The Feeling When You Finish An Assignment Taught

While I admire your concern for the students, I feel that ultimately your endeavor is quixotic.

To be sure, I see nothing wrong with making your deadline be at 10 pm. It won't change anything, so you might as well. But I wouldn't expect it to have any notable effect, and I would be wary of the slippery slope that leads to you blaming yourself for the students' errors.

The reason I am so pessimistic is that I don't think procrastination and irregular sleep are caused by deadline timing (unless the work demanded is truly overwhelming, ). They are caused by poor personal discipline and bad habits acquired over many years leading up to the present. Regardless of what you do, the procrastinators will still invent ways to procrastinate, because the problem is rooted in their own behavior, not yours. You therefore cannot solve the problem by changing your behavior.

For instance, if you have the deadline at 10 pm, the procrastinator will drop everything that evening to work on your assignment and submit it around 10. Then he will still stay up doing the things he just postponed for the sake of your assignment. Because, recall, this person is not selectively procrastinating on your course only - they have also other courses that have deadlines. Even if all courses had the same early deadline policy, the students would still have their own errands with self-imposed deadlines at later times that they stay up for.

By the same logic that makes you consider 10 pm, we can explore other alternatives:

  • 5 pm is a fair time, since it would presumably encourage students to concentrate their last ditch effort in the typical working day. However, there will also be students who have classes right up to the deadline that day, and if they procrastinate (as some certainly shall) they will now skip class to do the assignment, which is arguably worse than staying up!
  • Noon is another time that sounds like a good idea. Being too early, you might expect that it will make students feel they have no choice but to start working on it early since the morning isn't nearly enough time, and if they can't finish it the night before they can safely go to bed, get some sleep, and finish in the morning. But realistically, the procrastinators who stay up late and hand it in at midnight now will just start working at 1 am and stay up all night to finish it.
  • 9 am can be argued for as a realistic time - it's not like you will start grading at midnight, so there isn't really a point in requiring the assignment by midnight - instead of having the students rush their submission to a deadline just so it could sit in your mailbox for several hours, you could tell them to that you will start grading at 9 am and they should have it done by then. This makes the deadline less arbitrary, since there is now a clear logic to being required to meet it (ie. you will be delayed if they don't do their part). But of course you will again have the same problem of students staying up all night because they procrastinated.

For what it's worth, I think the midnight deadline came about as codification of an unspoken tradition. Often deadlines are given as days, without time - with this, there is always much controversy about what exactly counts as meeting an August 6 deadline: Does it have to be done at the beginning of Aug 6? Does it have to be before the instructor leaves the office? Does it have to be before the end of the day, ie. before you go to sleep? Well, what if you never go to sleep, can you squeeze out a few more hours and still "meet your Aug 6 deadline" by submitting at 3:14 am on [technically] Aug 7?

Even though informally "today" means "until I go to sleep", the convention is that the date changes at midnight, which is also reinforced by how computer clocks show the date. Hence, I think the midnight deadline came about as an extension of this - it's just a date delimiter.

As for the students, since you are concerned about how late they go to sleep, surely you will agree that planning ahead and not leaving everything to the last minute is an important skill to be learned as part of tertiary education. This, then, the students must learn on their own, you cannot help them by tinkering with deadlines, since indeed the deadline is not what is preventing their learning. In fact, one could argue that you should maximize the negative reinforcement, and set the deadline at the worst possible time - say 6 am: The more misery you inflict on the procrastinators, the better they will appreciate how important it is to learn discipline, and the sooner they will take steps to unlearn their bad habits.

Granted, I'm not seriously suggesting you do the above, since it seems like it could go horribly wrong. Realistically, I could instead suggest the following:

  • Set your deadline at some reasonable, early time such as noon.
  • Secretly (ie. do not tell this part to the students) have the "real deadline" (for instance, the one you lose points for missing) be quite a bit later, say 5 pm.
  • In class, say that it is very important they not miss the deadline even by a minute (don't say why), and they should come talk to you if they feel they won't make it.
  • When they inevitably come asking for more time, be liberal with the extensions, but not before making them explain why they were late and lecturing them on the importance of planning ahead. When giving the extension, explain that they absolutely cannot miss the extended deadline, because then you would not be able to meet your own deadline for grading (whether true or not).
  • If anyone misses the noon deadline (but not the 5 pm deadline), confront them about it to discourage submitting late without asking for an extension (which allows bypassing the social discomfort of asking for more time).

