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Do students consider you a “hard-ass”? If so, is that a bad thing? Rigor may have its benefits, but there may just be a sweet spot, the right amount of flexibility, that is optimal for teaching and learning. Here are some considerations for finding your balance.

The before times and after

When I first started teaching over 20 years ago, there was little discussion of flexibility or compassionate teaching. If there was, I missed it. Colleagues told me to be firm or be taken advantage of. Mentors told me I should not be too nice, as students would think I was their friend and not take class as seriously. I set fixed deadlines and clear penalties if the deadlines were missed.

Not everyone had such deadlines in the before times, but once 2020 rolled around, higher education got a lot more flexible. COVID kept students from attending class, whether in person or remotely, and stress, fatigue, and exhaustion climbed. In lieu of penalties for late or missing work, many instructors had flexible deadlines and sometimes no deadlines at all (e.g., “turn it in when you can”). With a return to in-person learning, deadlines crept back and in many cases were even more firmly established. Some faculty feared that a no-deadlines policy would just foster procrastination, a fear with some support (Svartdal et al., 2020).

Deadline rationales

Why do we have deadlines in the first place? There are three easy answers.

The most common one I hear is that deadlines prepare students for a deadline-filled world outside academia. If your boss asks you to present an idea for a project on the 10th, there will be consequences if the 10th comes and goes without you presenting it. This reason sounds sensible. Yes, your boss may reprimand you if your idea is not ready in time. The big difference, though, is that they hired you to generate ideas, and you have the training or qualifications to do so. In college, especially in first-year classes, students may not have the training or know-how to do the task yet. Furthermore, even in the workplace, task deadlines are adjustable, and asking for deadline extensions is not frowned on (Whillans et al., 2022).

Once students develop the knowledge and skills to make a deadline, they still have to plan, monitor the plan, and be conscientious. Subtracting the last trait from the equation (most personality psychologists would suggest that conscientiousness is innate—you have it or you don’t), even planning and monitoring needs training. Students need training and practice in planning and monitoring. We can argue that learning needs punishment, but penalties for missing deadlines are not the only way students can learn, are not always humane, and run counter to the science of operant conditioning (Wu et al., 2022).

Two other reasons for deadlines are very different. Having deadlines makes sure students do not have a lot due at the same time. If none of a student’s courses had deadlines, the student could face a heavy load at end of the term (unless they created their own deadlines). This role of deadlines as part of a highly structured course is a major part of being an inclusive teacher and is linked to better learning outcomes (Hogan & Sathy, 2022).

Similarly, if a faculty member did not have deadlines, the end-of-term grading would be even more hellish than it already is. Note that both of these reasons are strictly pragmatic. Especially from the instructor’s perspective, having no deadlines will be even more prohibitive the greater number of students taught.

Finding balance

So how do we find a balance between the extremes of no or flexible deadlines on the one hand and firm deadlines backed up by penalties on the other? An easy starting question: Why grant an extension (or not)? We have all experienced life’s curveballs. We have all had times when even our best-laid plans were waylaid. Extensions for these times seem intuitive. Of course, when you are teaching (and grading) many students, it is not as easy a question to answer. To help, we can consider philosophical and pragmatic issues.

From a philosophical perspective, whether to grant an extension could depend on the type of teacher you are and your teaching philosophy. For example, are you an authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive teacher? Developmental psychology theories of parenting styles (Baumrind, 1971) can apply to teaching (e.g., Bassett et al., 2013), where the styles vary according to students’ autonomy and the teacher’s involvement and control. Teachers with authoritative styles exert high levels of control but have students who take responsibility for their learning. Authoritarian teachers are more likely to impose penalties for late work or have inflexible deadlines. Students of authoritative teachers tend to be more motivated to learn and are more likely to receive flexible deadlines than students of authoritarian teachers (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Comparing workload, flexibility, and performance across teaching styles

From a pragmatic standpoint, there are a number of key variables to consider: How much of the grade is the assignment worth? How complex and involving is the assignment? How much work is it to grant extensions? How many students are you teaching? The answer to each of these questions can help determine whether you should grant an extension. For the first two, an extension may give the student more time to do a good job and minimize stress. For the latter two, an extension will significantly increase the instructor’s workload.

Sometimes pragmatics interact with pedagogical goals. For example, if a paper assignment is a one-shot submission with no chance for revisions, why not allow it to be due anytime? If you want a student to learn from the feedback and have enough time to use the feedback and revise the paper, having an earlier deadline is key. Note that the cost of missing the deadline need not be a penalty (and hence a punishment for being late) but can be time lost for revision before the final is due.

If the assignment is a quiz or problem set, is there a reason it cannot be turned in later? Yes, if you believe in the value of spaced and retrieval practice and have students take a quiz many times (Gurung & Dunlosky, 2023). Yes, if you only release the solutions once all problems are in. If not, then refusing extensions or imposing a late penalty is nothing more than a punishment to increase conscientiousness or establish authority.

One sweet spot need not fit all. Not all assignments or classes need the same policies. Flexibility has pros and cons. Pros include less stress for students in case of emergency, the instructor seeming compassionate, improved student-instructor rapport, and increased motivation for students to complete the assignment. Cons include having assignments accumulate, increasing the end-of-term workload for both student and instructor, and rewarding procrastination and poor planning and time management.

What do the data say?

There is little if any direct empirical data on the relationship between extension policies and learning, but broad overviews of the pedagogical research suggest that students of compassionate teachers with well-structured classes and clear policies (especially flexible, inclusive ones) have better outcomes (Gurung, 2021; Hogan & Sathy). Students report that flexibility helps them learn (Hills & Peacock, 2022), and that a small pool of “bonus days” increases attention to homework (Nickels & Uddin, 2021). Evidence also suggests that students react differently to deadlines according to the complexity of the task and class modality (Sun & Kim, 2022). It is clear that instructors who exhibit leniency and flexibility are seen as more caring (Pagoto et al., 2021), perhaps influencing student motivation and likelihood to learn.

It is a fine balance indeed between being flexible and compassionate on one hand and rigid and authoritarian on the other. Being flexible does not mean your course is not rigorous (Cardamone, 2021). The key is to be fair. Just as rigor for all improves learning while leveling the playing field (Braxton & Francis, 2018), flexibility needs to be applied uniformly. There is a happy in-between, and it is well worth it to find your sweet spot.

Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.