Knowing that most students submit assignments right around the deadline, is it advisable not to set deadline that is very late at night?

  • Like many on this site, I use a Moodle-type online Content Management System to give assignments to my students, and receive the finished work for grading. This is in a traditional context where the students are physically present in the classroom, and the online part is seen as a simple tool to be used in addition to the classic paper-based route. Students' first class for the day usually begins at 8 a.m.

    For the last few years, I put the deadline for assignment acceptance at midnight, with plenty of time (2-3 weeks) to do the work, so each student can handle his/her workload as they wish. These are young adults aged 18-25, and are in theory very much responsible for their acts. Observation gives us actual hand-in times with approximately the following distribution:

    • 1-2 days before deadline: 5%
    • 3-24 hours before: 10%
    • 1-2 hours: 10%
    • less than 1 hour: 65%
    • emails in distress after the deadline has expired saying they have encountered a computer glitch or some other excuse: 10%

    Which I guess is about par for the course. :-(

    So it is clear that while in theory these students are responsible young adults, in practice they tend to plan ahead in a less than stellar way. The impression that is perceived is that the online nature of the submission system makes students take slightly more liberties with deadlines than when assignments had to be handed in, in a face-to-face situation - although it is clear that even then there will always be a certain percentage of people with difficulties respecting deadlines.

    OK, here is the question: without getting into considerations on whether students should plan better (and possible ways in which I and other teachers could help them do so), would changing deadline times from midnight to, for example, 10 p.m. be a good move from the standpoint of their getting enough sleep (moral considerations welcome) and actually attending class at the beginning of the next day? Do I get to patent this Great Idea?

    No, that last bit was a joke. ;-)

    Reactions from people who are not actually teachers, but have experienced this context as a student are also welcome.

    Update

    I have ended up accepting the answer by Superbest below, basically because I liked his discussion of alternative possibilities. This is a bit subjective, since many other answers are also of very high quality IMHO - and I would certainly encourage the reader to peruse all the answers given here, and the varying points of view expressed (also in comments). Much appreciated.

    I had to take a take-home exam when I was 25. There was no Internet (this was almost 40 years ago). I had to run 3 miles (about 5 km) trying to meet the 8 a.m. deadline. Yes, I was a responsible adult (I swear). No matter what your schedule is, your observed distribution would look about the same. So, I would suggest move the deadline to 8 p.m. so the students would have plenty of time to get on social media or play games after they submit their assignments.;-)

    "get on social media or play games": I agree they don't get enough of that already. :D More seriously, that is probably precisely what they would do, but who knows.

    yeah, the last bit was a joke.

    @scaaahu Your main point being that some things do not change, whatever tools we use. Sure, we are in agreement.

    Yes, that's correct. Your schedule will not change it neither. They would still go to bed late and you will still see red eyes 8 a.m. the next morning.

    It seems to me that this problem is easily solvable. In order to answer your own question, instead of, or, rather, in addition to, the theory, just set up a proper A/B test. This IMHO is a tool for exactly such situations.

    @AleksandrBlekh Thank you for your input. Unfortunately, this is not feasible since both groups will be aware of each other's conditions, so behavior is not an occurrence that depends only on one factor.

    Considering the concept of deadlines itself, I really like the idea described elsewhere on this site (or on Math Educators) a while ago to slowly worsen the grade of late submissions until they automatically fail. So you can still get a decent grade for submitting 10 minutes late but not for submitting 48 hours late (depending on the total length of the assignment, of course). Also, I think that computer glitches are today’s “the dog ate my homework” and should not be a valid excuse.

    As a student who recently graduated and used Moodle during my student years the default deadline was midnight. I was always pleased when some teachers moved it to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. because it felt more in line with a "normal" work day. I also had teachers not set a deadline on Moodle (so that students can still submit after the actual deadline) and use the idea described by @Wrzlprmft

    @Autar This was precisely the type of comment I was seeking. If I interprete correctly, your concern would be with delimiting clearly one "work" day from the next. This is actually a bit in line with O.R.Mapper's answer below, though his conclusion is opposite.

