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Due Dates in online classes

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I have always distributed due dates in online classes across the week. For instance, I might have something due on Monday, something due on Wednesday, and something due on Friday. My theory has always been that I want the students to engage with the class on multiple days, believing that distributed due dates would increase engagement, success, and retention. However, when looking at classes by my colleagues, I see many of them will have everything due for a week on one day; Sunday seems popular for some reason.

Having no formal training as an instructional designer, I was wondering if anyone had thoughts on best practices or could direct me to relevant research on managing due dates in one line classes. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and help!

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I was just reading about this in "Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology" by Michelle Miller which I would highly recommend.  She discusses the "spacing effect" or distributed practice which refers to the increased payoff from spreading review sessions over time rather than in one large session.  The idea is to introduce smaller, low-stakes assignments throughout the week to keep students engaged and allow students repeated opportunities to go over the material.  She cites research from 2011 by G. Xue, L. Mei, C. Chen, Z. Lu, R. Poldrack, and Q. Dong in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

23( 7): 1624– 1633, doi: 10.1162/ jocn. 2010.21532.

I agree with several of the previous posts that you have to balance this with the online students' desire to work on a more flexible schedule.  It would definitely be important to make very clear these are low-stakes assignments, and maybe make the high stakes assignments due on a specific day of the week for consistency.  If there are going to be many assignments on different days of the week, the students need to clearly understand the expectations. I love the way Canvas allows faculty to set up these assignments one time and make them available to students in many ways -- the Calendar, Syllabus, Assignments, as well as modules and pages.

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Hi  @dhulsey ,

I can't speak to any research on this, but I can share my experiences as an online student in addition to what I experience as an instructional designer.

Since I work full time, have a family, and all the other normal life balance stuff online students deal with, my best time for completing my schoolwork will vary each week, with a lot of it being done on the weekends when my time can be a little more flexible. So having due date throughout the week might be problematic for me, especially for assignments that would require me to really dive in. I prefer to figure out my own intermediate goals for the week's work.

But as an instructional designer, I understand the value of a lot of interaction with the instructor and peers and also the need to guide students along so they don't wait until the last minute. I think it's good to have a due date for discussions mid-week to encourage that conversation to begin early and to encourage students to start any group work early. But for individual assignments, I think flexibility is appreciated (though it never hurts to provide recommendations about breaking down activities into smaller chunks since not all learners, especially undergrads and k-12 students, are good at that).

I hope this helps!

Hey  @dhulsey ​ and morris_admin​,

While I have some background in instructional design, I cannot immediately put my finger on research around retention and online discussion design.   @Renee_Carney ​ focused on course design in her masters program and might have more to go on there.

Going on my own experiences as a working adult/continuing student and working with educators at community colleges, like, Jessica, I appreciate flexibility in when I need to deliver in an online class but I also know that students will put off what isn't required in favor of more immediate demands on their time.  Maybe the best strategy is is to try to chunk requirements, again as Jessica suggests, and also be more flexible with larger deliverables or demands on people's time.  Maybe make relatively small requirements on Monday and Wednesday, say, and have the bigger tasks due by the end of the week.

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Community Coach

 @dhulsey ​, as someone who has taken online courses, is teaching an online course, and helps instructors build online courses, I tend to gravitate towards having a set schedule of when assignments are normally due.

That being said, the set schedule could be initial discussion posts are due Wednesday and replies/follow-up and other quizzes/papers are due Sunday. So not that everything has to be due on one day, but that each week due dates are on the same day/days.

I think this works because it allows people some flexibility - which is normally an advantage of online courses - as well as being easy to remember. When we've had instructors use different days of the week and had this vary each week, students were often confused and it seemed to throw off the flow of the course.

Hope this helps!


It appears that you are trying to do two things by having distributed due dates in your course. You are trying to increase / manage engagement and help students keep on track. While I am not aware of research that addresses this specifically, it does remind me of a conference session I attended at L@S 2015. Justin Reich’s team (HarvardX) explained how they researched staggered content release vs. content released all at once influenced “ontrackness” and completion rates.

He found that students in courses where content is released all at once had 2x’s lower the “ontrackness” than students in courses where the content release was staggered.

However, his team also found that the completion rate for both types of courses were the same.

Application: We might be able to compare your due dates to staggered content release dates. I think it would be reasonable to conclude that it would help learners stay “on track” in the course. However, I don’t know if it will help increase grades or completion rates in the course.

