Can I Have an Extension, Please?

Where is the line in the sand when it comes to granting or refusing extensions on writing assignments? The image is a bike tire track on sand but it was the closest I had to a personal image representing that metaphor.

I asked for my first extension as a PhD student a couple of weeks ago. In fairness, my entire class also asked for an extension. It had been strongly suggested to us that we participate as much as possible in the Research Symposium organized by the faculty. The symposium was wonderful so it wasn’t difficult to want to participate, but it was also two full days and two evenings of symposium activities, and one evening of being exhausted taken away from completing an intense 25-page assignment on measurement. We were lucky. (Or charming?) Our prof said yes and it was a like releasing the death grip on our sanity.

Student requests for extensions became a hot and controversial topic on Twitter earlier this week. Extensions are a writing issue that all writers encounter a need for. They are linked to my primary area of study in academic writing: Writing Self-Efficacy. They are also linked to the social inequalities present in academia among students that we may not recognize when we criticize students for their inability to get their work done on time.

The Debate

  1. All students should be given extensions on request regardless of reason.
  2. No student should be given an extension because in the real world, deadlines  are not extended.

It is obviously much more complicated than that but that is the essence of the dichotomy as it comes out of the mouths of black and white thinkers. It might be easier to talk about the shades of grey in between by telling you my process of dealing (or rather not dealing with) extensions.

A number of years ago when I was a much more junior college instructor I observed very quickly that in a class size of 70 students (or more) that it was a time consuming pain in the ass to receive 20 or more emails asking for extensions for various reasons. Not only that, but our department made them fill out a form which was then to go in their file so they could keep track of a pattern of behaviour.  For each student who requested an extension, I would have to make an independent decision to grant or not grant their request.

… but what, after all,  defines a good enough reason?

Illness? A death in the family? Hospitalization? My kid is sick? My parent is sick? I’m too busy with other assignments and clinical? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?

I am bound by some department policies. Extensions are allowed, to a maximum of one week, at the discretion of an instructor, and they must be requested 24-hours in advance of a due date (which, think about this, means 72 hours in advance if the due date is a Monday). Something about tracking requests for extensions and making a decision about what was a valid reason for needing an extension based on my own personal view point didn’t sit well with me.

So I began pre-announcing, in the first class of a term, a due date and an automatic extension date for the entire class. No questions asked. AND — this might be the controversial part — I give those who had in their paper “on time” 2 bonus marks.

Here is my rationale for my personal policy:

  1. The students are adults. They should be allowed some control over their life.
  2. No matter how hard we try to say we are preparing students for real life, being a student is NOT real life. Hence why I teach at the college level. It’s been my extended way of avoiding real life for a very long time now. So the argument that no extensions are granted in the real world, doesn’t wash well with me. And it’s pretty much flat out untrue more often than it is true.
  3. I believe that rewards are far more motivating than punishments.
  4. It prevents students from being put in the place of needing to lie to you, or having to accept a punishment such as grade loss.  Having restrictive extension policies such as you can only have an extension if you are sick or someone close to you dies, basically puts students who need extensions for other reasons in a place where they have to make a choice that isn’t a choice.  So they are punished, or they lie to you. Talk about stress and anxiety. I don’t see how either is a good option when you are the less powerful party just trying to survive.
  5. Lets not even go down the road of discussing those who demand doctor’s notes. What a waste of a doctor’s time (and the student’s money — they don’t hand out those notes for free) to send a sick student to sit in a waiting room and spread germs just to humour a teacher’s fear of being lied to and fear being unfair to all the others who were not as unlucky and didn’t get sick.
  6. Sometimes the shit hits the fan within that final 24-hour period.
  7. It demonstrates that I trust my students to make their own judgement call about their lives and what they can manage. It also protects their privacy. They no longer have to tell me their often very personal stories that might be embarrassing to them. And, frankly, I don’t need to know.

How has this worked out for me? I don’t always use this policy. When I am using true scaffolding writing strategies, for example, where students are completing their assignment in small stages across the term, it is often not needed. But when I use it, I find it very successful. Here are some of the discoveries I have made along the way:

  1. Students need a reminder to psychologically view the first due date as the due date because if they start thinking of the extension date as the due date, some of them will run into big troubles with procrastination. I structure the pre-assignment expectations as such that no student should be in the position of not having something started by the time the first due date rolls around.
  2. I tell them to not make a decision until the last minute so the extension is used only if they really need it. I also tell them not hand in crap just for bonus marks. They can often earn far more than the 2 marks just with taking a little time to better edit their paper. (Problem I acknowledge: it requires that they understand what kinds of editing will get them more marks. Some of them don’t.)
  3. 100% of terms over the last 5 academic years has seen more students taking the extension than not. In fact the number of students handing in the paper “on time” ranges from 0 to 15 out of an average of 60 students per class.
  4. The majority of students handing in the paper “on time” are the A-grade students anyway. So the bonus may not be necessary (but I’ve never tested that theory).
  5. Most students know that putting off their school work just makes subsequent school work harder to attend to. There is no down time in  nursing school.
  6. With the very rare and extreme exception, further extensions are not granted.

I’ve heard the arguments about being limiting with extensions. That it isn’t fair to the students who hand in their work on time. That it is laziness and procrastination that makes them request extensions. In my experience, it is rarely laziness or poor time management that leads to a student wanting an extension. It’s the very complicated lives our students lead. Arguments of fairness assume all the students are starting off on a level playing field. They aren’t. You cannot compare the responsibilities of a student who is single parenting three children to the responsibilities of a 22 year old, living at home with her parents and has no job but school work. And that 22-year old may be being abused by her boyfriend. You simply don’t know.

And here is a crazy but anecdotal observation — those with the strictest extension policies for students are also the first to demand concessions for themselves when they need more time.

There are students in our classrooms who are working just so they can feed their family and have many other disadvantages both visible and invisible. It’s family demands, especially in cultures where you cannot say no to your family if they show up at your door at 8 PM expecting to be entertained. It’s being educationally disadvantaged your whole life and being behind in understanding the lingo and behaviours that define being “a good student.” It’s low self-efficacy that can paralyze thinking and emotions. It is an exhausted brain demanding that it be shut off for the night even though the assignment is due in 6 hours. It’s anxiety, which is really a legitimate illness, except it isn’t a socially acceptable illness so how do you describe your “illness” when you aren’t barfing or feverish, so you aren’t “really” sick, but you can’t seem to get anything done anyway?

Having said that, there are limits. There are lines in the sand. Extensions cannot drag on and on or be unlimited. We have due dates to manage our own workloads and personal circumstances too.  The college has a generous 3-month post end of a course policy for outstanding assignments and exams which can be activated in exceptional circumstances. We’ve put it into effect numerous times with students in need (a student whose house burned down, another having gastrointestinal hospitalizations, another hospitalized for mental health issues, another with cancer).

So there is willingness to allow extensions on due dates, but sometimes a student needs to consider their status as a student. Students under stress often have limited insight into when they need to ask for help or need to take the load of school off their shoulders. They think they can do their school work despite the world crashing down around them. They make bad decisions. Sometimes a one week extension isn’t enough to get through. Fortunately I am in a program with diligent and excellent student advisors (who are also nurses) who can coach students through this decision making process. Sometimes an extension is not what a student needs. What they need is permission to stop, take a breath, fix their lives, and come back healthy. School will still be there.*

*mini side rant about scholarships and funders who take student’s money away for failures or time off for illness. That BS needs to stop too. Not all students live lives, or have the academic naturalness, to handle the full time course loads required by some funders.

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