Deadlines and Decisions – an Introduction to Time Banking

I’m working on a new project, as part of my educational research, to change the way that students think about deadlines and time estimation. The concept’s called Time Banking and it’s pretty simple. Some schools already give students some ‘slack time’, free extension time that the students manage to allow them to manage their own deadlines. Stanford offers 2 days up front so, at any time in the course, you can claim some extra time and give yourself an extension.

The idea behind Time Banking is that you get extra hours if you hand up your work (to a certain standard) early. These hours can be used later as free extensions for assignment, up to some maximum number of days. This makes deadlines flexible and personalised per student.

Now I know that some of you already have your “Time is Money, Jones!” hats on and may even be waggling a finger. Here’s a picture of what that looks like, if you’re not a-waggling.

“Deadlines are fixed for a reason!”

“We use deadlines to teach professional conduct!”

“This is going to make marking impossible.”

“That’s not the right way to tie a bow tie!”

“It’s the end of civilisation as we know it!” (Sorry, that’s a little hyperbolic)

Of course, some deadlines are fixed. However, looking back over my own activities during the past quarter, I have far more negotiable and mutable deadlines than I do fixed ones. Knowing how to assess my own use of time in the face of a combination of fixed and mutable deadlines is a skill that I refine every year.

If I had up late, telling me to hand up on time or start earlier doesn’t really involve me in the process that’s required: making a decision as to how I’m going to manage all of my commitments over time, rather than panicking when I run into a deadline.

I can’t help thinking that forcing students to treat every assignment deadline as fixed, whether it needs to be or not, doesn’t deal with the student in the way that we try to in every other sphere. It makes them depend upon the deadline from an authority, rather than forcing them to look at their assignment work across a whole semester and plan inside that larger context. How can we produce students who are able to work at the multiplicity or commitment level, sorry, Perry again, if we force them to be authority-dependent dualists in their time management?

Now, before you think I’ve gone mad, there are some guidelines for all of this, as well as the requirement to have a good basis in evidence.

  1. We must be addressing an existing behavioural problem. (More on this later.)
  2. Some deadlines are immutable. This includes weekly dependencies, assignments where the solutions are revealed post submission, and ‘end of semester’ close-off dates.
  3. The assessment of ‘early and satisfactory’ must be low effort for the teacher. We don’t want to encourage handing up empty assignments a week ahead. We want to encourage meeting a certain standard, preferably automatically assessed, to bring student activity forward.
  4. We have limits on the amount you can bank or spend, to keep assessment of the submitted materials inside the realm of possibility and, again, to reduce unnecessary load on the staff,
  5. We don’t tolerate bad behaviour. Cheating or system fiddling immediately removes the system from the scheme.
  6. We provide up-front hours to give all students a base line of extension.
  7. We integrate this with our existing ‘system problem’ and ‘medical/compassionate problem’ extension systems.

Now, if students don’t have a problem, there’s nothing to fix. If our existing fixed deadline system encouraged students to start their work at the right time and finish in a timely fashion, then by final year, we wouldn’t need anything like this. However, my data from our web submission system clearly indicates the existence of ‘persistently’ late students and, in fact, rather than getting better, we actually start to see some students getting later in second, third and honours years. So, while this isn’t concrete, we’re not seeing the “Nope, no problem here” behaviour that we’d like. So that’s point 1 dealt with – it looks like we have a problem.

Most of the points are technical issues or components of an economic model, but 6 and 7 address a more important issue: equity. Right now, if your on-line submission systems crash the day before the assignment is due, what happens? Everyone who handed in their work has done the right thing but, because you have to grant a one day extension, they actually prioritised their work too early. Not a huge deal in many ways, because students who get their work in early probably march to a different drum anyway, but it makes a mockery of the whole fixed deadline thing. Either the deadline is fixed or it isn’t – by allowing extension on a broad scale for any reason, you’re admitting that your deadline was arbitrary.

We’re trying to make them think harder than that.

How about, instead, you hand out 24 hours of time in the bank. Now the students who handed up early have 24 hours to spend later on and the students who didn’t get it in before the crash have a fair chance to get their work in on time. Student gets sick, your medical extensions are now just managed as time in the bank, reflecting the fact that knock on effects can be far greater than just getting an extension for a single assignment.