With this, you might create something like a low stakes environment (you don't lose massive points just for being a few minutes late) while still creating a fair amount of social pressure to increase the likelihood of a lightbulb appearing and the student thinking, "Hey, Dr. Ward is very nice and reasonable about deadlines and everything, but maybe it's worth for me to try to stop leaving everything to the last minute?". Furthermore, if you force them into an explicit discussion about their procrastination, they have an opportunity to ask you for advice on how to plan their work.

But all of this requires quite a bit of effort from you (much more than just replacing "midnight" with "10 pm" on your syllabus). So if you are not willing to commit the energy, there isn't really much that can be achieved with quick fixes.


A parent recently asked me for advice about her son. Although his academic skills are strong, he feels the need to complete every task to absolute perfection; this means he finishes his work long, long after the rest of his peers. Not only are his teachers frustrated by the time it takes him to complete assignments, he doesn’t especially enjoy spending hours every night making all of his work just right.

It’s easy enough to say we want all our students to work at their own pace, and in most classrooms, some flexibility is built in to allow for this. Still, when a student completes work at a significantly slower pace than his peers, sometimes taking three or four times longer than everyone else, it can create problems for the student and his teachers: Group work gets more complicated, whole-class instruction is limited, and the student is too often put in an uncomfortable position as the one everyone else is waiting for. Furthermore, working at this slow pace means the student is simply putting too many hours in on school work, time that could be spent playing, reading, socializing, relaxing, or exploring other interests.

To help this parent and her son’s teachers come up with some ways to help him, I did a bit of research, pulled together some of my own suggestions, and added strategies offered by other teachers. I shared what I knew on my weekly Periscope broadcast (you can see a replay here) and got lots more good tips from the teachers who were watching. Here’s a summary of what we all came up with.

First, Rule Out a More Serious Issue

Your first step in finding the best way to help this student is to determine whether a more serious issue is at the root of the problem. For an excellent overview of many of the causes of slow-paced work, read Steven Butnik’s article Understanding, Diagnosing, and Coping with Slow Processing Speed. In the article, Butnik focuses on twice exceptional students—gifted students who also have additional learning challenges such as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder. “Understanding the role of slow processing speed is essential,” Butnik writes. “Gifted students with processing speed problems who are ‘missed,’ misdiagnosed, or mis-taught may become discouraged, depressed, undereducated, underemployed, or worse. By contrast, when these twice-exceptional (2e) children are understood and well-addressed educationally, they can become treasures who shine in unique ways.”

Consider whether the student is being held back by anxiety, a learning disability that is making the content difficult to process, a condition like dysgraphia that makes handwriting especially challenging, eyesight issues that make the board or papers hard to read, or auditory processing difficulties that make working in a busy, noisy classroom very difficult. If one or more of these underlying challenges is found to be the cause, you may be able to address the problem with an IEP or 504 plan, which could establish modifications for the student such as extended time on assignments, voice-to-text support, or reducing the number of tasks required to demonstrate competence.

Whether or not the student’s slower pace can be given an official diagnosis, the strategies below are all possible ways to help.

Validate the Student’s Concerns

Sometimes, when a person demonstrates a thought or feeling that is problematic—such as the idea that she has to perfect an assignment before she turns it in—we attempt to change that feeling by dismissing it. We’ll say something like, “Perfect isn’t important! Your standards are too high!” What we think we’re doing is helping the person get past those feelings, but by flat-out denying her reality, we can actually make her cling more tightly to it.

Instead, if we begin by validating her feelings, we can help her manage the behavior that comes from them. In The Power of Validation, Karyn Hall and Melissa Cook define validation as “the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of logic or whether it makes sense to anyone else.” Validation is not the same as agreeing with her feelings or supporting the choices that come from them; it’s just letting her know that her feelings are recognized. Instead of trying to dismiss her desire to do perfect work, acknowledge it by saying something like “Doing high-quality work is important to you.” Once you have communicated to the student that you understand her feelings, you can then move toward helping her solve the problems this feeling creates for her.

