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Forum: Should we give a hard no to hard deadlines?

COVID-19 has changed the academic landscape of course policies
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

Given the impact of the pandemic on student mental health, some professors have ditched late penalties. However, some students think strict deadlines should also be abolished for the sake of student well-being. Two contributors debate the necessity of hard deadlines, one arguing in their favour and the other suggesting the use of unenforced due dates to help students space out their assignments, instead.


Deadlines exist for a reason 

Hard deadlines have value because they can keep students from falling behind in course material. Deadlines can act as a time management tool, keeping students from leaving an overwhelming pile of work to the last minute.

As a first-year Faculty of Arts & Science student, I have found that the planning and organizational skills that university courses require are significantly greater than those needed for high school courses. If these courses completely removed strict deadlines, I believe a different kind of stress would emerge from the expectation that students must do 100 per cent of the organizational work themselves. 

According to Duke professor and author Dan Ariely, deadlines are the driving force for turning intention into action. Without looming deadlines, assignments are easy to push off — intentionally or not. 

Another reason why I support deadlines is because they allow for feedback. When deadlines are placed throughout the semester, professors have the opportunity to let students know how they are doing with the work, offer suggestions, and provide encouragement. In some cases, feedback on early assignments can be used to help a student determine if they are in the appropriate course, or if they will be able to succeed in the course given the rest of their current workload. If students wait until too late in a semester to submit their work, they may not be able to make the most of these valuable assessment opportunities. 

Finally, deadlines represent one of the most important learning habits: practice. When I began MAT135 — Calculus I this past September, I was presented with a module that compared the process of learning in general with the process of learning math. From it, students learned one similarity between these two processes that could apply to other courses: the best way to study is to practice. Deadlines throughout the semester can ensure that students are constantly practising, which better prepares them for the final exam than any amount of last-minute cramming. 

Overall, I believe there are many valid reasons for maintaining the existence of strict deadlines. With that said, given the current circumstances, it is also important that professors continue to be mindful of the additional stresses and difficulties being managed by their students. Making extensions easy to access, continuing to reduce late penalties, and being receptive to student feedback are all ways that professors can reduce student burden while still maintaining deadlines.

Jocelyn Mattka is a first-year social sciences student at Victoria College. She is also a first-year VUSAC councillor. 

 

Strict assignment deadlines are ineffective during a pandemic

Deadlines for assignments are usually beneficial. However, in an unprecedented pandemic, the stress students incur due to deadlines becomes detrimental to their well-being and success. Now that COVID-19 has come to dominate conversations about education, the Ontario government has released guidance for educators, suggesting that they should consider the mental health of students a top priority. 

Canadian youth were already facing a mental health crisis before the pandemic, with one in five young Canadians meeting the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental disorder. Compared to youth in other economically advanced countries, young Canadians were already suffering disproportionately from mental health issues; a 2020 UNICEF study comparing measures of well-being in 38 high-income countries ranked Canada at 31st.   

Studies conducted after the start of the pandemic have suggested that youth are now struggling even more. According to the World Health Organization, loneliness associated with lockdowns and remote learning, depression, anxiety, substance use, and self-harming behaviours are all expected to rise as the pandemic continues.  

A researcher at Stanford University found that 56 per cent of students from 10 high-performing Californian high schools considered homework to be their main source of academic stress before the pandemic started. Students believed that stressful assignments negatively affected their health, created barriers to extracurricular pursuits, and ate into time they would otherwise spend with friends and family. A study published in BMC Psychology also found that since COVID-19 began impacting educational systems and school closures became widespread, over 60 per cent of domestic US college students have found it more difficult to complete their courses remotely.  

Educators traditionally impose deadlines for assignments because deadlines teach students about ‘real-world skills,’ work ethics, and the consequences of their actions. Deadlines are even known to temporarily increase performance due to what is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, where moderate amounts of stress created by deadlines psychologically stimulate students. However, when stress levels become too high — like during a pandemic — deadlines no longer help students succeed and teach them how the real world works. Instead, those deadlines add to the massive list of stressors students are already facing, setting them up for failure.  

Soft deadlines could be a solution to this difficult problem. Although flexible deadlines may hinder educators’ ability to give timely feedback and pace their marking, the adoption of soft deadlines before a final due date would allow educators to avoid penalizing students for missing deadlines that are negatively impacting their mental health. 

As students struggle to continue their studies, educators need to adapt to the current situation and assist their students during these particularly trying times. The goal of education should be to teach students and accommodate them, not to create more stress and further mental health issues.

Katherine E. Todd is a fourth-year student studying political science and public law at UTSC.