This brief paper presents the scholarship and practical application of a no-deadlines framework to learning assessments given within a full-time program of study at a Canadian community college. A review of research literature chronicles the incursion of time limits into education and then identifies the ways in which learning is dependent on time at a human scale. A case narrative describes how the author incorporated a no-deadlines framework within his teaching contexts. Successes and shortcomings are discussed along with plans for future improvements. The research literature appears to validate no-deadline frameworks when appropriate supports are provided to learners.
The first likely record of “dead lines” appeared in the trial of a Confederate army officer in the American Civil War. Testimony described “dead lines” as marked or imaginary lines within a stockade prison and how guards were to shoot and kill any prisoner crossing them (Wirz & United States, 1868, p. 4). As early as 1880, urban law-enforcement invoked deadlines as boundaries to constrain “rogues” to their environs, away from the well-to-do (“The Story of the ‘Dead Line,'” 1912, para. 7). It became a term used in journalism (“It’s a gay life, this reporting,” 1913; Smith, 1922), print trades (Henry, 1917), and in industrial production and time management (“Meeting the Dead Line,” 1935) from which it drifts into the vocabulary of the educational profession (Anderson, 1930; Burkhardt, 1948). Deadlines as time limits are how they are understood and applied today (Hawkins & Allen, 1991).
Time: Industrialization, Production, Consumption
“Clock-time” (Adam, 1994, p. 506; Fulmer, Crosby, & Gelfand, 2014, p. 54), became a key tool of the industrial age. Pre-industrial cycles of time — diurnal, lunar, seasonal, and other rhythms of life and society (Adam, 1994; Hallowell, 1937) — were too crude for industrialists. Time became commodified (Adam, 1994; Wajcman, 2008) — the “chief raw material” of the industrial age — and production was assessed under its relentless gaze (Huebener, 2012; Woodcock, 1944, para. 8). Without the precise measurement of clock-time, “industrial capitalism could never have developed” (Woodcock, 1944, para. 2), nor the “exploitation of labour” and profit-making through labourers’ capitulation of time (Wajcman, 2008, p. 63). Efforts to maximize profit were focussed on “efficiency engineering,” Taylorism, and on increasing workers’ production through their perceptions of time (Levine, 1997, p. 70; Meade, 1960; Wajcman, 2008). With industrialization and its acceleration of time, “time surplus” societies were promised “time affluence” only to be delivered “time famine” (Linder, 1970, as cited in Johnson, 1978, p. 203; Levine, 1997; Wajcman, 2008).
Despite the contemporary association of time to the mechanical clock, the cycles of human time — or “event time” (Fulmer et al., 2014, p. 54; Levine, 1997, p. 81) — remain central to human culture and communities. Biology propels the psychological experience of time while culture drives social relations in spite of the artifice of the clock (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014; Hall, 1959; Hallowell, 1937; Huebener, 2012). The societal fetishization of clock time was imposed on Western educational institutions partly to inculcate learners into industrialism or, in Freire’s words, to “domesticate” them (2000, p. 38; Wesman, 1949). Yet, the entire process of learning and human development occurs within psychological, cultural, and social constraints, not mechanical ones. Stated simply, human learning is not an industrial endeavour. Each individual requires an interval of time particular to their needs within conditions established to meet the unique variability of that individual’s circumstances (Carroll, 1985).
Taking Time: A Human Requisite For Learning
Deadlines, as key limiters of learning-time, thwart learner autonomy and decrease learner motivation and subsequent interest (Amabile, DeJong, & Lepper, 1976; Deci & Ryan, 2012). Deadlines may be suitable for certain learners with existing time-management skills or in some online learning contexts (Fulton, Ivanitskaya, Bastian, Erofeev, & Mendez, 2013; Leeds, 2014). Procrastination is likely to occur in longer assignments and deadlines may be offered as a solution (Ackerman & Gross, 2005), however, a moderate level of pressure and ongoing encouragement may be more suitable to learning success (Levine, 1997). On the whole, flexible assignment policies have been seen to yield long-term positive results for learners and greater course completion rates (Patton, 2000).
Perceived risks of removing assignment deadlines altogether may be offset by high-quality instruction and enhanced instructor support. High quality instruction may be characterized by good preparation, varied instructional format, interactivity, valid assessments, and appropriately challenging expectations (Ackerman & Gross, 2005; Carroll, 1985; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006). Instructor support is manifested through mutual trust and respect that acknowledges learner and instructor roles, encourages dialogue between learners and faculty, and respects learner diversity (Chickering & Gamson, 1987, p. 3; Hulleman & Barron, 2015; Knowles, 1975).
As deadlines have been seen to reduce learning motivation, researchers have sought means to identify and increase motivation and perseverance (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2012; Maslow, 1943). Hulleman and Barron present a range of effective, alternative interventions that can be put into practice (2015). These include the expectancy-value framework, expectancy and control framework, goal-setting and utility value, self-determination theory, integrated regulation or sense-of-self, introjected regulation or pleasing others, and growth mindset theory. Using these approaches, they explain that “intervention targets students’ adaptive and maladaptive behaviors and cognitions” in order to support their learning success (2015, p. 165).
