The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a need for flexibility in course schedules. In this post, we explore how to balance flexibility and structure in a way that leads to positive learning outcomes.
“Can I still turn in this assignment even though it’s past the due date?”
“I had an emergency come up and can’t make it to class.”
“I missed our last quiz; is there anything I can do to make up those points?”
Regardless of your discipline or the classes that you teach, these types of requests likely sound familiar. That’s because students juggle a variety of competing demands that can prompt requests for flexibility. For example, around 40 percent of full-time students are employed and over one fifth of undergraduate students are parents.
Given that classroom policies often set the tone for a course, decisions about how to handle student requests for extensions, absences, and the like can influence student-faculty interactions and impact student success. This was never more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19’s Impact on Course Policies
The pandemic prompted a great deal of public discourse over classroom attendance and late submission policies. In the midst of rising case counts, rapid transitions to online teaching, and heightened rates of mental health struggles, students, administrators, and many members of the public argued that faculty should alter their course policies to focus on teaching with empathy and leniency. And many faculty did just that.
We became interested in how faculty felt about these changes. Were they happy with the adjustments they made? Did some changes work better than others? Was more flexibility always better? Did they learn anything from the experience that could inform future efforts to respond to emergent crises?
We explored these questions by interviewing 43 university faculty members from a range of institutions and disciplines. Here is what we learned.
The Benefits and Limits of Flexibility
Nearly all faculty in our study believed that showing students grace was necessary in the midst of the pandemic. Why? Because they felt flexible attendance and submission policies helped students navigate the upheavals associated with COVID-19. However, this flexibility also had a downside—too much resulted in diminished engagement and weaker learning outcomes among students and high levels of stress among faculty.
Consequently, many faculty emerged from the pandemic suggesting that a combination of structure and leniency is optimal for the college classroom. Moreover, if policies are designed from the outset to balance flexibility and stringency, it appears easier for students and faculty to adjust to unexpected upheavals while also continuing to meet the course’s learning objectives. Below we offer some highlights from our discussions with faculty. You can read the full published article here.
Strategies for Balancing Flexibility and Structure
- Offer a set number of excused absences: A specified number of excused absences can assist students when competing demands arise, while still helping promote their engagement with and exposure to course material. Consider directly communicating to students how regular class attendance contributes to specific course learning objectives.
- Offer a late pass for one assignment: A one-time late pass on an assignment can help students adjust if they are unable to meet a class deadline, while still providing a structure that promotes on-time work. Clarifying this policy at the beginning of the semester can help ensure that all students, especially those who may be more reluctant to ask for an extension, know it is available.
- Offer some asynchronous resources to students: By recording class lectures and discussions as they occur and then providing them to students on a limited basis, faculty can help students who miss class or want to review difficult material. Consider setting boundaries around the availability of these materials to encourage class attendance and ease the management burden on faculty.
- Offer various options for class participation: In-class discussion boards, quiz games, and brief activities can promote student engagement and provide an alternative to verbal contributions. Allowing students to complete a limited number of these activities outside of class time—for example, once or twice a semester—can also help students achieve the learning goals even if they need to miss class.
These are but a few examples of the ways faculty balanced structure and flexibility during the pandemic. Those who used these techniques expressed satisfaction with student and course outcomes. Moreover, they said they planned to continue these practices into the future because students inevitably need flexibility—emergencies can and do occur—but students also need structure to ensure they remain accountable to the course material and achieve the learning objectives. “Structured flexibility” also helps instructors by reducing the stress of addressing requests on an ad-hoc basis or making extensive changes mid-semester. In this way, course policies that balance flexibility and structure are a win-win all around.
What lessons have you learned from the pandemic? How do you offer flexibility while creating structure in your courses?
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