I teach online a lot. I know the pandemic forced many educators into online modes of instruction over the last year or so, but I taught my first online class over a decade ago. I don’t say that to be boastful or anything. I offer that information more as a way to explain how long I’ve been tweaking my classes and trying out different aspects of my courses. It’s been a decade-long journey of experimentation, reflection, and revision.
Most of my online classes are asynchronous in nature. Since I work a lot with adult learners who have family and work commitments, I recognize the flexibility that asynchronous classes offer. Students can work at their own pace and at times of the day that work best for them. Looking at student log-in data from my classes, I see that there are groups of students who prefer to complete coursework in the wee hours of the morning and other students who prefer to work late at night. It’s clear that asynchronous classes help to accommodate for students’ different work schedules and let them have some control over their pacing.
Over the last decade of online teaching, there’s one aspect of my asynchronous classes that I’m constantly questioning and revising: my use of due dates. I have some colleagues who release all of the modules at the start of the semester and allow students to work through course content completely on their own schedule. I have other colleagues who require their students to log into their online classes daily or have them complete daily assignments. If those are ends of a continuum, I would place myself someplace in the middle. I release new modules each week and usually break up each module into two due dates, one midweek and another at the end. My rationale with this structure is that I want to slowly scaffold course content over the course of the semester and don’t want to bombard students with content at the start of the semester. Also, despite their different work schedules, I still want to foster a learning community in the class. Having them discuss content together and share ideas with one another helps to build that larger learning community. The multiple due dates prompt students to engage more regularly in the course, but I’ve often wondered whether this is the right approach. Would it be better if I just released all of the modules at the start of the semester and allowed students to set their own deadlines? What impact would that have on student learning?
Traveling back from a beach vacation last week, I binged through a backlog of podcasts and discovered a research-based answer to my due date ponderings. In a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vendantam interviewed behavior scientist Katy Milkman about how we can use our minds to do what’s good for us. In the episode, Milkman shared research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch who studied the impact of deadlines on performance. In the first part of their research, Ariely and Wertenbroch studied groups of students enrolled in two sections of the same class. In one section, students were given fixed, evenly spaced due dates for three papers. In the other section, students were allowed to set their own deadlines which they had to schedule with the instructor early in the semester. Surprisingly, when given the choice to set their own due dates, most of the students spaced out their deadlines throughout the semester. Only about 25% of the students scheduled the due dates for all of three papers at the end of the semester. This demonstrated to the researchers that most of the students “are willing to self-impose deadlines to overcome procrastination.” While this seems promising from a self-regulation standpoint, what was the impact of the different deadlines processes on student learning? To study this, the researchers looked at students’ grades on papers and their grades on a final project that was scheduled at the end of the semester in both sections. In both cases, grades were significantly higher in the sections with instructor-imposed deadlines.
To examine the impact of deadlines on student performance a little more deeply, Ariely and Wertenbroch conducted a second study. The researchers sought student workers who were willing to act as proofreaders. Volunteers would be paid based on the number of errors they found in three selected papers. The novel aspect is that volunteers were broken into three groups. One group was required to proofread a single paper each week for three weeks. The second group were required to submit their work for all three papers at the end of three weeks. The third group were allowed to choose their own deadlines for the work during the three-week window. The researchers measured the number of errors the proofreaders in each group found and whether the volunteers missed any deadlines. Consistent with the findings from the first study, proofreaders in the group with assigned, regular deadlines outperformed the volunteers in the other groups. That groups also found more errors and missed fewer deadlines.
Considering the research from Ariely and Wertenbroch, I’m more confident that my due date choices are educationally beneficial to the students in asynchronous classes. It’s cool to find research to support a pedagogical decision that I just happened to stumble upon after years of tweaking and revising. Now I just need to find research on the hundreds of other pedagogical questions that bounce around in my brain.
Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.