Model Your Own Process

Students who frequently get stuck on school work may lack the problem-solving skills they need to get unstuck. So whenever you can, model your own strategies with teacher think-alouds, and get other students to do the same thing. Think-alouds can also help students let go of the kind of perfectionism that slows down creative tasks: Many kids believe that “good” students start a task at the beginning, do every part perfectly the first time around, then finish perfectly at the end. But real creative work is much less linear, so let them see you draft an idea, cross some things out, draft some more, skip over something you’re stuck on and move on to something else, then come back around and around until you reach a point where it’s good enough. And that last part is the most important—the part where you stop trying to get it perfect and declare the work good enough.



Talk Them Through It

Second-grade teacher Michael Dunlea finds that in many cases students get hung up on one specific aspect of an assignment, so if he is able to figure out what’s confusing them, he can help them continue. Sometimes it’s just that they don’t understand one particular word in the instructions, or they can’t answer the first part of a question, and that’s keeping them from moving on to the rest of it. If the child is shy or doesn’t know what they don’t know, they may not be capable of asking for the help they need; it just feels like they don’t get it.

With my own children, when they come to me for help with their homework, the first thing I’ll ask them to do is read the instructions to me out loud. They hate this, by the way, because they want me to just tell them what to do. But more than half the time, when they re-read the instructions, they discover some detail they had overlooked the first time around. Then they go, “Oh, never mind,” and wander away.

Set a Timer

For some people, simply setting a time limit for a task is enough to get them moving more quickly, so it’s worth a try with your slow-paced students. Use this one carefully, though: For some students, it could cause even more anxiety and make them shut down completely. So present this as one possible strategy you’d like to try, and see if the student thinks it might work. If it does, and you want to get more structured with this approach, take a look at the Pomodoro Technique, a method that has you work in 25-minute increments, then give yourself a small reward before starting another 25-minute chunk.

Break Large Tasks into Small Ones

Plenty of adults I know, including myself, have trouble getting started on a large task. And depending on the person, some tasks seem larger than others. Show the student how to take any assignment and break it into small, manageable chunks. Then put those chunks on some kind of checklist, so the student can mark off items as he finishes them. You create the list for the student the first time, then do it with him the second time, but eventually release responsibility so that he is able to create his own checklist.

Offer a “Can Do” and a “Must Do”

Lauren Bright often gives her second graders a list of tasks to complete. One task is a “must-do” that has to be done first, no matter what. Then she offers them up to three “can do” options to choose from after the “must do” is finished. Having these optional activities waiting at the end is often a good incentive for students to get the “must do”s taken care of.

Provide Estimated Times for Each Activity

When she noticed that some of her students took a lot longer than most to complete written assessments, high school English teacher Ruth Arseneault decided to add estimated times in parentheses beside each item. She found that this simple tweak helped slower-paced students get better at planning their work and rationing the time they spent on each task. This principle could be expanded to almost any classroom task: Whether it’s a written activity, a science lab, cleaning up after a project, or doing a set of math problems, letting students know about how long something should take can help them set a reasonable pace for themselves.


I learned this strategy when I was a college student from the book Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing by Linda Flower. You use it when you get stuck on a writing task. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out how to say something, just write “What I really mean is…” and continue in whatever language you would use if you were describing the idea to a friend.

Establish a Bare-Minimum Goal for Formative Assessment

Although he often lets his students take work home to finish, high school English and journalism teacher Gerard Dawson will have his slow-working students complete a specific portion of a task and show it to him before they take the rest home. This allows him to quickly assess whether the student is on the right track before they continue the work on their own.

Mix Low-Stakes with High-Stakes Tasks

To help her perfectionistic students learn how to flex their “good enough” muscles, high school English teacher Jori Krulder deliberately mixes high-pressure with low-pressure tasks. She alternates between the kinds of activities that require close attention to detail, like polished pieces, with quicker tasks that require a less rigid approach, like free writes, where students just have to get their ideas down as fast as possible.

Mark Problem Items for Later

Instructional coach Gretchen Schultek Bridgers advises students who get stuck on an item, especially on a test, to mark it with a small post-it note, a highlighter, or a star as a reminder to come back to the item later. This kind of strategy will be useful to everyone, not just your slow working students.

Whatever You Do…

I think it’s important to be sure you are strategizing with the student, not for him: Talk about this process as a team effort. Present a few of the above solutions and ask which one he’d like to try first. Then debrief afterwards to see how it worked. By giving the student ownership of the problem and its solution, you are building his self-efficacy. This is not something you’re “making” the student do; you’re just helping him figure it out. ♥


What Works for You? 
Do you have an effective approach for helping slower workers pick up the pace? Share them in the comments so we can all learn together.


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