Who should get a deadline extension?

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I hadn’t been teaching very long when I had decided that I didn’t want to be in the business of identifying good student excuses from poor student excuses for the purpose of determining who should—and who should not—get a deadline extension. I wasn’t comfortable passing judgment on what was a significant level of stress for a student. Was this student close enough to their aunt to warrant a deadline extension upon reporting her death? Can I believe that their aunt actually died? I know other faculty ask for some kind of proof. Am I comfortable asking for some kind of proof? Or that car crash that my student was in. How bad was it? And does it even matter how objectively bad the crash was given what we know about how differently people respond to various stressors? A fender bender that is no big deal to one student may send another student into stress overload.

Rather than evaluate individual excuses, I decided to structure my course for flexibility. (For those of you familiar with the “4 Connections for Faculty-Student Engagement,” you’ll recognize this as part of “practice paradox.”)

At that early point in my career, students had four 50-question unit exams and a 100-question comprehensive final. The first 25 questions on the final corresponded to the first unit exam (different questions, same content), the second 25 questions on the final corresponded to the second unit exam, and so on. If a student missed the first exam—for whatever reason—I would double the points earned on those first 25 questions, and those points would be entered as their exam one score. A student could miss all four unit exams and just take the final. No one ever did, but they could.

Additionally, I would compare the total score for the four unit exams (200 points) to the final exam (100 points x 2 for a total of 200 points). I excluded the lower score and used the higher score to calculate final grades. If a student, for example, decided to try to power through and take a unit exam even if they weren’t in the right space to take it, and they ended up doing poorly on it. No worries. The final exam, if higher, would replace all four unit exams. I would say, “It doesn’t matter to me if you show me that you know the course material as we go through the course or at the end of the course. Just show me that you know it.”

Later in my career, I did away with in-class exams in favor of what amounts to weekly take-home exams (I call them write-to-learn assignments; read more here). In my online courses, there are weekly discussions. With multiple assignments in each of these categories that are worth the same number of points, doing poorly on one, two, or three will not greatly harm a student’s course grade. Additionally, I drop the lowest take-home exam score and the lowest discussion score. Stuff happens in students’ lives. I don’t need to know what that stuff is. We’ll just drop the lowest scores.

In my courses, all assignments are available from the beginning of the course. Students can choose to work ahead if they’d like, and several of my students do. The only place where that doesn’t work is in writing responses to other students’ discussion posts. In comparison to other work in the course, writing responses is not generally a labor-intensive activity.

I know many faculty who are philosophically opposed to extra credit. For myself, I’m fine offering extra credit. While I’m comfortable with my assignments and scoring rubrics, they are not perfect. They can’t be. In a nod to this inherent measurement error, offering students some extra credit feels fair.

I offer extra credit under two conditions. First, the extra credit has to be available to everyone. All of the extra credit in my courses is published as part of the course at the beginning of the term, so everyone knows what the extra credit is and when it’s due. Second, the extra credit has to advance my agenda.

In my online discussion boards, I ask students to share their good news for the week. (Read more about this.) In their replies, I ask students to respond to the initial post’s good news with a reaction and a question. For one point extra credit, students can answer the question asked in the reply (maximum two points, one each if the student answers two replies). In an online course, students miss the opportunities to build community by chatting with each other before class starts or during breaks. Structured discussions can push the sense of community a bit, and a little extra credit for advancing the discussion can push it even further.

The other place I offer extra credit is within the take-home exams. In some of these assignments, I will include extra credit questions that ask students to reflect back on earlier material in the course, particularly correlations and experimental design. We know that spaced practice and retrieval practice help students remember course content, so I encourage students to revisit these concepts throughout the course.

The best thing I’ve done in the last year to build flexibility into my course is to include an automatic 24-hour grace period. Historically, I’ve had the take-home exams and initial discussion posts due on Monday and discussion responses due on Wednesday. If I move the due date back 24 hours—take-home exams and initial discussion posts due on Sunday and responses due on Tuesday—I could then add an automatic 24-hour grace period. Effectively, assignments are really still due on Mondays and Wednesdays, but for students, their target deadline is 24 hours earlier. If they need the extra time—for whatever reason—they have it. Frankly, it’s the easiest way for the most rigid of faculty to add flexibility to their course. Set your deadline, then subtract 24 hours.

How does the 24-hour grace period work in practice? Early in the course, about two-thirds of my students make the initial deadline. As the term progresses, that slips to about half. Recently, a student ran into a technical problem with his computer’s Internet connection. Unfortunately, he discovered the problem 23 hours and 45 minutes into the grace period—and he missed the drop-dead deadline. He emailed me to explain what happened. He wasn’t asking for extension. He just wanted to let me know what happened and acknowledge his mistake. He understood that the grace period was for exactly those issues, and that he would return to aiming for the initial deadline.

Finally, whatever your policy, stick with it. Do not make exceptions—unless your policy says that you will make exceptions. Otherwise, you reward the students who ask, and the students who follow your rules and who never ask, do not have the benefit of your generosity. There’s nothing fair about that.

If all of those structural elements are not enough to help a student who is having a tough term pass the course, they have one more option: students can retake the course.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.