Assessments and grading are integral to any discussion of learning progress, with or without deadlines. Grading scales appeared alongside industrialization and the rise of clock-time. The lauding of mastery or readiness gave way to a system of ranked grading (Durm, 1993). The pursuit of higher grades for their own sake became the focus of academic activity (O’Connor, 2010) and meeting deadlines became a part of that performance metric (Hulleman & Barron, 2015; Patton, 2000; Watkins, 2015). Formulae were contrived to calculate grades, including penalties for late assignments (O’Connor, 2010). The assessment of learning was merged with time limits, “a compromise for the sake of administrative efficiency” (Wesman, 1949, p. 51). Deadline performance became a proxy for actual learning, thereby diminishing learner autonomy, motivation, and creativity (Deci & Ryan, 2012).
The literature details various alternatives. Authentic assessments may provide more meaningful learning appraisal and may be partitioned into smaller, more manageable assignments. Mastery goals with criterion-referenced credit for satisfactory completion encourages risk-taking and creativity. Prompt, authentic, informative feedback communicates a learner’s progress and supports perseverance. Individualized instructor support — not pressure — may positively guide learner expectations and growth mindset. Peer interaction and collaboration may further extend a learner’s supports (Ackerman & Gross, 2005; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Deci & Ryan, 2012; Hulleman & Barron, 2015; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006; O’Connor, 2010; Watkins, 2015).
Case Narrative: Implementing A No-Deadlines Approach
My current instructional duties are in the Digital Media Design (DMD) program at Red River College (RRC, the College). DMD is a full-time, two-year diploma program spanning four 16-week terms in the Fall and in the Winter/Spring. In order to determine how best to implement a no-deadlines framework to assignments, I first considered the various classroom characteristics within which I was working. First and foremost, the students in the program are adult learners with concomitant adult responsibilities and obligations. Second, the students had voluntarily chosen to enter the DMD program and have made some degree of commitment to it. A third characteristic is that of small class sizes. I meet with up to twenty-four students per allotted class-time. Fourth, DMD class durations, typically three hours, are treated as labs during which the primary activities would be skills practice, discussion, and exploration. This offers ample time within which I may interact individually with each student according to their needs. Fifth, DMD instructors decide the appropriateness of various assessment methods to be used. The College encourages the use of authentic assessments (Red River College, 2015). Finally, a crucial shortcoming within the DMD program is that there is no coordination of study workloads or assessment deadlines, despite the best of attempts. My observation has been that students frequently found themselves juggling several assignments at the same time, as well as personal obligations outside school, all having significant impact on their attention or attendance in class especially during intervals in which deadlines were looming. In the context of the DMD program, deadlines appeared to form arbitrary gauntlets of performance assessments used to calculate final grades. In addition, deadlines were rationalized as being authentic to workplace deadlines. As has been noted, deadlines limit the assessment of actual, achieved learning and use performance as a proxy. Furthermore, workplaces are places of production, not necessarily of learning. Learning, if any, may be considered a secondary outcome in a workplace. In the case of the DMD program, and at the College in general, learning outcomes are foremost. Thus, assessments must evaluate the accomplishment of defined learning outcomes — has the learner achieved the anticipated level of competency?
In order to better focus on learning outcomes and learner engagement, I adopted a “no-deadlines” framework to assignments and assessments. The “no-deadlines” label is somewhat cursory in that this process is, in fact, multi-faceted, incorporating research that addresses engagement, motivation, teaching principles, learner success, and assessments for adult learners, applied within the specific contexts in which I teach. There are three primary foundations to this framework: the absence of assignment deadlines; in-person guidance and review of assignment work; and credit, rather than a grade, for mastery of each assignment.
The first, obvious foundation of this framework was to eschew assignment deadlines. By leaving assignment deadlines open, I acknowledge the adult capabilities and responsibilities of my students. I emphasize to my students the notion that, for all kinds of reasons, everyone learns at their own speed. Students may set their own priorities in terms of time allotted to each assignment in context of their learning goals, other courses, and non-curricular responsibilities. The students are provided two guides within this model. The first is an estimated time budget to be allocated to the assignment, roughly congruent to the numbers of hours of allocated lab times. The second is that the College requires a summative letter grade at the end of the term. Although there are no individual assignment deadlines, the academic term provides a larger, more flexible time frame in which any summative assessment may better reflect the entirety of student learning.
The second foundation of the framework is that all assignment work — in progress or completed — is reviewed in-person, with both student and instructor present, generally during scheduled class-times. The three-hour lab periods provide an adequate venue for this style of interaction. Students are encouraged to check in with me at any point during their assignment work. If a student prefers, I will schedule time to meet with them outside of class-time. This face-to-face interaction allows the student to receive individualized attention according to their needs, to discuss their progress and ask further questions, to practice any specialized terminology, and to build confidence in presenting their ideas. In this context I am able to provide an assessment immediately, letting the student know if they have mastered the work satisfactorily. I may pose additional questions to challenge their thinking. Sometimes, I need to provide additional guidance as to how the student can complete the work to the established criteria, along with encouragement to boost their motivation and their expectation that success is achievable. The interaction is helpful in building mutual trust and underscores the importance I place in each student’s individual learning. Students may discuss learning obstacles they encounter and I would provide appropriate guidance. The interaction allows me to identify challenges that the student may not recognize and I may direct the student to College support services — financial, health, or other — where I may not have expertise. In sum, these interactions around classroom assignments can be recognized as social supports for learning (Vygotsky, 1978).
