Schoolwork deadlines: Are they valuable, or just arbitrary rules?

Few issues spark more disagreement among teachers than late work.

On one side: The real world has real deadlines. High school students need to learn this lesson now.

On the other: Grades should reflect what students know — not their ability to meet arbitrary deadlines.

Both sides have good points. The real world does have real deadlines, as a few of my students found out (much to their dismay) recently.

One group of kids missed a March deadline for an MIT entrepreneurship competition. They thought the deadline had been moved back, and they took advantage of the extra time to improve their presentation.

Turns out they missed the deadline, which hadn’t changed.

They were devastated when the folks running the competition had zero sympathy or flexibility.

The next time this group faced a deadline — for Junior Achievement — they turned in their submission early. A lesson was definitely learned.

Another student missed the deadline for an essay contest in April, and he sent me multiple very emotional emails over the weekend, pleading for an extension. I’m so used to saying “yes” that it was honestly hard to tell him “no” — even though it wasn’t my deadline to extend.

But let’s be honest — not every deadline in the “real world” is hard and fast like these ones.

Who among us hasn’t gotten an extension on a work project? You can even file for an income tax extension. And if you miss a flight because you are late to the airport, most airlines will help you get on a later flight.

Even if every deadline in the adult world was firm, school still wouldn’t be the adult world.

If a student is failing my class (as “Jim” is) and turns in two major projects late (as “Jim” just did), I’m not going to reject them. What’s the point of failing him, if he’s learned the concepts and done the work?

No one is harmed by his lateness — except me, since I have to grade the late work — unlike missed project deadlines in the work world, which can cost companies clients and reputation, or even put people in harm’s way.

So what is the most salient point in this argument? How can we choose the “best” policy on late work? There are so many things to consider:

  • How do our policies prepare students for the “real world”?
  • How well do our grades reflect student understanding?
  • How can we keep our workload manageable? (Because grading every assignment the last day of school is NOT manageable)
  • How can we make student work meaningful, if they don’t turn it in in time to receive feedback or use it to prepare for a test?
  • How do we help students build good life-long habits — which includes, yes, meeting deadlines?

I think one of the most compelling points isn’t even listed above — and it’s not talked about enough.

It’s that we human beings seem to need deadlines.

You can observe this anecdotally any time. If I give students five opportunities to take a retake exam, 90% of them show up for the very last option. Every time.

If I give students an open-ended opportunity to redo an assignment — turn it in whenever you have it done — they never redo it. It just never makes the to-do list.

A former student actually advised me that I should never give students more than a few days to work on anything. “They’ll do it all the last night, no matter how many weeks they had,” he said.

Probably true.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and a professor at Duke, has studied the influence of deadlines on motivation and performance extensively.

He has found that shorter deadlines are more effective than longer ones, and external deadlines (like the ones teachers set) are more effective than self-imposed deadlines. (You can read about some of his experiments here.)

Or you can skip to his conclusion: “The academic research… suggests that we may often put off doing something, not because we need more time or have a strong preference to delay, but because we haven’t clearly put it on our calendar. Without a deadline, plans may not materialize into action even if there is intention.”

So where does that leave us? It doesn’t mean we teachers should never cut students a break when they miss a deadline. And it doesn’t mean a punitive late work policy is the answer.

But it does suggest that deadlines are important — not because they are looming out there in the “real world,” but because they trigger something in our brains that gets us to work.

Once we recognize that, we can start the more difficult work of figuring out how to craft realistic deadlines for student work, how to enforce them, and how to manage the exceptions.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom