Flexible Submission Windows

Like many, the number of extension requests on my course increased over the last two years. This is not a “OH THOSE BLOODY STUDENTS” post. I don’t blame students for any of the problems we’re seeing now, I blame the pandemic. But more importantly there doesn’t need to be anyone at fault for there to be an issue we need to address and what we’ve seen is that giving out unlimited extensions isn’t really seeming to be helping anyone. Students’ ability to self-regulate and manage their time hasn’t developed as we would typically expect which is important because time management is suggested to have a relationship with academic performance and anxiety. Additionally, the staff workload associated with managing the volume of extensions and the knock-on effects on marking timelines and the return of feedback is simply untenable.

This also isn’t a post whereby I am going to suggest returning to a punitive, regressive system that bakes in ableism and classism. Providing flexibility and understanding that your students have complex lives and commitments beyond your course is a good thing (and that’s before we really feel the effect of students needing to work more because of the cost-of-living crisis).

We know that major coursework deadlines tend to cluster around the same points in the semester and given the structure of the academic year, there’s limited ways we can get around this, but also, learning to manage and prioritise multiple deadlines is a useful skill to develop. I am guilty myself of complaining that students don’t look at all their deadlines and work on them at different times to avoid the clustering effect. I am also guilty of saying yes to too many talk invitations in March because I think “teaching will be over” and I ignore what 15 years of experience has taught me. It is almost as if the problem is not “being a student” and instead “being a busy human”.

So this year, I am going to try and reframe how I talk about deadlines on my course and (hopefully) how students think about them by piloting Flexible Submission Windows. This is inspired by research that has shown that time management training can help students work more effectively although realistically I have no idea if this is going to work. Traditionally, our assignment deadlines are Friday at 12 noon, and we open the submission portal on Moodle a week before. We may get a handful of submissions in this week, but the majority come in the 12 hours before the deadline. I could complain about this but I could also accept that if I only promote a single fixed deadline, I am encouraging behaviour that focuses on a single fixed, final deadline.

These are the instructions for the essay submission this year:

  • For this assessment you have a flexible deadline window. You may submit your essay from Monday 7th November at 12 noon until the final deadline of Friday 11th November at 12 noon.

  • To help with your time management, you should review any other deadlines and commitments you have at this time, and decide which day during the flexible window works best for you. You will be asked in reading week to make a note of which day you plan to submit – this isn’t binding but explicitly making a choice may help you plan better.

  • We encourage you to plan to submit your essay early so that if you need a few extra days you can still meet the final deadline – if the day you submit your essay is different to the one you intended, you don’t need to inform anyone as long as you still submit within the window.

  • Marks and feedback for those essays submitted within the window will be released on X.

  • If you need an extension beyond the final deadline, please see the Extensions & Good Cause guidance. Your extension request should explain why you were unable to submit during the flexible window.

We have a reading week in the middle of the semester where there is no formal teaching but students are encouraged to use the time to work on their assignments ahead of the deadline in week 8. In this week, I am going to ask students to note which day they intend to submit the essay on – this won’t be binding, rather, I’m trying to see if the Theory of Planned Behaviour is up to any good. We’re also not going to refuse extension requests – if students need extra flexibility it will still be offered.

As I’ve said, I don’t know if this is going to work and what unintended consequences it might have in terms of administration workload or student behaviours, which is why it’s a pilot. I will be evaluating it by comparing the number of extension requests and late submissions to last year, the profile of when assignments were submitted across the week, and I’m also going to explicitly ask students for their feedback on the system.

What I want is to try and reframe the deadline so that they’re not aiming for a single fixed point in time that if they miss it, requires an extension. I’m not expecting that the majority of essays will be submitted at the start of the window. What I’m hoping for is that I can encourage as many students as possible to aim for a slightly earlier submission which means that when they inevitably need an extra day or two (because this is their first university assignment and it’s hard to know how long things take) they can still meet the final deadline which means they don’t get any of the worry associated with asking for an extension or submitting late, and we also minimise the workload associated with extensions and late submissions.

Essentially, the skill I want to help students develop isn’t “you must always meet all deadlines” it’s “always build in a buffer because life will get in the way (and stop saying yes to talks in March)”.

Emily Nordmann
Emily Nordmann
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

I am a teaching-focused Senior lecturer and conduct research into the relationship between learning, student engagement, and technology.