Deadlines on a Course

by Zhenya

This post is about deadlines for written assignments on a course for teachers: are they necessary? Can they be flexible?

Background 

An intensive teacher training certificate course lasts about 4-6 weeks, has specific objectives, standards, requirements and competencies. Formally graded written assignment are (almost?) always a part of such courses. The nature and content of these written tasks, as well as their grading/assessment system and/or feedback provided by trainers may differ depending on a type of courses. What stays similar for course participants, in my experience, is the need to add or ‘squeeze’ some assignment writing time into the daily/weekly routine, already full of lesson planning, materials preparation, observations (in addition to taking care of the family and kids at home, for those participants who are taking the course in their own cities, etc.)

Definitions

So… deadlines. I personally don’t like the word (especially its ‘dead’ part). A quick etymology check shows that historically and literally it described a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot. Well, yes, not a very positive one. In a the modern dictionary it simply means a date or time when something must be finished, or the last day, hour, or minute that something will be accepted.

The relationships in the triangle ‘trainer — participant — assignment’ might depend on the trainer style and habits, and perhaps on the beliefs about deadlines. Those beliefs might come from the culture (of a participant and trainer’s culture), institutional context, and many other factors. It might get even more interesting when the group is multi-cultural/multi-national!

Example from my own experience: there was a deadline to complete a written reflective paper by Monday. Participant 1 submits his completed work by the time the course day begins in the morning. Participant 2 asks if it would be okay to bring his paper after lunch (needed more time to edit the work, etc.) Trainer (me) says ‘OK’. Participant 1 overhears the conversation and does not approve this permission. He explains that he had spent the entire Sunday evening working on his paper. Had he known that there would be some time at lunch, it would have changed his plans and went out, etc. My learning (perhaps obvious for many readers) was to specify the exact time for submitting assignments, e.g. Monday 8.30 a.m. (which I have been doing since the incident above happened)

Solutions and Thoughts

Another solution, which I have not tried yet myself, would be to set ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ deadlines for submitting papers. The idea comes from an article by John Warner When Students Won’t Do the Reading I recently read. As the title suggests, the main focus of the article was about motivating/focusing students to develop in-depth reading skills, and ways to do so in a university setting with a number of deadlines to meet. I loved the idea about ‘treating’ deadlines differently, and started thinking how it might be applied to a TT course.

‘Each week I have a combination of work with “hard” deadlines, “firm” deadlines, “floating” deadlines, and “non-deadlines.’

hard deadlines = those we can’t change, e.g. written lesson plan forms for Practice Teaching slots need to be submitted before the lesson so that the comments and feedback could be made based on the lesson planning process ‘in the real time’

firm deadlines = important for a certain reason, e.g. Extended/in-depth reflective papers on the lessons taught, etc.

floating deadlines = flexible, e.g. weekly reading/watching log for portfolio (Portfolio itself has a hard deadline towards the end of the course)

I am a little less sure about ‘non-deadline’ tasks on a course. A quote from the author:

Example of non-deadlined work: primarily my long-term writing projects that are neither promised to, nor explicitly requested by anyone: short stories, a novel, a book that draws on the material in this column, a couple of other things.

Related Thoughts

  1. from my own experience of being a student on CourseEra online courses, having a soft due date in addition to hard deadlines made it look friendly and feel comfortable. These are things I value as a learner, and they are being transferred into my training role.
  2. if deadlines are built into a course for a certain reason, this reason needs to be explicit for the course participants (otherwise, it may look as a mere formality, or ‘paperwork’ which teachers have in their schools)
  3. in order to explain the reason clearly to the participants, the trainer needs to genuinely believe that the assignment has to take place in this part of the course/week, etc. If there are doubts about this, then maybe the deadline is not ‘hard’?
  4. if the reasons are clear and the decision is made, it needs to be ‘presented’ to the participants (the ‘calendar’ in the image below is one way to do it, which I tried on one of the recent courses)
Hand-made calendar to show what needs to get done, and when.

Hand-made calendar to show what needs to get done, and when.

Based on my experience, the ‘presenting’ stage for this calendar works well at the end of week 2, or at the beginning of week 3: participants already got in the routine of preparing and teaching their lessons, getting on with the peers, and start to pay more attention to the course assignments. Please note that the ‘calendar’ was created in addition to the folder with all the formal documentation about the course and its requirements, etc. My personal experience shows that the ‘folder’ information often ‘sits there’ unnoticed as a lot is going on and the time on an intensive course flies (even faster than usual!)

 

Negotiating Deadlines

On a 4-6 week course I have delivered, there are usually possible flexible ways to ‘shift’ deadlines (e.g. Friday before the weekend, or Monday after the weekend). It is often a trainer who creates the final schedule and therefore, the decisions might differ, depending on a group/culture, etc. Sometimes participants asks to have more written work for the weekend (they have more time to focus and reflect, etc.). Sometimes, the opposite is true: family and household chores ‘wait’ the participants during the weekdays so there would be no way to do the writing on the course days off. [Note: if there is a mix of contexts in one group on a course there is a different level of negotiation/explanation/compromise that needs to happen, and my favorite argument would be that ‘everyone wants a certificate at the end of this course, so the requirements need to be met’, or something similar]

This brings me to another question: is there a motivation to complete the course, to receive the certificate, to become a better teacher? Do the participants see the value of the assignments the course asks them to do? From my experience, the priorities can be shifted as a course progress: teachers see the rationale behind the tasks and assignments, and they make sure there is time in their daily (well, often, night-y) routines to get things done. It is another huge question though, perhaps for another post.

What deadlines do you set to the course participants on an intensive course? What is your attitude to meeting deadlines if you are a learner/student? Does it become different if you are setting them for others? In what way?

Thank you for reading 🙂