It’s Time to Think About Time

When discussing rigor in school work, two characteristics that frequently come up are complexity and difficulty. What often gets left out of the conversation is the amount of time students are given to complete a task. 

Many teachers feel that time should not be a factor in the overall grade. If a student turns in work past the deadline, that shouldn’t matter. When teachers include time in assessing student work, some believe that what is actually being assessed is student behavior.   

One teacher blog I read argued that deadlines are usually arbitrary and, therefore, are unnecessary. What matters, this teacher wrote, was the learning. Assessment guru Thomas Guskey, in a 2004 article entitled Zero Alternatives, recommends the use of an “I” or “Incomplete” for late student work. Or, he suggests that such “behavioral” concerns be reported separately from academic achievement. 

With all due respect to Mr. Guskey et. al., time actually matters. 

Due Dates Are Not Always Random

In terms of the arbitrariness of due dates, I (sort of) agree with this thought. My only concern with this argument is that sometimes deadlines are NOT arbitrary. Many schools have reporting deadlines for teachers to submit grades such that scores can make it onto progress reports. Also, as a teacher who teaches multiple courses, I actually schedule due dates so that I have the time to grade the work of one class before the work of the next class starts rolling in. When kids hand in work whenever they want, work starts to pile up and overlap, and that makes me a) unhappy, and b) not as effective. 

Comparing Apples and Oranges

As far as the ‘late work = a behavior issue’ argument goes, my experience in the classroom has provided me with a different perspective. A student who completes a task during a one-hour class has achieved something very different from a student who completed the same task over a 52-day stretch of time. And if that 52-day example seems oddly specific, it should – a student recently submitted an assignment to me that many days late. Don’t get me wrong – it was a beautiful piece of work. It was exceptional – more than meeting the assignment expectations. Those students who met the deadline were working under the pressure of the clock and forced to make quick decisions, developing planning and time-management skills, not to mention flexing their flexibility and innovation muscles. The late students, on the other hand, had no such pressure applied to their work. They had the luxury of time to consider various alternatives. If setbacks occurred, this student could think about a variety of solutions – they could even talk to classmates (who had completed the assignment) to find out how they had approached areas of concern. 

In a nutshell, the work that was turned in late was a significantly different assessment piece. At the very least, late work should be marked with an asterisk indicating that it is a modified assessment in terms of the process students underwent.

Game Theory

Beyond the modification of the assessment expectations, accepting late work leads to another concern: students gaming the system. Once students learn that late work will be accepted and scored the same as work completed within the timeline, some students will adjust their work habits to fit within the new, open-ended expectations. They spend the in-class work time socializing or playing video games. And then later, at their leisure, complete the work days or weeks later. I have had students try to determine the consequences of missing the deadline as soon as the work is assigned. For instance, students will ask “What happens if I don’t finish it before the end of class?” – and they will ask this question five minutes into our work period. This question is simply a student pre-determining what the consequences will be and then adjusting their effort accordingly. I do my best to light a fire under these students – I ignore the question, I respond with something like “Dude, you’ve got more than an hour left in class, why are you asking this now?” But, regardless of how much I spur students to do their best to work within the fixed timeline, the chronically late already know the reality that I am doing my best to avoid: they can hand in their work whenever they want.

How Do We Address This?

We can begin by helping students understand the importance of timeliness. What has been interesting to me during the research for this post is how much of the research surrounding the issue of time management is centered around the private sector, not the academic sector. Apparently, effectively managing one’s workload is critical for the business world. So, why aren’t we developing these skills in school? I’m not saying we fail kids who can’t make a deadline. But, we need to spend time helping students understand the importance of fulfilling their responsibilities. To this end, I like to show students the four quadrants of academic rigor, developed by Dr. Douglas Fisher. The model shows students how rigor is composed of sliding scales of both complexity and difficulty (including time!). Students are challenged to think of work they’ve completed and where it fits within the model. Then, we discuss what skills are developed within the four quadrants. 

Another technique is to simply be open about the due dates and why they were chosen. I always tell students about my reporting timelines/responsibilities and explain how I give myself a window of time to grade their work before the work of other classes starts to come in. This helps to take away that sense of arbitrariness that students may develop around deadlines. 

I also like to build discussions about the future into our lessons – asking students to make connections between our work in class and important skills students might require for their future. Students, with little prompting, can see how our deadlines foster team-building and  communication skills. And, with additional scaffolding, students see how missed deadlines can have a ripple effect on other work, and with their leisure/family time.  

Time is important. It matters. 

We know this to be true. Anyone who has turned up at the airport to find their gate already closed understands the value of time. Anyone who devotes an hour a day to learning a new language appreciates the return on investment of using time wisely. We need to strengthen student appreciation for time by ensuring it is explicitly and intentionally reflected in assessment. By separating time out of assessment as a behavior issue, ignoring it altogether, or allowing it to be gamed simply renders time meaningless. 

Let’s make time meaningful for our students.  Don’t you think it’s about time?  

Ed X!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s