Arbitrary Deadlines

I read this article by Alan Stange on assigning penalties to students who hand in work late. He makes the point at the end of his blog post, "There is in fact relatively little significance to learning to complete on time." I agree with this statement and I’m going to expand upon it.

Who set the deadline for the assignment? Why was that particular deadline set? In most cases I am sure the answer to the first question is the teacher, and the answer to the second question was that because that particular deadline was convenient for the teacher. Some schools have got better answers to the 2nd question in the form of homework and assignment calendars, and if your school isn’t already doing some sort of load-balancing of assignments on students, I recommend it as a good starting place. 

When the teacher assigns the deadline for the students, they are sending a message. "I am your boss, you will do as I say," which reinforces the teacher student hierarchy. If the teacher explains the reasons for a particular deadline, the hierarchy still exists, but now the teacher has become the "supportive" boss. If a teacher is willing to extend a deadline for a student, they are now the "empathetic" boss. However, they are still the boss. Do we want to tell students that what is important in your classroom is who is in charge?

Deadlines teachers assign are largely arbirtrary. In some cases they are meant to be logically placed around holidays, end of semesters, or between other teacher’s assignments, but these are arbitrary placements. If a deadline is arbitrary, why are we so stuck as teachers on making sure students meet it? What outcome are we hoping for from students when we are in charge of the deadlines?

If you listen to some educators, they’ll tell you that meeting deadlines teaches responsibility, and that meeting deadlines gives you a sense of purpose. So we might assign deadlines for these two reasons, if either of them was true. As far as I know, there is no research to support either of these claims.

Tell me the last time you met a deadline for a major project, say a curriculum review. Did you feel like had a sense of purpose? Did you feel like it taught you responsibility? It’s not the meeting of the deadline that gave you your sense of accomplishment, it was the completing of the project. Completing things makes us feel good. We feel proud of ourselves when we produce something awesome. It doesn’t matter in most cases if it took us 2 days or 20 weeks (unless you are trying for a speed record), we feel good because we finished.

Furthermore, who can really say that a project is really done? Even a published book has errors, and ends up being republished with revisions. Nothing is really ever done, we just decide we are done working on it when we feel like it is a "finished" project. I’ll probably come back and read this blog post in a year and find things I want to change.

So here’s my challenge to you. If you really feel you must have deadlines for assignments, find reasons why the deadline matters. Make the deadline less arbitrary. For example, "we need to finish these projects by Friday because the Mayor of the city is going to come and see them then" or "We have to have the letters done soon because our friends in Kenya are expecting them." 

Alternatively, take the time to discuss the deadlines with the students. Ask them what they think and what would work for them. Remember, to you the deadline is mostly arbitrary, letting the students decide on the deadline won’t make it any less arbitrary, but it will give them some choice. 

Our schools are currently intended to produce worker bees, and drones, but not thinkers. Our insistence on enforcing arbitrary deadlines just reinforces the power relationship between students and teachers and prevents students from being able to make their own deadlines and become more self-directed in their learning.



  • I completely agree! In my classes, we discuss deadlines for projects and assignments and set due dates – these are mostly recommended guidelines or suggestions. Usually it is to finish up a project at the same time we’re ending a unit and moving on to a new topic – but for students who require more time, they are allowed. I find my students are usually shocked about this – they are constantly asking me for extensions and look at me in disbelief when I tell them to take all the time they need.

    It seems to me that deadlines are more often set for the convenience of the teacher – that way we can mark everything at once, or don’t have to seek out unfinished assignments. And while it is true (marking all assignments at once is easier), i don’t think my convenience comes close to trumping student learning. However, in my school, the vast majority still feel differently. In one class, students are forced to wear a large dunce cap if they come to class without completed homework. I can only hope that other teachers will begin to see that those choices do more harm than good.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Are you serious about the dunce cap? That’s crazy! I thought the days of publicly shaming students were over. How can the principal of the school support that kind of policy?

  • @zgporter wrote:

    I do not have a final deadline for assignments in my class. There is, however, a time that it is due. At least in Middle School, part of our job is teaching life skills. Te management is huge in pre-teens because there is little to speak of. A due in my class is more of a remInder that there will be no more class time devoted to a lesson or project.

  • Education4Real wrote:

    It really comes down to what you believe a “grade” is – does a grade tell a student and his/her parents how well he/she plays the game of school, or how well he/she has mastered the information? If it is the former, then the grade shouldn’t count anyway… if it is the latter, then why take points off/not accept a late assignment? I would hope teachers would assess the learning that is going on, not the “learning to color within the lines.” The world needs more rebellious thinkers!

  • Anonymous wrote:

    When I was at college “deadlines” were very vague and most tutors were okay about missing a deadline as long as a student could show the work was being done. In fact, quite often, work would be set and a vague deadline would be given and then the work was not called in at all.

    However, in the “real” world. Deadlines are a vital pulse to the work cycle – no matter how arbitrary they actually are. Today I had to hand in some work to my boss and, although she was adamant it was needed today, I find that she’s not actually back from holiday until tomorrow and the other boss who also needs to see the work won’t be back from holiday for another week. I’ve also been plagued over the past three months by a job that has had a great torrent of arbitrary deadlines and, although I’m told that each deadline is the publishing date, it turns out that it’s still only a draft for approval and bounces back to me with a whole swathe of new, counter or reverse amendments. At the back of my mind I don’t think it will ever be published. Great fun!

    However, most of the dates I’m given for final publication are genuine and are worth working towards.

    Students who intend to leave the education system for a job will have to get used to the pedantic enforcement of arbitrary deadlines in order to be able to discern the difference between that kind of “deadline” and the kind that is really significant – like in matters of life and death. On balance, no matter how tedious and irritating, I think I prefer the arbitrary kind at least they don’t end in death.

  • carol Mazur wrote:

    How about the responsibility the teacher has to grade reports, projects and papers within a timely manner and part of that reponsibility comes from students meeting deadlines? I’m all for discussion and sometimes deadlines are hard and fast for the reason that students will drag out even the smallest project, lose interest, lose their work, make excuses, etc… Arbitrary never worked for me when I was an office manager in commercial real estate, I find it hard to believe since many educators believe in feelings first they should trump the reality of a deadline.

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