    One trivial advantage of 10pm over midnight - no danger of someone getting confused over which day is meant!

    Just a comment from when I was a student: I never wanted to be the first to turn in the assignment. Especially if the first ones to turn it in heard their grade back fairly quickly. I can evaluate how their assignment compared to mine and whether I need to do more or less (*since I'm the type of person who does the minimum to get a good grade*) - There was also always the rare, but possible, "pushed back due date" email - which you can't take advantage of if you already turned it in!

    Back in your days, how long before the deadline were you summiting the assignments? :)

    Back in the steam-powered days of my degree, deadlines were generally either 5.30pm or 9am, either when the relevant person finished their official work day or when they started it. One can argue the fine differences between midnight vs 10pm, but I don't think it even occurred to them that they should be managing our sleep.

    As a student, I am usually part of that 65% who turn their hw in last minute, but it's not because it took that long, it's just that I am usually paranoid about handing in something earlier than I have to and then realizing that I made a mistake or could have done better. So, I tend to turn assignments in last minute, although I finished them much earlier.

    As a somewhat recent student, one reason why I often submitted close to the midnight deadline was that evenings and late nights were often when I had the time to work. If a deadline were set to be earlier in the day when I had classes and activities to attend, then I would be much more likely to submit the night before with plenty of time to spare. Then again, that might mean I would just stay up until 3 instead of 12 :)

    As a student there were times which I finished my homework earlier but hold till the deadline, hoping to improve it. Inevitably submit it last minute without change it a bit. My teacher used to turn the hourglass by the time we were assigned the exercise and the class was over. So the deadline would be at the end of the next class where you could submit your exercise in person if you want or justify why you didn't. No midnight deadlines. Another tactic he applied was to give an extension but with 20% readjustment of you grade.

    Similar to what David said, I often turn my assignments in very close to the deadline; not because of poor planning, but because of good planning. If an assignment isn't due for a couple weeks, I will check it out a little bit to figure out how long it will take me, then procrastinate on it until the night it is due, at which point I will give myself enough time to finish it. I produce much better work when I know that there is a deadline approaching and I can't be messing around or getting distracted. Turning in an assignment close to the deadline isn't necessarily a lack of responsibility.

    @ALANWARD: You're welcome. It seems that you're right, in general. However, I doubt that the fact of knowing about the other group's deadline is a significant factor in that scenario. Why would one care _too much_ about **others'** deadline or completion of homework, when you have **your own** situation that you have to take care of?

    I loved assignments with deadlines at 5am. Night is the best time for me to work. No distractions make me more effective, and I know I'll run out of cat pictures and other kinds of fuel for procrastination by midnight, leaving 5 hours to work on the assignment.

    Make it due at midnight with a 24 hour grace period. Very similar to rent...it's due on the 1st, but it isn't late until the 5th.

    While it may seem that students continue to make the same mistakes and fall into the same traps, year after year, it bears noting that every year they are new students - students without the benefit of the hard-learned lessons weathered by those previous. It doesn't mean that they haven't learned from the experience - in fact they most likely do, and continue to. Set the deadline. Let them figure it out. If those are the stats, then 65% of students probably need to learn that procrastination gets you into trouble. If it takes learning the hard way, then so be it. You teach two lessons for one.

    Having just submitted a conference paper with a midnight deadline at 11:59:56, I can vouch that this sort of behavior is not the sole domain of young adults.

    When I was a student many years ago, I used to get my assignments done in good time. However more the once, the lecturer would on the due day or the day before spend time in the lecture giving hints about how to do the assignment. This rewards people that have left it to the last minute. You get what is rewarded!

    @Wrzlprmft "Computer gliches are today's "the dog ate my homework"." Well, not all the time. I, for example, did have some computer glitches before the deadlines. I know that after all, I should do it during the time, but when I planned that "I can do this in three hours", and made room for three hours before deadlines, then the computer (or more corectly, the program) started to have trouble.

