructor opinions” about deadline extensions: that they encourage procrastination, increase instructor workload, don’t really solve the student’s issue and more. Per that last point, for example, just 12 of the student EWP users Sarvary surveyed reported that the extension did not resolve their concerns about making deadline.

Still, the study proposes that students not sufficiently served by the EWP could have access to an additional, one-time “token” extension, possibly until the end of the term. Sarvary is currently studying the effects of this kind of “emergency button” for students. He says he prefers all of these options to professors dropping a grade or two at the end of a course, as doing so can signal or mean that some learning outcomes don’t matter.

Regarding the notion that extensions increase instructor workload, Sarvary says the EWP system actually “created less work for us. The number of emails we receive has decreased tremendously. We no longer need to solve all the problems, as most of them are resolved by flexible deadlines. Now, we can focus on larger issues that require our full attention.”

The EWP is now a permanent feature in Sarvary’s classroom.

He adds this: “Our goal is to maximize student learning. By providing some flexibility, students have a better chance of putting effort into their assignments, therefore learning more in the course. Students would learn less if we allowed them to drop an assignment or forced them to submit lower-quality work to meet a fixed deadline.”

Next Story

More from Student Success