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Finding a Balance Between Flexibility and Structure

For faculty around the country, teaching during the pandemic has heighted awareness of how students’ stressors outside the classroom can make it difficult for them to focus and learn. Structure and deadlines are important for scaffolding students’ time on coursework, but many students will also need flexibility with attendance and the timing of deadlines. Yet too much flexibility, which requires self-management, can derail the learning experience, especially for our least experienced students. We must respond with compassion and flexibility while keeping a focus on student learning. Here are some suggestions to help you navigate the complexities of teaching as the pandemic wears on.   

Attendance and Participation

Some instructors require or give credit for student attendance as a strategy for motivating students to attend class sessions and for ensuring that they take part in the learning activities. But protecting the health and well-being of students and instructors during the pandemic requires policies and practices that won’t penalize ill students for missing class.

Flexible attendance policies and practices are not new. Some faculty used such strategies before the pandemic to provide fair, equitable, and practical accommodations for students who missed class because of such things as illness or injury, religious observance, a death or a serious illness in their family, mental health challenges, participation in an academic conference, or participation in an NCAA-sanctioned athletic competition.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. If you have an attendance policy, revisit it. Build in a certain number of allowed absences. If you do not already do so, consider eliminating documentation requirements, especially from campus health care providers who need as much time as possible to see students in need of care (e.g., each student gets a X number of excused absences with no questions asked). Students may be ill without being in need of medical care, and requiring medical documentation diverts care from students who really need it. Furthermore, not all students with a diagnosed mental illness see a therapist regularly. Even if they do, they may not be able to get a note without making an appointment, which often takes days or weeks.
  2. Provide alternative activities for students who are temporarily unable to attend class so that their learning does not stop (see this page for a deeper dive into this topic). Some possibilities:
    • Alternative assignments. Reflect on the core learning activities carried out during class time, and provide opportunities for students to complete those activities outside class. For example, students could complete a worksheet on their own (or with a partner who was in class), write a reflection on the readings, or watch a recorded lecture and answer or submit questions about it.  
    • Live remote participation. Zoom and Microsoft Teams make remote participation in class an option, but we recommend this option be used sparingly (more on why here). This option works best if a student, GTA or another instructor is available to facilitate remote students’ participation so that they feel more included in the class activities.
    • Delayed completion. Allow students to complete the activities at a later date. This option may be particularly important for courses involving studio or lab work requiring special materials, or for students who are too ill to keep up with schoolwork for an extended period of time. ​
  3. Give credit for learning activities, not attendance. Instead of giving credit for attending class per se (or penalizing students for missing), consider giving credit for participating in one or more of the learning activities that take place during class (and that absent students could complete on their own). These types of low-stakes assignments have additional benefits over attendance taking: They support learning by giving students additional practice and feedback, and they enable you to regularly gauge student understanding. Examples include:
    • Responding to questions through a clicker or live poll (during real-time in-person and online class sessions) or a Blackboard/Canvas assessment tool.
    • Submitting a copy of activities completed during class (e.g., a worksheet, a peer review of another student’s paper, a group analysis of a case study), individually or as a group. 
    • Completing a brief reflection or “muddiest” point assignment (“The most important thing I learned today was…. One thing I am still confused about is…”).
  4. Encourage attendance and participation by creating a learning culture that shows the value of coming to class. Research on the factors that influence class attendance shows that students are more likely to attend if they believe that the professor cares that they are there, or if being present in class gives them an advantage. This section of the CTE website provides more information about encouraging attendance. Recommendations include: 
    • Show students that you are care whether they are present and participating. 
      • Learn and use students’ names.
      • Build a sense of community and rapport in your class.
      • Check in with students you have not seen or heard from in a while.  
    • Clearly articulate the value of attending and participating in class. Share with students what meaningful participation in your class means, and how it will contribute to their success in the course (as well as other outcomes). If remote participation or watching class recordings are options in your class, be transparent about the value of attending live sessions. For example:​

Online participation can be a good option for students who need flexibility or cannot attend because of public health directives. But it does require you to organize your time on the course and to be a self-starter. Regularly attending this class will help you keep to a schedule and structure your time, making it easier for you to keep up with the work. Class time also provides more opportunities to interact with classmates in both structured and informal ways.


Assignment Completion and Deadlines

Many students need flexibility in the timing of deadlines, just as many instructors have needed flexibility in their own deadlines during the pandemic. One way to do this for your students is to build in assignment choices that are available to all students. For example:

  • Require students to write four essays but give them six or eight choices of subjects.
  • Have students complete 10 out of 12 weekly discussion board posts during a semester.
  • Drop the lowest grade(s) in a set of repeated low-stakes assignments (e.g., weekly reading quizzes or problem sets). You might allow students to opt out of submitting one or two such assignments by the deadline as long as they complete the work before a unit assessment.
  • Provide opportunities for students to redo assignments to improve their learning and their grades.
  • Offer an "amnesty week," during which students may submit assignments they missed earlier.