    Does it need to be said? The classic answer to "I had a sudden emergency an hour before the paper was due" excuses, from "I had to give a drunk friend a ride home" to "my Internet connection was down", is: "That's why I gave you 3 weeks to do the assignment. So you had plenty of time to get it done well before the due date, so a sudden emergency would not be an issue."

    Set assignments due 11:55 Sunday night. (1) 12:00 is ambiguous - is it due midnight or noon. (2) give students enough time so that they can reasonably finish by Thursday afternoon. Then if they have questions they can raise them to you by Friday and will have a whole weekend to incorporate your answer into their assignment. (3) The weekend is your free time. Monday morning, you can mass delete requests for extension received over the weekend. They should have anticipated the need for an extension by end of Thursday and asked for it by end of Friday.

    @Andrew My deadlines were at 23.55 p.m, to avoid that type of confusion

    @Ooker: That does not invalidate my statement. I suppose it occasionally really happens that a dog eats some homework (or destroys it in another matter). But that does not render the excuse valid. You are responsible for keeping your dog away from your homework as you are responsible for keeping proper backups of your work.

    @Wrzlprmft well, I didn't disagree with this at all. I just want to say that sometimes bad things can really happen. I once missed an exam because the road was being fixed, so the bus must go another route. The company did announce that on their website, but who would ever go to that website? I had waited for an hour just to realize that. Who should be responsible for this?

    @emory +1 In addition to getting confused on the day, I've seen where fellow students get midnight and noon confused.

    Just set the deadline for midnight but accept submissions until you get around to it the next day. It is not your job to teach time management or to determine when everyone should sleep (mainly because you are probably not qualified to do so, with all due respect). Don't look for ways to be a jerk. Be nice to people.

    @Wrzlprmft I disagree with your statement about computer glitches (in general). When I was a student, all the teachers warned us "make sure to turn in early in case the Internet is out." Now, as a professional software developer, do you know what happens if the Internet or power goes out? We go home for the day (not immediately, but after a bit of it not coming on). Teachers should have *clear* provisions for how to handle technical glitches.

    For example, students should be able to get Internet/computer access through campus in the case of problems with their own personal equipment. And teacher's should accept submissions via email in the case that the submission server is down. And teacher's should accept submissions via other means (such as a USB drive) in the case that there are Internet issues for someone somewhere. And that means submission deadlines have to be at a time the teacher can be physically reached (office hours, etc.)

    `So it is clear that while in theory these students are responsible young adults, in practice they tend to plan ahead in a less than stellar way.` Might be a bit unfair. not that these are responsible adults by any means, but a responsible adult might not act like you think anyways. There is no reason to hand in an assignment early, unless you give bonus marks or some such. And you might burn yourself, by later thinking up a better answer, or learning something new (the prof might very well give out hints in class, and if you have already submitted, well you cannot revise your work.)

    I think you do not understand the typical students sleep patterns. As a student, years ago, it was very annoying having an assignment you needed to hand in be due at midnight. But for online submit it is perfect. Kids really do not go to sleep that early. 12 is not staying up late.

    I have ADD. Nothing will solve it for me. I'll always be in that 65% bracket. :) That said, to avoid the last 10% bracket, *say* the deadline is 10pm, but keep the *actual* deadline midnight to give them that 'glitch window'.

    A point to consider here is that time management is not the only factor in near-deadline handins. The people who hand in the assignment days before the deadline could also be considered as not having taken all the available opportunity to improve and refine their work!

  • Superbest

    Superbest Correct answer

    5 years ago

    While I admire your concern for the students, I feel that ultimately your endeavor is quixotic.

    To be sure, I see nothing wrong with making your deadline be at 10 pm. It won't change anything, so you might as well. But I wouldn't expect it to have any notable effect, and I would be wary of the slippery slope that leads to you blaming yourself for the students' errors.

