Balancing Flexibility and Fairness Through Course Design
- "Prof. Smith, I won't be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won't make it back to New York in time for class. Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?"
- "Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to familial issues. I am writing in an attempt to ascertain what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind my peers."
- "I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss."
We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous—and inappropriate—student emails than these. It is understandable if we react viscerally to them. We may want to yell at the computer, reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class and/or assignment deadlines. Students should just follow the rules and then, "problem solved," right?
Well, sort of.
Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester. Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students' priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010). More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen. Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students' shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines, figuring out what the professor "wants," and adhering to the rules and expectations that are particular to that course alone—all of which are juggling acts that our students must do constantly. Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or "lines in the sand" (Robertson, 2003).
Learner-centered course design can help us to balance the competing demands of compassion and fairness. Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002). We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life "interrupts" their studies, all while preserving our sanity and our lines in the sand.
Some course design ideas that accomplish this goal include:
- Carrots that reward on-time submission of assignments. I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.
- Bounded flexibility. Alternatively, a colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a "syllabus quiz" in the first week of the semester. Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day). Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester.
- Cooperative/collaborative learning. If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource—their fellow students—on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they "missed."
- Technology. Web-based tools, including Learning Management Systems (for example Moodle or Blackboard), Wikis (for example PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course. If students find that they need to miss a class meeting unexpectedly, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning, or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki. Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their "group" for help.
Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn. Still, life sometimes interferes with the best intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn—an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over—is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.
- Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. "A Snapshot of the First Year Experience. Accessed on July 15, 2010 at www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_OL_2009_YFCY_02_04.pdf
- Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
- Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Center for Faculty Development
Metropolitan State College of Denver