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Nonsense Teaching: Due Dates

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things last semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. Probably the last part of a 3-part series that I thought I’d forget about but somehow didn’t.
Part 1: Late Work Passes
Part 2: Choose-your-own-adventure Projects

I read somewhere (if I had to guess, it was in A Perfect Mess) about how the most efficient use of crosswalks is when about half of pedestrians waited for the lights to change, and about half of pedestrians dart across the street to dodge traffic. If everyone were to wait, it would be terribly congested. If everyone were to ignore the signals, it would be chaos.

This semester I let my students pick their own due dates. Which sounds like madness. Here’s why it wasn’t.

I got this idea originally from Sanna Pederson at OU, who used to let us turn in our graduate musicology term papers whenever we wanted to. This worked fine for grad students, or at least it worked fine for me. Presumably if it didn’t work, she wouldn’t have done it.

For Entrepreneurship and Skills for Academic Success, students picked their own due dates, with some restrictions. In Entrepreneurship, required projects had set due dates, while optional projects were left to student discretion. For Skills for Academic Success, students could choose their own due dates, but one project had to be completed each week. (More information on the curriculum in Part 2).

In both classes, the first project is a “semester plan” where students plot their assignments for the semester. They get credit for schedule management, which is exactly what I want them to do as part of these classes. If they need to update their semester plan, they can do so via letter.

I kept track of all this in Excel, because Blackboard was no help.

As I mentioned in part 1 when talking about Late Work Passes, my late work policy is that all work is accepted in the week that it’s due. So if students pick a due date of Monday, I’ll accept that work through Saturday.

In Excel, I had a column for student name, class, and project. Next, I had the student’s due date, followed by a column showing the weekday of the due date (=WEEKDAY(D2)). This allowed me to calculate the late-work deadline with the formula (=D3+(7-E3)), or (=Due_date+(7-(Weekday of Due Date))).

When a student submitted an assignment, I just cross-referenced my spreadsheet to see if the assignment was valid. Like with the Late Work Passes, students basically took care of this and I could have ignored my spreadsheet. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

Grading

I figured that this would take up a lot of time, and to offset that I changed up my grading policy. I don’t necessarily need 100 points of gradation to give feedback for creative work, so I moved to check-grading, which looks like this:

Check-Plus: Acceptable; Needs no further work
The submitted assignment is polished, professional, and indicative of the level of work expected from a professional musician. Any improvements to the project would only add to the level of professionalism of the assignment. Receives: 100% of points.

Check: Acceptable; Could improve
The submitted assignment is acceptable and meets the purpose as requested, however, it still leaves some things to be desired such as additional information, formatting, word usage, etc. Receives: 80% of points.

X: Try Again
The submitted assignment is rejected for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It is not formatted in a conventional, useful, or ergonomic way.
  • The information it contains is lacking or false.
  • It is not presented in a manner that represents your work as a professional musician.

Receives: 60% of points

X-Minus: No apparent effort
The assignment was either not submitted, or the material submitted was so lacking that detailed feedback would be a monologue rather than a dialogue. Receives: 0% of points

Basically, for every assignment you submit, you can get an F, D, B, or A. But because I’m interested in feedback and iterative change, any check-graded assignment can be corrected and resubmitted for a newer grade, as long as it’s resubmitted by the end of the week it’s returned. Which is nice because it forces me to return work on Monday or Tuesday.

It also works recursively. Turn in an assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. It’s not only choose-your-own-due-date, but choose-your-own-grade, since you can keep submitting a project until your grade is where you want it.

How’d it all work?

In short, like it was supposed to, mostly. Let’s break it down into the due dates and the grading.

For the due dates, there was some legwork to get everything set up in Excel. But students who would normally follow due dates followed their own due dates, and students who have trouble with due dates had trouble with due dates. I think that fewer students had trouble following the due dates this semester, but I’m not quite sure. Students who totally missed due dates who came to me during the last weeks of the semester were given (or rather, just had) the opportunity to edit their semester plan, so nothing was technically late.

Some of the Skills for Academic Success students were pretty lackadaisical about due dates–they were close, -ish. I’m chalking that up to COVID.

My intention this semester was to have sample due dates available as part of the assignment slates in Entrepreneurship (for those students not wanting to pick their projects a la carte). I didn’t get to that for the fall, but I’ve updated that for the spring.

The big thing that comes up when I tell people I let students pick their own due dates is that everyone will just pick the end of the semester. They really don’t. Maybe they’ll pick the end of the semester for a major project, but otherwise they’ll pick reasonable due dates.

Due dates didn’t surprise me too much. I’d do it again.

Grading, on the other hand, that kind of surprised me.

What surprised me in one sense is that it removed the middle from my classes. There were students who did nothing, and there were students with full credit, and almost nobody in the middle. Then I realized that with the resubmission process, this is how it should look. Then it corrected itself as the semester went on, which was even more surprising. The occasional student took advantage of grade re-submission, but not as many as should have. The class probably should have generated a bunch of As and Fs. There was a bit of a middle.

Students generally turn in acceptable work or none at all. This is probably due in part to the fact that I only used this grading scheme for creative classes, i.e., there are no wrong answers. But if asked to write a bio for the first time, or write up a travel budget, they do satisfactory work. Or none.

The idea of doing no work baffles me, and I have no correction for it.

I’ll probably keep the grading scheme for this spring too, but I’m not totally convinced of it yet.