    The reason I am so pessimistic is that I don't think procrastination and irregular sleep are caused by deadline timing (unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, but in college it never is). They are caused by poor personal discipline and bad habits acquired over many years leading up to the present. Regardless of what you do, the procrastinators will still invent ways to procrastinate, because the problem is rooted in their own behavior, not yours. You therefore cannot solve the problem by changing your behavior.

    For instance, if you have the deadline at 10 pm, the procrastinator will drop everything that evening to work on your assignment and submit it around 10. Then he will still stay up doing the things he just postponed for the sake of your assignment. Because, recall, this person is not selectively procrastinating on your course only - they have also other courses that have deadlines. Even if all courses had the same early deadline policy, the students would still have their own errands with self-imposed deadlines at later times that they stay up for.

    By the same logic that makes you consider 10 pm, we can explore other alternatives:

    • 5 pm is a fair time, since it would presumably encourage students to concentrate their last ditch effort in the typical working day. However, there will also be students who have classes right up to the deadline that day, and if they procrastinate (as some certainly shall) they will now skip class to do the assignment, which is arguably worse than staying up!
    • Noon is another time that sounds like a good idea. Being too early, you might expect that it will make students feel they have no choice but to start working on it early since the morning isn't nearly enough time, and if they can't finish it the night before they can safely go to bed, get some sleep, and finish in the morning. But realistically, the procrastinators who stay up late and hand it in at midnight now will just start working at 1 am and stay up all night to finish it.
    • 9 am can be argued for as a realistic time - it's not like you will start grading at midnight, so there isn't really a point in requiring the assignment by midnight - instead of having the students rush their submission to a deadline just so it could sit in your mailbox for several hours, you could tell them to that you will start grading at 9 am and they should have it done by then. This makes the deadline less arbitrary, since there is now a clear logic to being required to meet it (ie. you will be delayed if they don't do their part). But of course you will again have the same problem of students staying up all night because they procrastinated.

    For what it's worth, I think the midnight deadline came about as codification of an unspoken tradition. Often deadlines are given as days, without time - with this, there is always much controversy about what exactly counts as meeting an August 6 deadline: Does it have to be done at the beginning of Aug 6? Does it have to be before the instructor leaves the office? Does it have to be before the end of the day, ie. before you go to sleep? Well, what if you never go to sleep, can you squeeze out a few more hours and still "meet your Aug 6 deadline" by submitting at 3:14 am on [technically] Aug 7?

    Even though informally "today" means "until I go to sleep", the convention is that the date changes at midnight, which is also reinforced by how computer clocks show the date. Hence, I think the midnight deadline came about as an extension of this - it's just a date delimiter.

    As for the students, since you are concerned about how late they go to sleep, surely you will agree that planning ahead and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education. This, then, the students must learn on their own, you cannot help them by tinkering with deadlines, since indeed the deadline is not what is preventing their learning. In fact, one could argue that you should maximize the negative reinforcement, and set the deadline at the worst possible time - say 6 am: The more misery you inflict on the procrastinators, the better they will appreciate how important it is to learn discipline, and the sooner they will take steps to unlearn their bad habits.

    Granted, I'm not seriously suggesting you do the above, since it seems like it could go horribly wrong. Realistically, I could instead suggest the following:

    • Set your deadline at some reasonable, early time such as noon.
    • Secretly (ie. do not tell this part to the students) have the "real deadline" (for instance, the one you lose points for missing) be quite a bit later, say 5 pm.
    • In class, say that it is very important they not miss the deadline even by a minute (don't say why), and they should come talk to you if they feel they won't make it.
    • When they inevitably come asking for more time, be liberal with the extensions, but not before making them explain why they were late and lecturing them on the importance of planning ahead. When giving the extension, explain that they absolutely cannot miss the extended deadline, because then you would not be able to meet your own deadline for grading (whether true or not).
    • If anyone misses the noon deadline (but not the 5 pm deadline), confront them about it to discourage submitting late without asking for an extension (which allows bypassing the social discomfort of asking for more time).

