As I reflect on living through a pandemic, I realize how many questions of time and its impact on higher education have flown under the radar. Assumptions around time interact with so many aspects of the educational process and policies. Perhaps the most visible has been the issue of “time in seats” versus “mastery,” a subject that has received much attention and directly relates to previous posts on grades, assessments, and academic rigor. But more subtle are the assumptions we make about how students experience time.

Our current higher education system is firmly grounded in the assumption that all students have four years of their life to dedicate solely to learning. This assumes that their courses come first and that they have 40-60 hours a week to dedicate completely to their education. Working off this assumption, faculty and instructors set deadlines for coursework that seem fair because, on the surface, they apply equally to all students. In this way, faculty essentially lay out the “best” way for students to navigate their course, and it becomes perfectly reasonable for their course policies to specify precisely how students should manage their time.

However, the current goals of the higher education system focus on increasing access and diversity—to design institutional structures that recognize a diverse array of student strengths and offer flexible pathways to mastery and success. Critical to this is the understanding that students enter colleges and universities with a diverse array of constraints on their time. In many cases, students have work and family responsibilities that do not align with our current structural assumptions about their time. And, while I fully recognize that plenty of students have managed this disconnect in the past, this does not mean it is acceptable for us to continue upholding these assumptions. At the very least, we need an explicit discussion of whether we want to maintain these assumptions, and if not, how we should modify our approach to student time. In this post, I argue that we do need to change our assumptions regarding student time and that doing so would benefit all students.

For many of us, the pandemic provided a striking reminder of the realities of time. As faculty adjusted their schedules to take care of children, parents, and even themselves, we were reminded that many students have always had to deal with these kinds of challenges. The effects of the pandemic also emphasized the importance of building “sick time” into any structure for the sake of public health. Despite the fundamental understanding that we do not want sick people interacting in crowded spaces, many of our course policies require this behavior if students wish to remain “on track.” Often, there is little recourse for missing a day or two of class, and students have no choice but to sacrifice their own health and compromise the health of others just so they don’t fall behind.

When we consider these realities, it becomes clear that we need to start rethinking some of our basic assumptions around the deadlines and time constraints that we impose on students. I realized that there are two core assumptions that should serve as our guiding principles: (1) making an analogy between course deadlines and “workplace” deadlines is not valid; and (2) the appropriate unit of time for a course is the ten-week quarter itself.

If we want our course policies to be truly equitable, we need to think carefully about what I call the “workplace” analogy. We often defend our effectively punitive policies around deadlines with the claim that this mimics how deadlines work in the workplace. I see two flaws with this approach. First, this analogy relies on the previously discussed assumption that our courses are the main priority in a student’s life. I argue that, if we believe in our mission to serve a diverse student population, then a valid view of a student’s courses is that they are merely one set of priorities among many. Understanding that education cannot always be the top priority, our real goal is to offer students the ability to manage deadlines within a context of work and family priorities that are equally or sometimes more important. 

Interestingly, this directly relates to the questions of “hard” versus “rigor” that I discussed in a previous post. Students can have a rigorous, rewarding academic experience, even if it is not their only, or even top, priority. And this leads directly to the second realization. Even though many of us view work as one of our top priorities, we recognize this is done in a context of family responsibilities, hobbies, and other financial considerations. For the most part, within a broad context of “hard” deadlines, we have built-in flexibility in our jobs to accommodate changing priorities and needs (colleagues willing to extend deadlines on projects, departments willing to extend deadlines on merit/promotion files, conferences willing to extend abstract deadlines, etc.) So, shouldn’t we be showing our students the same considerations that we are afforded in our professional lives?

If we focus on the ten-week quarter as the fundamental unit of time within our institution, this helps evaluate where flexibility makes sense and provides a useful context for evaluating our policies associated with time. First, we need to consider the structure of deadlines, especially for regular coursework. In the context of the quarter, the idea of learning to navigate “hard” and “soft” deadlines is easier to articulate and implement. Hard or non-negotiable deadlines come with built-in consequences—these deadlines typically cannot be rescheduled, and there will be negative outcomes for missing them. While it’s critical for students to manage hard deadlines, soft deadlines, which function more like milestones that keep projects on track, are common in everyday life. These deadlines are generally more flexible and there’s usually less at stake. 

For each course, the end of the quarter is the core non-negotiable deadline (incomplete grades aside). In general, all work must be completed and submitted before the end of a quarter; otherwise, it isn’t counted. Working backward from that deadline, a well-designed course may have additional hard deadlines with equally rigid consequences, but I would argue that most deadlines can be reclassified as “soft.” The degree to which they are soft or what being soft even means will depend on the pedagogical reasons for the deadline and how the deadline interacts with the goals of promoting learning and quality work. However, the main takeaway here is that deadlines that we traditionally classify as hard can be made more flexible for the benefit of our students.

Another thing to consider is the connection between overall course structure and students’ lives. For example, the timing of when assignments become available and when they are due can have unintended consequences. The best example is the student that has to work Monday through Friday and get most of their coursework done on the weekends. If this student takes a class that releases assignments on Monday and has them due on Friday, then this will obviously pose a problem for the student. This example illustrates that just because a deadline seems fair because it is applied to all students equally doesn’t necessarily mean it will have an equitable impact. Like I have discussed in many of my other posts, these institutional structures that are upheld under the guise of fairness often end up acting as structural barriers to student success.

As we think about fairness in the context of course deadlines, it’s worth talking about the popularly held perception that accepting late work from one student is “unfair” to the other students. I have often wondered about this concept because, in the quarter system, our students are already forced to complete all their work for multiple courses within a ten-week period, which is already a fairly tight timeline. If a student misses an assignment deadline by a day, is accepting their late assignment really unfair to their classmates? Do we really know how much “real-time” each student may have had available to do the assignment? There are many valid reasons why the student may have missed their deadline (serving as a caretaker in their family, illness, work emergencies), and even then, they still managed to be only one day late! Given all this, is it really reasonable to lower the student’s grade or penalize them in some other way because accepting “late work” is “unfair” to their peers? And is this late penalty appropriate if the student is able to demonstrate equal mastery of the material, just one day later (see my prior post on grades)?

This also leads to another relevant question: as a faculty member, do you really want to be in a position of judging every case like this? Likely not. It is far more efficient and equitable to establish a flexible due date policy that accounts for a diverse set of student circumstances while still setting appropriate timeframes to avoid complicating the grading process. In fact, many faculty have already instituted flexible policies that, in addition to benefiting their students, have removed the burden of having to judge the validity of student “excuses.” 

In my own experience, I have found myself moving away from policies that aim to police students and towards policies that encourage best practices while recognizing that there are many paths to mastering the material in my course. For example, I know that coming to class and participating in active learning exercises and group work have significant benefits. But I also understand that students may need to occasionally miss class. Recognizing this, I’ve been focusing on designing class attendance policies that balance the need for students to be able to depend on their in-class partners with the flexibility to deal with personal circumstances. Not sure I have it right yet—but it is an ongoing goal!  

As a final thought, we need to avoid making policies driven by our negative experiences. There is always the example of the student that did X—and X was not good. It is then tempting to make a policy to prevent or sometimes punish X, but it is too easy for policies designed around such cases to have unintended consequences. If instead, we focus on the fact that students are fundamentally here to learn and to do their best and that they are in fact adults with a wide range of appropriate demands on their time, then we can find the creative balance of policies that guide without being unnecessarily punitive and ensure success for as many students as possible!