Flexible Deadlines and the Art of Saving Grandmothers

“College assignment due dates are the second-leading cause of grandmother death in the United States!” In Dr. Carolyn Shivers’s courses, students can ask for extensions on any assignment for any reason or no reason at all. 

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About the Author

Carolyn M. Shivers, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Niagara University. Her research focuses on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, as well as the impact of ableism and ableist beliefs on well-being and family functioning. At her previous institution, she created and led an undergraduate minor in Disabilities Studies, which grew to be the largest minor at the university. Through teaching and outreach, she works to dismantle exclusionary structures in higher education and make colleges and universities accessible spaces for students, staff, and faculty. experiences navigating academia with a disability and publishes work aimed at increasing the representation, equity, and inclusion of people with disabilities in psychology. Across her research, clinical work, and advocacy, she strives to improve mental health care.

It is a great point of pride for me that my grandmother kill rate over the past 5 years has been zero. That’s right! I am a college professor, and zero grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-aunts, etc. have died – or even been put on life support! – because of my exam and assignment deadlines. 

“How can this be?” You might ask. “College assignment due dates are the second-leading cause of grandmother death in the United States!” Well, my friends, I shall tell you. 

It’s flexible deadlines. 

That’s right. My students are allowed to request extensions for any and all assignments for any reason or no reason at all. All they have to do is send me an email saying “Dr. Shivers, may I please have an extension for Friday’s assignment?”

Since I implemented this policy, I have received no emails about dead or dying family members. No mom’s friend’s second-cousin’s great-aunts have lost their lives on the eve of midterms. I’m sure the NIH will call me any day now to further study this miraculous, life-saving practice. 

Sarcasm aside, let’s talk about how this works functionally. First, I am able to easily extend deadlines because I do not use any tests, exams, or otherwise timed assignments in my course. In addition to research the fact that speed does not equal accuracy, the concept of telling students, especially disabled students, that they have to demonstrate their learning in this time period and this time period only is antithetical to inclusion. And, in my opinion, just silly. Who am I to say that a student has not learned enough to pass my class unless they demonstrate that learning in a single 75-minute period? 

Second, it’s important to acknowledge that simply having no due dates at all is not inclusive, either. Many students need structure to help them plan and stay on top of the course requirements. I do have due dates for all assignments throughout the semester. These deadlines are meaningful; for every day late a student submits an assignment, they lose 10% of the total possible points off their score. Therefore, students have to keep track of due dates. The deadlines are flexible, but not automatic. Students must ask for extensions, which indicates to me that they are aware of the assignment and understand the expectations. I tell students and have written in my syllabus that my answer to extension requests will always be yes, and they never have to give me a reason. This way, the “asking” is more of a formality – there should be little to no anxiety as to whether or not I will actually provide the accommodation. 

Finally, all extensions do come with their own, new due dates. Depending on the assignment, I will grant students 2-3 more days, though I am happy to allow more. This, again, helps students stay on top of their work. If they need another extension, all they need to do is ask again. It’s also important to note that the 10% daily penalty pauses as soon as students ask for an extension. That is, if a student forgets an assignment and emails me two days after the deadline to request an extension, the extension is granted, and the student can earn a maximum of 80% of that assignment’s points. 

I understand these policies won’t work for everyone. Large classes and lab courses, in particular, may not be able to offer this flexibility. However, for those of us who teach more traditional courses, I encourage you all to consider your deadline policy. As I like to say, we academics are an arrogant bunch, but even I am not so self-centered as to believe that my 3-credit hour course should be the most important thing in my students’ lives. They have jobs, friends, family, and whole lives that can and will interfere with my largely arbitrary due dates. The least we can do is consider some plasticity in our lateness policies. 

Think of the grandmothers.  

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