A component of the in-person review of assignments is that attendance and participation in class is expected. Attendance, to a large degree, confirms a student’s commitment to the program of studies (Beatty-Guenter, 1994). Lack of attendance or attention becomes an early signal of impending challenges. Attendance is recorded and early intervention is rallied as issues arise. Furthermore, classroom attendance allows students and instructor to gain familiarity with each other, thereby deepening mutual trust and learner confidence.
The third foundation of the no-deadlines framework concerns grading. Each assignment is given with a clear, limited set of mastery criteria (Bloom, 1974; Carroll, 1985; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006). Once all criteria are met satisfactorily, the student is awarded credit for the assignment. Each assignment represents some proportion of the final grade, for example twenty percent each for five assignments. With satisfactory fulfillment of the assignment criteria, the student receives credit amounting to twenty percent of the final grade. If any criteria are lacking, the student will be guided on how to complete those criteria. Thus, the work is engaged until mastery is evidenced. If some students take longer to achieve completion, there is no deadline that is pressuring completion. Until the criteria are fulfilled, each review of work-in-progress provides the student with a formative assessment. Since each credit represents a clear proportion of the final grade, students have a fair degree of certainty about their progress. This approach diverts attention away from the grades and onto the learning. Because there is no assignment deadline, incomplete work or late work is not a concern. The student is simply guided on how to complete the assignment, receives any necessary tutoring, and is allowed to resubmit. Each assessment is formative until mastery is achieved.
Ultimately, there are multiple benefits for learners and instructor. Learners receive individualized support, prompt feedback, adequate time to set priorities and achieve their learning objectives, motivational supports, and a clear, uncomplicated grading formula in which learning itself is treated as an asset rather than treating grades as a form of currency. Students have expressed their satisfaction with the framework and with their learning outcomes. As the instructor, I am able to acknowledge learners as adults with their diversity of backgrounds. I can provide timely assessments with no need to negotiate or calculate extensions or penalties, which in turn allows me to allocate adequate time to learners requiring my attention.
My experience with this framework has shown that there are opportunities for further improvement. Despite careful consideration in the application of the framework, and positive student feedback and excellent learning outcomes, there have been students who were unable to manage the course work despite the choice and control they had within the framework. My challenge is to make improvements without diverging from the framework to the degree that its benefits are lost. Furthermore, I have no empirical research that describes the results of this endeavour and its implied hypotheses. Solutions may be found in careful scholarship as expressed in this paper and in a reflective approach to my practice, my experiences, and to the experiences of my students.
I sought peer feedback within the context of the course work for which this paper was prepared. Angeline, Churchill, and I touched on several questions, such as learner or administrative objections to the framework, assumptions of learner readiness for the degree of freedom the framework provides, considering how well the framework aligns with extant research, and improvements to the interventions.
Our consensus view was that continued and improving learning successes using the framework would be the best counter to any potential objections. Therefore, we discussed options for improving its implementation. We agreed that there could be room for more planned, deliberate interaction with struggling learners, especially since these appear to be less likely to avail themselves directly for my support. Without imposing deadlines, I might set aside and announce specific milestone dates at which time I would engage more directly with less-engaged learners.
In initial applications of this framework, students expressed concern with how much effort and time might be required to complete an assignment. In a way, assignment deadlines provided a crude way to budget time and resources. I had not provided an alternative indication as to how much time they should budget. This led me to introduce a time budget guide mentioned earlier in this paper. Although the information was rough, students were relieved and encouraged regarding the amount of commitment expected of them. I was open to making improvements — this one did not interfere with the framework but gave students more guidance as to how they should proceed.
Students who may be struggling may require slightly firmer guidance. In this case, the intervention suggested in my earlier peer feedback may provide an appropriate support. By announcing milestone dates when I would confer with less-engaged students, I provide an inducement for purposeful engagement regarding their progress.
The no-deadlines framework has been successful by several informal measures. The instructional context supports it, the students as a cohort find it a more collaborative, rather than competitive environment, and as instructor, I am better able to make myself available in and outside the classroom for consultation, tutoring, and guidance.
This case narrative allowed me to reflect further on the research literature regarding time and learning, individualized instruction, motivation in learning, and the role of assessments within instructional contexts similar to mine. My scholarship had been informal and therefore two challenges presented themselves. One was that of bringing together the rationale for the no-deadlines framework into a coherent discourse. The second challenge was that of determining improvements to my application of the framework in the absence of such a discourse. My success with the framework could be attributed to informal scholarship — but to identify gaps required a careful revisiting of the literature. Until I could revisit the literature, I had few options for knowledgeably supporting students who were outliers in terms of their readiness and motivation. The case narrative, therefore, provided a degree of formal scholarship which could support the no-deadlines framework, improvements to it, or variations of it.
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