Hope this is helpful.

Community Champion

Hi  @dhulsey ​

Like everyone else I don’t have any research but some personal insight on due dates, specifically discussion boards.

We have experimented with moving due dates around in discussion boards at our school and I think you can make the due dates on any day of the week as long as you keep it consistent throughout the whole course.

Now having all the due dates (original post and replies) the same in discussion boards has been problematic for me. When I say that I mean having the original post and then your replies all due at the same time (say Sunday night). What I have encountered is you normally get 1 or 2 people who will post their original post early in the week and then nobody else goes into the discussion board until the Sunday night because that is when it is due. Then if both the original and replies are due by that Sunday night then most of the students will go in to the discussion board an hour before the time expires. I did part of my master degree online and this happened to me every week. So I learned as a student not to go into the discussion board until the last minute so I could quickly respond to someone (this quickly became a check in the box approach). I found this not be a very engaging discussion and it did not give me time to really think about someone’s post and possibly do some research on their response. Then If I posted to someone’s post on Sunday with a question I usually did not get a response because they were busy posting their original response and responding to two other people and then the discussion board was closed.

Then when I was studying for my Instructional Technology degree the professors throughout the department used the best practice of having the original post due mid-week and then the replies a few days later. This practice allowed me to read everyone’s original posting and then allowed me to think about their responses before responding and sometimes this could be a day or later. This practice also allows the students who are really motivated to finish early to respond to two other postings right away due to all the original responses due mid-week and not have to wait till the last minute for someone to post their original posting.

Hope this helps,


Community Champion

Thanks for all of the thoughtful replies!  It makes sense that an online class needs to balance flexibility for student schedules, predictability, and engagement.

I get that once a week deadlines are likely convenient for students, but that definitely limits interaction.

Predictability makes sense, but it seems to become a tedious grind for some students if the assignments have the same form and schedule for the whole term. On the other hand, changing things up every week seems cruel.

It is a balancing act for sure!

As for the research, perhaps an enterprising instructional designer is in need of a thesis or dissertation topic. Smiley Happy

Community Coach
Community Coach


I do the same thing in my courses and for the same reasons. Students, like most humans, will save everything to the last. Doing this encourages lack of interaction of course materials, with a limited focus on graded content - they pop in on the due date and just do their assignments. By staggering due days, it better encourages students to engage in the content.

That being said, I always use the same days of the week. For example: original topic replies in discussions on Wednesday and classmate replies due Sunday, assignments due Fridays, and module exam Sundays. This provides consistency so that there is less chance of missing a due date, and also helps students plan their own hectic schedules.

I make all due time midnight to accommodate my work students or those with family obligations.

I hope this helps.

Community Champion

Thanks,  @kmeeusen ​! It absolutely sounds like you and I have similar approaches and rationales, and, yeah, I find that validating. Smiley Happy

I also allow students to work ahead if they need to and only lock content with view and submission requirements in modules. I tell my students that due dates on online classes are the last opportunity to do the assignment, but they are not the first opportunity and that they should always try to work a few days ahead of deadlines. Some of them actually do work a bit ahead.


Hi  @dhulsey ​,

This is a good question, and one that my department battled with quite a lot when I chaired the English department at CCCOnline. I had a regular practice of mid- and end-of-week due dates for discussions, and a regular schedule for weekly assignments (usually due by Sunday night to accommodate weekend-only students). My biggest concern was always for the students. As a few folks have pointed out here, online students aren't always on the kind of regular weekly schedule on-ground students are, so leaving flexibility in the week was important to student success.

That said, I think it's important to take a step back and ask about whether we believe that due dates and deadlines are going to increase authentic engagement. For me, the biggest challenge was not getting students to participate, but giving them something to participate in. The success of my discussions I judged on the replies those discussions received well before the due date, consistently throughout the week. Those discussions that seemed to draw a natural response from students were the ones I paid closest attention to, the ones I worked to understand and mimic in other discussion assignments.

And we should be clear, too, on that point. Discussions are "assignments", they're not a natural free-form engagement with content. We are effectively asking the entire class a question and then going "around the room" and listening to each of them respond. I'm not sure if this is the kind of engagement we're looking for, really, except insofar as it allows for a kind of efficiency.

I would ask: what kind of engagement do we really want in our online classes? And how do we go about encouraging that kind of engagement?