Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week:

  • Steven tells you about a professor who experimented with giving his students a single deadline for all their assignments, and how it seemed to affect their learning.
  • A reader pushes back on the idea that any single moment can really transform someone’s teaching.
  • Our colleague Ruth Hammond tells you about some new books on teaching in higher education that you might want to check out.

No Deadlines, No Problem

Tobias Rush started teaching in 1997. His music students were busy flitting from one performance to another, from practice sessions to lessons to one-credit courses — such that they kept missing his deadlines for assignments. He spent too much energy weighing their excuses as “judge and jury,” he says, instead of teaching.

His solution? Drop the deadlines.

Rush, now an associate professor of music theory and technology at the University of Dayton, starts each semester by telling his students that each assignment’s due date is more of a suggestion. They can turn in homework late and redo it as many times as needed for a better grade. Every assignment is ultimately due by 5 p.m. on the Friday before finals — no exceptions.

The benefits of the approach, as he laid out in a Reddit post featuring “professor lifehacks,” are straightforward: “I never have to spend time and effort judging whether or not a homework assignment is excusably late,” he wrote, and “I don’t have to deal with students asking for leniency with homework deadlines; they recognize that they already have it very good.”

Rush told me his students, all in their first and second year, appreciate having the space to better understand their time-management skills, or lack thereof. Maybe 10 to 20 percent hit every suggested due date, a similar portion turn in everything at the last minute, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Rush is clear: A consequence of his policy is many, many more assignments to grade. He thinks the trade-off probably makes sense only for disciplines like his, in which lower-level assignments have only a “finite number of errors” and little room for interpretation. But he says the workload is more predictable — he can shut himself away during finals week to grade, assured of no interruptions or pleading over deadlines — and, in most cases, the approach is actually better for students’ understanding.

In his old system, a struggling student might fall behind early, misunderstanding key concepts that lead to F’s, and get stuck there. Under the new way, that student can catch up with iterative learning. In the first round of grading, students get little more than cryptic marks indicating where they went astray. They have to figure out their errors for themselves. Often that means learning from other students in the class, Rush says. Otherwise, repeat strugglers can meet with him, during office hours, for deep dives into a lesson.

Some students will probably fail, or get an A, under any system, Rush says. His method allows the procrastinators at the margins to understand the material rather than give up. He’s done no serious study of the results, he says, but has noticed that the average grades in his courses have gone up, with maybe one or two fewer F’s per class.

The procrastinators, Rush says, remind him a bit of his father’s experience in an engineering course. According to an old family story, “he slept through the final, or something like that,” Rush recalls, “and went, tail between his legs, to the professor after the fact, saying, ‘Is there anything I can do? I realize I made a real bad mistake.’” The professor gave him a piece of chalk and told him to sketch a diagram from memory on the board. He did, and passed the course.

Rush likes to think that his approach helps people like his father. The point of his course isn’t to enforce deadlines but to cultivate knowledge.

It’s not the grade that’s important, Rush says. It’s the comprehension the grade is supposed to reflect. For years, he says, his students have appreciated being treated “like adults,” with gripes few and far between.

Have you abandoned some tried-and-true feature of a course to see what would happen? How did it work out? Email me, at steve.johnson@chronicle.com, and we might include it in a future newsletter.

Clarification (1/31/2019, 3:37 p.m.): This article has been updated to clarify that Rush’s approach is tailored to certain kinds of lower-level assignments, not all assignments.

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‘99.9 Percent of Teaching and Learning Doesn’t Happen Like That’

We’ve asked readers to describe an experience that changed how they teach, “a moment of realization that became a turning point.” Well, Jessamyn Neuhaus, a history professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, pushed back on that idea. Here’s what she wrote:

Everyone loves a good story about the transformative power of education. An “Aha!” moment leading through a gateway of knowledge and arriving in a shiny new world of proficiency: That’s real learning, right? Such milestones are powerful, but they’re also rare. Learning how to do anything — including how to be an effective teacher — is a long, laborious, sometimes painful, often frustrating accumulation of abilities, incrementally over time. In the course of our careers, there will be a few specific events/insights that change our entire perception of teaching. But most of us, most of the time, learn how to be effective teachers the same way our students learn how to do stuff, by putting in the hard, necessary work, day after ever-loving day.

By getting feedback, building on what we do well, figuring out how to do some things better, and repeat. The “moment” that changed the way I teach wasn’t a singular moment at all. Over the past 20 years, I’ve gradually built up a reflective pedagogical practice that enables me to teach effectively by noticing and assessing what’s working and what’s not, consulting the scholarship on teaching and learning, and talking about teaching with other teachers. Last week I dealt with an emotionally charged grading dispute; I received heartfelt thanks from a student; I designed a new syllabus; I read an interesting tweet about a specific teaching practice. All of these things “changed the way I teach,” but not in any show-stopping way. There was no angel choir, no Hallelujah Chorus or lightning bolt to signal a pedagogical breakthrough. Just the ongoing awareness, reflection, and adjustments that effective teaching requires.

The dramatic light-bulb-of-learning story is central to our popular representations of teaching. Think Annie Sullivan at the water pump with Helen Keller. The problem with this miracle worker ideal is that 99.9 percent of teaching and learning doesn’t happen like that. Rather, it’s slow, grinding work, with a gradual accumulation of expertise. We miss all the things we’re doing effectively right now if we’re waiting for the mystical moment when everything falls into place and — kablam! — we’re Super Teacher. Learning how to be an effective teacher doesn’t happen in a brilliant flash of sudden understanding. Instead, in small but essential ways, every single day, we accrue practice and further our understanding of how to be effective in our unique teaching context.

Selected New Books on Higher Education

  • Applying Student Development Theories Holistically: Exemplar Programming in Higher Education, edited by Katherine Branch, Jeanne S. Hart-Steffes, and Christine M. Wilson (CRC Press). Provides contemporary examples of the application of key theories about the development of college students in such areas as ethical and moral reasoning, and overcoming impostor syndrome.
  • Creating the Path to Success in the Classroom: Teaching to Close the Graduation Gap for Minority, First-Generation, and Academically Unprepared Students, by Kathleen F. Gabriel (Stylus Publishing). Offers evidence-based instructional practices aimed at reaching students of all backgrounds, while maintaining high standards and expectations.
  • Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, by Paul Hanstedt (Stylus Publishing). Describes how to teach students “wicked competencies” so they can rise to the challenge of dealing with the world’s “wicked problems.”
  • Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, by John Warner (Johns Hopkins University Press). Argues that students have trouble writing not because of generational characteristics but because of poor teaching, and offers ideas to inspire more meaningful writing.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to receive your own copy, you can sign up here.

—Dan, Beth, and Steven