Start dates, deadlines, and staggered deadlines

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Online education offers students the flexibility to pursue higher education while balancing other commitments. However, with this convenience comes the challenge of self-discipline and time management. To ensure success in online courses, knowing the specific start dates and deadlines for course work and assignments plays a pivotal role in keeping students on track. Additionally, for longer projects, staggered deadlines become essential. 

Missouri Online Recommends

Missouri Online recommends that assessments (learning activities and assignments) have clearly articulated start dates and deadlines for completion (using the Canvas due date feature) or interim/staggered deadlines for more involved projects (as applicable). See item #29 in the 5 Pillars Quality Course Review form.

Maintaining consistency with a learning timeline

Implementing start dates and due dates for assignments helps to set the tone for an online course. They provide students with a structured learning environment, ensuring everyone starts and ends the course at the same point. This consistency is also vital for instructors to plan their teaching schedule and for students to organize their study routine (Oyarzun, Martin, & Moore, 2020). Start dates create a timeline for learning, allowing students to pace themselves appropriately throughout the course. This can help students to overcome procrastination by giving them a clear starting point so they can map out a plan to complete their work each week. This prevents students from delaying their coursework, resulting in better time management and learning outcomes.

Start dates also ensure that all students have equal access to course materials and instructions from day one. This inclusivity fosters a sense of fairness within the class. Additionally, by breaking content into manageable chunks each week with start dates for each module or unit, instructors help students divide their workload into smaller, more manageable segments (Oyarzun, Martin, & Moore, 2020). This prevents information overload and promotes better retention. Start dates also help students plan for upcoming assessments, quizzes, and assignments which allows them to allocate their time more efficiently and reduce stress associated with last-minute cramming.

Promoting student accountability with deadlines

Due dates with deadlines are essential in online courses to hold students accountable for their progress. Without them, students may lack motivation and may not engage with the course effectively. Deadlines motivate students to complete assignments on time. The fear of late submission penalties or receiving a lower grade prompts students to manage their time effectively (Oyarzun, Martin, & Moore, 2020). Meeting deadlines fosters self discipline, a critical skill in any educational setting as it prepares students for future responsibilities and professional life, where meeting deadlines is imperative. However, instructors can provide some flexibility with deadlines when a student experiences a life event and allow an occasional “late pass” or make exceptions to their late policy.

Deadlines are essential for instructors

Deadlines are essential for the instructors as well. They enable instructors to maintain a structured grading process and provide timely feedback to students. Deadlines help instructors manage their workload efficiently by grading assignments in batches. This ensures that students receive feedback within a reasonable timeframe (Oyarzun, Martin, & Moore, 2020). With deadlines in place, instructors can scaffold the instruction with their feedback to students in the graded assignments. This allows students time to incorporate the instructor feedback and improve their performance in subsequent assignments.

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Reducing cognitive load

In longer projects, such as research papers or major presentations, staggered deadlines become indispensable for both instructors and students. Staggered deadlines break down the project into smaller, more manageable parts. This reduces the cognitive load on students, making it easier for them to focus on one aspect at a time. When students tackle complex projects in smaller segments, they can dive deeper into each aspect, leading to a better understanding of the material (Kutis, 2020).

Staggered deadlines also allow for iterative work, which is critical for refining and improving longer projects. Students can receive feedback on one part of the project before moving on to the next. By scaffolding these types of longer assignments, it facilitates continuous improvement for the student. Staggered deadlines discourage procrastination and prevent students from rushing through the project at the last minute, which leads to higher-quality work and a richer learning experience. It also lowers the stakes on some assignments which can help to deter possible academic dishonesty.


In conclusion, start dates and deadlines are fundamental components of online college courses, which help students manage their time, take responsibility, and engage with assignments more deeply and incrementally. Start dates set the foundation for a consistent learning experience, while deadlines promote accountability and timely feedback. For longer projects, staggered deadlines break down complex tasks, reducing cognitive load and encouraging iterative work. Embracing these practices not only enhances the educational experience but also prepares students for success in their academic and professional endeavors. Therefore, both students and instructors should recognize the importance of start dates, deadlines, and staggered deadlines in online college courses and use them as valuable tools for achieving academic excellence.

Resources on setting due dates and more in the Canvas LMS:

Other resources:


Kutis, B. (2020). Scaffolding the formal analysis assignment in art history courses to promote learning. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 9, 30–35.

Oyarzun, B., Martin, F., & Moore, R. L. (2020). Time management matters: Online faculty perceptions of helpfulness of time management strategies. Distance Education, 41(1), 106–127. 

Created on: March 19, 2024