    With this, you might create something like a low stakes environment (you don't lose massive points just for being a few minutes late) while still creating a fair amount of social pressure to increase the likelihood of a lightbulb appearing and the student thinking, "Hey, Dr. Ward is very nice and reasonable about deadlines and everything, but maybe it's worth for me to try to stop leaving everything to the last minute?". Furthermore, if you force them into an explicit discussion about their procrastination, they have an opportunity to ask you for advice on how to plan their work.

    But all of this requires quite a bit of effort from you (much more than just replacing "midnight" with "10 pm" on your syllabus). So if you are not willing to commit the energy, there isn't really much that can be achieved with quick fixes.

    Basically, you are recommending a holistic approach to the way I use the online platform, am I not correct? ;-) Fair enough. Since I cannot handle the complete discussion in one step, I will be concentrating separately on each aspect. But you are very right to comment on the fact it is a complete process with many aspects to it.

    "...unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, but in college it never is..." I feel the need to say that this is largely a matter of opinion. What is a piece of cake to one person could very well overwhelm another person. Just because you never got/get overwhelmed by college doesn't mean that nobody does. However, I realize this does not invalidate your answer, nor does it even invalidate the first part of the sentence saying that lack of sleep is probably not tied to the timing of deadlines.

    Imagine a single parent with a full-time job who is also going to school full-time. It is certainly possible that they could get overwhelmed at some point. I like your answer other than that part.

    +1 to @PrinceTyke, -1 to this answer. Overwhelming is a relative term. Also, you're way too pessimistic about people's reasons for their habits and generally the whole thing.

    @PrinceTyke Well, since it generated so much controversy, I'll take that part out. However, I have heard people express the opinion that the workload in post-grad life (be it the private sector or grad school) is much heavier than college very often, and the opposite very rarely, hence my remark.

    Some in the real world have jobs, kids, and other responsibilities that contribute to their tardiness. It is not always procrastination, or invented procrastination -- whatever that means -- that is the cause of missed deadlines.

    -1 for the intense moralization of procrastination, and to make it worse, the general attitude that your job is to punish those with bad behavior as harshly as possible.

    "and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education" -- I learned this is an *incredibly* effective way of getting s*** done in college. One semester Sundays 8pm - 4am was one problem set, Thursdays 6pm - 6am was another, A's in both courses. Now I go to work and generally do work doing the day so not at night, so it's moot. And as far not procrastinating on things like going to the DMV, getting bloodwork done, paying rent on time, etc., those have nothing to do with things I learned in college.

    From personal experience the work demanded **can** be objectively overwhelming. In my Compiler & languages course we were required to write from scratch the whole front-end (lexer+parser+type-checker+some static analysis+intermediate code generation) for a simple language in **8 days**. Moreover this was done *during lessons time*, which means you already had like 6 hours of classes during the day. Sure, if you already did this 5-6 times in your life you already know the issues and may obtain something decent in the time, but consider someone doing this the first time ever in this way...

    In the end about 70% of the students couldn't provide something compilable and runnable, and basically nobody could complete everything without errors or missing some request. The professor had to skew the votes or nobody could get a decent vote out of that course.

    9am is a spectacularly bad idea. I once TA'd a class where the professor set the deadline for the midterm paper at 10am Monday morning. I was the person receiving all the papers by email*. Most students submitted between 2am and 8am, and thus had their entire Monday ruined. *Because of a combination of university privacy requirements and IT ineptness, the students were required to submit their papers (electronic, including code) to my email, I verified anonymity and passed them on to those grading as files like "10001.zip" etc.

    @PrinceTyke, "being overwhelmed by classes" can also be just a symptom of bad time scheduling (taking too many classes, for instance).

    @vonbrand I totally agree, but it can still be overwhelming for some people, especially those who try to do too much.

    Good point about the "unspoken tradition". In industry, I've experienced that deadlines tend to be either Close of Business (must be done before standard office hours end that day) or before the office opens the next morning. If something is in the second category, a "August 6" deadline is met if it is in the boss's inbox when he walks in to his office on the morning of August 7.

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