On becoming Module Chairs of one of the Open University’s largest Level 1 entry modules, Introducing the Social Sciences (DD102), myself, Zoe Doye, and my colleague, Ieman Hassan, have become fervent data watchers. As soon as an assignment cut-off date has passed, we find ourselves in front of our respective computers, impatient to find out the percentage of students who have submitted their assignments. This we continue to monitor as days and even weeks pass, for our Level 1 students are enthusiastic extension requesters, and it is not unusual to have around a quarter of students not submit their assignment at cut-off; most, but not all, with extensions logged on the system.
As a distance and open learning institution, the Open University is known for being student-centred and flexible in its approach. We have to be: many of our students work – some full time; many have caring responsibilities; high numbers have health and disability issues; increasingly they are studying full time. Our students are finding time to study amidst often very busy and demanding lives. It is presumed that allowing students more time to submit their assignment, if they need it, aids retention as this reduces the likelihood of the student not submitting the assignment, or worse, dropping out of a module. This approach is used and encouraged particularly at Level 1 where students are new to degree-level study and may be returning to education after many years. However, as Ieman and myself pored over module data and watched as the submission rates slowly inched their way up, we started to wonder whether extensions really were helping our students, or simply creating a delay. Might other interventions or discussions around study be more appropriate? It was on that basis that we undertook a high-level data analysis of extensions on two level 1 modules: Introducing the Social Sciences (DD102) and Voices, Texts and Material Culture (A105) for the October 2018 cohort of students (therefore pre-COVID). There were 3229 students registered on DD102 and 1482 on A105.
The OU’s policy on extensions is published on both the tutor facing and student facing intranet sites. Students are expected to request an extension before the assignment cut-off date. For students who wish for an extension of between 1-7 days after the cut-off due to ‘unforeseen circumstances such as illness of a student or their family, or severe work pressure’, their tutor, or Associate Lecturer, can grant this request to give the student time to catch-up. A tutor can also give a student an extension for 8-21 days after the cut-off if there are ‘serious reasons’ why the student cannot submit at the normal time. The guidance suggests that an extension of this length can only be given twice on a 60-point module and once on a 30-point module (to give context here, 120 points is equivalent to one-year full time study), and any further requests for extensions should be referred upwards, as should requests for an extension longer than 21 days. Unlike more traditional universities, students don’t need to provide supporting evidence for most assignment extensions. Therefore, on the most part, an extension can be granted following a single phone call or email exchange between student and tutor.
Ieman and I started our investigation by looking at the existing research into extensions. Surveying the literature, we quickly realised that we had to be extremely cautious in what we could take away from previous research as, with a few interesting exceptions (see, for instance, Patton, 2010), most focussed on traditional, brick, HE institutions, mainly in the US. Nonetheless, existing literature on student extensions seemed divided between that which is focussed on students who do not submit an assignment because they ‘procrastinate’ and that which looks at the very real reasons why, for distance learning in particular, it is difficult for students to adhere to deadlines. Both sets of literature are concerned with impact of assignment extensions on academic performance, with again, a division between those that strongly feel that a delay negatively impacts academic achievement whilst others argue that delays enable progression that would otherwise not happen.
Intrigued by the broad spread of opinion and findings on the subject, we analysed the available data on the two modules we were investigating. This gave us the following headlines:
- Between 60-70% of students don’t ever ask for an extension
- A higher percentage of students who passed the modules had an extension than those who failed or withdrew. This would suggest that extensions do play a role in helping a student pass a module.
- Of those students who do ask for an extension, generally the more extensions requested, the more likely that a student will pass the module. This isn’t surprising: once a student is behind, more extensions might be needed as the student catches up.
- Students who ask for an extension for the first assignment are more likely to fail the module than those who ask towards the end of the module. Again, this isn’t surprising as the use of an extension so early on would suggest that a student is struggling with study and/or has a lot of other commitments to contend with.
- The percentage of students who have an extension logged and withdraw from the module is greater than those students who withdrew from the module with no extensions logged. This one is a little of an oddity. In contrast to the bullet point above, it would suggest that extensions weren’t necessarily helping student not to withdraw.
- Students who formally withdrew from study had longer extensions granted (in terms of days) than those who passed the module. Again, this isn’t surprising. Longer extensions suggest that a student is really struggling with study or juggling other commitments. But this last point made us pause – were the length of the extensions themselves perhaps the culprit here for the numbers of students withdrawing despite extensions? Would shorter, extensions, even if they accumulated, support students from withdrawing from study, not least because the process of extension negotiation would prompt increased communication between the student and their tutor?
So far, there weren’t really any surprises. The data we were looking at could only give us limited information: extensions were obviously being used by some, but not all, students, but we could not know if the same student who passed a module with an extension would have likewise passed if no extension had been granted.
We then started to look at what the data told us about student extensions and demographics. This painted – in places – a rather more surprising picture:
- Older students (46 and over) are less likely to have an extension than younger students, with the 26-35 age band being the most prevalent.
- White students have generally less extensions than other ethnic groups.
- Students who have declared a disability have more extensions than those students without a declared disability.
- Students in a high socioeconomic group were substantially more likely to have an extension than those in a low socioeconomic group.
- Students with no formal qualification prior to entry to the Open University were substantially less likely to ask for an extension.
So what were we seeing here? The data seemed to suggest that it was those students with some previous experience of study and in a reasonably strong socio-economic position, were more likely to request an extension than other students. In other words (and we realise that this is generalising) it is our middle-class students who, perhaps because they have the voice and confidence to do so, are asking for more time to get their assessment tasks done. Equally, looking at the prevalence of 26–35-year-olds asking for extensions, students who are likely to be working and/or have families or care responsibilities are using extensions to get themselves through study. So, acknowledging that there might be very real reasons why students may need more time to submit an assignment, it would seem that extensions are also used strategically by our students.
Recognising the limitations of our scholarship so far, we are cautiously talking about our findings to others within the University, including our own tutors on DD102. We very much wish to add the student voice to the data we have so far, and with this in mind, hope to engage in a follow-up scholarship project in order to interview our students as to why, or why not, they are using assignment extensions to get through their study.
Patton, M, (2010), The Importance of Being Flexible with Assignment Deadlines, Higher Education in Europe, Vol. XXV, No. 3, pp. 417-423
Zoe Doye is a Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is the FASSTEST Scholarship lead for the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies.
Ieman Hassan is a Lecturer and Staff Tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences