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Context & Scale

This pattern is concerned with attaching micro-deadlines to online tasks within self-paced online modules. It is suitable for large units containing a high degree of self-paced online learning or pre-work, and where smaller tasks are used to build towards larger summative assessments.

Setting micro-deadlines in a large unit can motivate students to complete pre-work, help synchronise student progress through weekly online material, and provide valuable information to teachers about students’ learning progress.

Micro-deadlines can be seen as one way to scaffold material. Scaffolding is a method that moves students progressively towards greater independence in the learning process and is related to Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’.


A key challenge in units with a high degree of self-paced online learning or pre-work is ensuring that students complete the assigned work before coming to class. Further, in a large unit it is more difficult for teachers to track individual students’ learning and progress associated with online pre-work and gauge how they are going. In face-to-face learning, many informal structures exist that naturally create micro-deadlines. However, in an online setting it can be beneficial to build these in more explicitly and add synchronous elements to the asynchronous (self-paced) environment.


When large units require students to spend much of the week working independently on self-paced online modules, micro-deadlines can provide smaller, more manageable targets for students during the week, and synchronise the activity of the cohort at certain points. Tasks with micro-deadlines can be organised relative to the synchronous experience. For example, they could be associated with a primer, and a debrief for synchronous (online or face-to-face) workshops. While such tasks may be formative, linking them to larger summative tasks (such as small weekly reflections that contribute to a graded final reflective essay) can provide an incentive for students to complete them.


  • Consider which tasks in the online environment could be suitable to attach a micro-deadline to. For example, tasks that prepare students for the synchronous experience and/or provide an opportunity for them to debrief afterwards.

  • Consider the purpose of the micro-deadline. For example, is it set to motivate students to complete a proportion of the weekly material by a certain time (breaking up the volume of work to be completed), to support students in consolidating their learning at certain points, or to ensure work is completed prior to coming to a workshop where students apply their learning?

  • Decide if attaching a micro-deadline to a task means that the task will no longer be available for students to access and complete after the deadline. That is, do you want it to be time-sensitive?

  • Think about whether you would like the tasks that have micro-deadlines attached to contribute to a larger summative assessment.

Examples of pattern in use


This pattern was tested in a first-year post-graduate unit called MKTG5001: Foundations of Marketing with approximately 840 students.

It was iteratively developed and implemented. We acknowledge the unit coordinators and lecturers involved from the Marketing discipline, including Robyn Martin, Paul Henry and Ellen Garbarino.


This unit was previously run as a 3hr ‘streamed lecture’ each week that included content delivery interspersed with group activities. In 2020 the unit was reshaped to include 1.5 hours of online learning (including reading, videos and a range of interactive activities) and a 1.5-hr workshop each week. Students were required to complete the online work prior to coming to their workshop.

Small, regular reflective tasks were a core feature of this unit. Students were required to complete a reflection based on the weekly online modules in Canvas prior coming to the workshop each week, and a second reflection after the workshop (before they began the next online module). Using single-day workshops in this unit meant that the micro-deadlines for completing the reflections were linked to the consistent workshop time. This resulted in a fairer situation for students, as no students were disadvantaged by having reflections due before a workshop scheduled early in the week. It also allowed the coordinators to ensure that this pivotal piece of work was completed by a certain time each week, making it easier for them to monitor student completion and progress.

Technology/resources used

Reflective tasks were built in the Student Relationship Engagement System (SRES) and embedded directly into Canvas. A deadline for each reflective task was entered into SRES.  As shown in the image below, students entered their reflections into a text field via a Canvas page. The first reflection provided an opportunity for students to consolidate and reflect on their learning of the weekly online module content prior to coming to their workshop and supported the quality of discussion that took place in workshops. The second weekly reflection was completed by students after attending the workshop and before engaging in the subsequent week’s online content. Students were asked to reflect on any further insights gained on the weekly topic after applying their learning and talking to their teachers and peers in workshops.

Weekly reflection activity with micro-deadline

Each reflection had a cut-off date, and reflection portals became unavailable after this time.  Therefore, students had to complete their reflections within a specified timeframe. This supported student engagement in the task and helped synchronise students’ progress through the modules. Weekly reflections formed the basis of students’ final reflective essays, providing further motivation for them to complete the tasks each week. Further details about the reflective tasks and their relationship to the assessment can be found in one of the examples for the design pattern reflection at scale.


A survey revealed that 95% of students found the weekly reflections supported their learning and the micro-deadlines attached to these tasks resulted in a high completion rate. Focus groups provided some evidence that micro-deadlines set around weekly reflection tasks helped support recall and connect learning across asynchronous and synchronous environments:

I find it difficult at times to recall what I learnt. And I have to go back to my old reflections to see, so I can see where I work, and then identify new components which I learn after the workshop. It’s good because it helps you track your progress throughout the week, so I think they are helpful.

For the online module, I think the reflection part is really helpful because I can summarise everything that I have learned in a particular module. And then whenever I go back, because, sometimes, when you learn a lot, you learn so many things, and you forgot about that. And whenever I click back to a section, immediately, I remember what I’ve learned in this particular module. I think it’s really helpful, actually.

I really like the reflection task because in each section, we have to reflect, and it also pushes me to reflect on the last topic and the new topic and the relationship [between them].

About the Authors

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

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