But we don’t go crazy. My current thoughts are that we’d limit the students to only starting to count early about 2 days before the assignment is due, and allow a maximum of 3 days extension (greater for medical or compassionate). This keeps it in our marking boundary and also, assuming that you’ve placed your assignments in the context of the appropriate knowledge delivery, keeps the assignments roughly in the same location as the work – not doing the assignment at the beginning of the term and then forgetting the knowledge.

So, cards on the table, I’m writing a paper on this, identifying exactly what I need to look at in order to demonstrate if this is a problem, the literature that supports my approach, the objections to it and the obstacles. I also have to spec the technical system that would support it and , yes, identify the range of assignments for which it would work. It won’t work for everything/everyone or every course. But I suspect it might work very well for some areas.

Could we allow team banking? Course banking? Social sharing? Community involvement (donation to charity for so many hours in the bank at the end of the course)? What could we do by involving students in the elastic management of their own time?

There’s a lot more but I’d love to hear some thoughts on it. I look forward to the discussion!


Oh, Perry. (Our Representation of Intellectual Development, Holds On, Holds on.)

I’ve spent the weekend working on papers, strategy documents, promotion stuff and trying to deal with the knowledge that we’ve had some major success in one of our research contracts – which means we have to employ something like four staff in the next few months to do all of the work. Interesting times.

One of the things I love about working on papers is that I really get a chance to read other papers and books and digest what people are trying to say. It would be fantastic if I could do this all the time but I’m usually too busy to tear things apart unless I’m on sabbatical or reading into a new area for a research focus or paper. We do a lot of reading – it’s nice to have a focus for it that temporarily trumps other more mundane matters like converting PowerPoint slides.

It’s one thing to say “Students want you to give them answers”, it’s something else to say “Students want an authority figure to identify knowledge for them and tell them which parts are right or wrong because they’re dualists – they tend to think in these terms unless we extend them or provide a pathway for intellectual development (see Perry 70).” One of these statements identifies the problem, the other identifies the reason behind it and gives you a pathway. Let’s go into Perry’s classification because, for me, one of the big benefits of knowing about this is that it stops you thinking that people are stupid because they want a right/wrong answer – that’s just the way that they think and it is potentially possible to change this mechanism or help people to change it for themselves. I’m staying at the very high level here – Perry has 9 stages and I’m giving you the broad categories. If it interests you, please look it up!

A cloud diagram of Perry's categories.

(Image from geniustypes.com.)

We start with dualism – the idea that there are right/wrong answers, known to an authority. In basic duality, the idea is that all problems can be solved and hence the student’s task is to find the right authority and learn the right answer. In full dualism, there may be right solutions but teachers may be in contention over this – so a student has to learn the right solution and tune out the others.

If this sounds familiar, in political discourse and a lot of questionable scientific debate, that’s because it is. A large amount of scientific confusion is being caused by people who are functioning as dualists. That’s why ‘it depends’ or ‘with qualification’ doesn’t work on these people – there is no right answer and fixed authority. Most of the time, you can be dismissed as having an incorrect view, hence tuned out.

As people progress intellectually, under direction or through exposure (or both), they can move to multiplicity. We accept that there can be conflicting answers, and that there may be no true authority, hence our interpretation starts to become important. At this stage, we begin to accept that there may be problems for which no solutions exist – we move into a more active role as knowledge seekers rather than knowledge receivers.

Then, we move into relativism, where we have to support our solutions with reasons that may be contextually dependant. Now we accept that viewpoint and context may make which solution is better a mutable idea. By the end of this category, students should be able to understand the importance of making choices and also sticking by a choice that they’ve made, despite opposition.

This leads us into the final stage: commitment, where students become responsible for the implications of their decisions and, ultimately, realise that every decision that they make, every choice that they are involved in, has effects that will continue over time, changing and developing.

I don’t want to harp on this too much but this indicates one of the clearest divides between people: those who repeat the words of an authority, while accepting no responsibility or ownership, hence can change allegiance instantly; and those who have thought about everything and have committed to a stand, knowing the impact of it. If you don’t understand that you are functioning at very different levels, you may think that the other person is (a) talking down to you or (b) arguing with you under the same expectation of personal responsibility.

Interesting way to think about some of the intractable arguments we’re having at the moment, isn’t it?