In this special two-part blog post, we examine what Ball State students say about flexibility and how teachers can offer students flexibility so they can fit their education into their busy lives.

In Part 1 of this two-part blog post, we examined what students have to say about flexibility. Both quantitatively and qualitatively, Ball State students express a need for flexibility in order to successfully fit their education into their lives.

At the core of all this is the fact that students, like faculty, are extraordinarily busy and have many time pressures in their lives. Adding flexibility and student choice to your course in terms of the content, assessments, pacing, and learning methods can help students fit coursework into their busy lives.

1 – Allow students to work ahead. 

While it can be difficult to release your entire course at once, releasing content well in advance and not locking modules to specific times allows students to work at their own pace. In fact, many students in the Student Satisfaction Survey expressed frustration at having a short time window to complete modules. 

If you are unable to release an entire course at once, consider adding more flexibility through late assignments (for more information, see #3 below). 

2 – Carefully plan the pacing of your course. 

Effective instruction generally involves scaffolding – learning that builds upon itself – but this can cause issues for students with busy lives. When possible, do not require a specific time window in the week for students to complete work in your course. For example, a Wednesday discussion board post due date and a Friday discussion board follow-up due date can force students to work between Wednesday and Friday, something that isn’t always possible for busy students. 

Instead, consider pacing your course with larger time windows to allow students to work during the week or on the weekend as their schedule permits.  

3 – Plan for late work, and support students who submit late work. 

No matter how much in advance you release your assignments, some students in your course will fall behind and turn in late work. Instead of having no policy or unspoken rules, work to plan for late submissions. Consider the following: 

  • What is the impact on learning of submitting late work? 
  • How will late submissions affect student grades (if at all)? 
  • Do students need to notify you in advance if they will be submitting work late? If so, how far in advance and through what medium? 
  • Will your feedback on late submissions be different from on-time submissions? 
  • How should students handle late work in cases where they are interacting with other students, such as peer review, discussion boards, or collaborative assignments? 
  • Is there an ultimate “no submissions accepted after” date for your course? 

Whatever you decide on these items, make sure you articulate this to your students clearly in your policies. 

4 – Encourage flexible forms of participation. 

While it’s important to support students in completing work when it can fit into their schedule, it’s also important to provide students with flexibility and options for what work they complete. A great place to start is in expanding your idea of participation in your course. 

For example, if you use peer review in your course, you could expand from in-person sessions to asynchronous peer feedback via text or video. If your courses are discussion based, consider ways that students could participate that aren’t necessarily the “standard” for discussion participation (e.g., providing discussion notes, following up with the class with resources, or summarizing the last class’s discussion). 

Like with the next practice, this choice can allow students to opt into work that fits better into their lives. 

5 – Give students choices for how to complete assignments. 

Choice in completing assignments can dramatically change how easy or difficult an assignment is for a student to fit into their lives. You don’t necessarily need to devise multiple alternative assignments – a great place to start is accepting multiple modalities in submissions. 

For example, if you would normally accept a document (such as a paper), consider accepting audio or video submissions that meet the same criteria.

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6 – Chunk content into smaller pieces that students can complete in 15 minutes or less. 

Most people don’t like starting something they can’t complete. When completing something in your course takes an hour or more, it’s likely your students won’t work on that until they can sit down and complete that work in a dedicated time slot. Unfortunately, those time slots are far too rare for many students. 

Chunking content, lessons, and assignments can positively impact motivation and encourage students to fit the work into their schedules more dynamically. In order to chunk, you don’t need to dramatically change your content or assignments – simply divide them up into discrete and manageable pieces that can be completed in 15 minutes or less. 

7 – Consider adding “pauses” to your regular schedule. 

Course “pauses” are class sessions or entire weeks where little to no formal instruction is scheduled in the course. Such pauses can help students who are behind “catch up,” and they can help students who are ahead or on schedule focus on other work. 

Most courses are overfull with content, so it can be hard to find a time to “pause” in your course. Look at your course schedule and consider places where the work has been less impactful in the past. Also consider spots in the semester where students tend to feel overwhelmed. Another great place to “pause” is when students have been engaging with a difficult topic or assignment and could use additional time to process information. 

If you’re struggling to find time in the semester, I also encourage you to read my earlier blog post, “The Siren Song of Comprehensiveness,” which explores the idea that we can accomplish more by teaching less content. 

8 – Make resources that support students readily available. 

If all of a student’s work was smooth sailing, then they likely wouldn’t need as much flexibility to complete it successfully. It’s the rough patches – when they’re struggling with an assignment, facing a major life event, or aren’t understanding a concept – that make flexibility so necessary and valuable. 

While there are many ways to support students through these rough patches, an important first step is to make resources readily available to students. This can be done through a Canvas page, additions to your syllabus, and regular reminders of available resources. Making this information prominent and easy to access can help students quickly identify what they need to get through a rough patch. 

9 – Ensure your course site can be easily accessed on mobile devices. 

More than 70% of Ball State students regularly access Canvas via the Canvas Student mobile app. As anyone who regularly does work on a mobile device can attest, mobile experiences are often frustrating and put up artificial barriers to efficiency. 

Taking deliberate steps to improve the mobile experience of your Canvas site can go a long way to helping students fit your course into their busy schedule. For more about how to do this, check out our earlier blog post, Toward Mobile-First Teaching Practices

10 – Offer students the option for non-work hour meetings. 

Synchronous interactions with faculty, such as attending office hours, are critical to student success, especially in asynchronous online courses. Unfortunately, offering office hours only during normal work hours (8-5) can lead to a significant number of students completely unable to attend these hours. 

While faculty often can’t (and shouldn’t) offer office hours outside the 8-5 window, it’s still important to provide help and interaction with these students. Consider weekend or weeknight “by appointment” times. Also consider ways to humanize asynchronous touchpoints, such as providing video feedback to students with your webcam.

What do you think of the data presented here? What strategies do you use to offer your students flexibility? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things. Grouling Snider (she/her) Eva