Flexibility and Accountability
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how many of our students need some flexibility in meeting assignment deadlines and class attendance requirements. At the same time, this flexibility must be balanced with accountability. Students also need sufficient transparent structure in their courses, so that it’s clear what must be done when (and in what order) to successfully meet course requirements and learning outcomes.
There’s not a single right way to balance these student needs for flexibility and accountability. What this looks like in your teaching will depend on various factors including: course level and content, class size, the nature and design of assessments, and your own needs in managing workload and schedule. However, the following inclusive teaching practices—broadly applicable across course contexts and disciplines—are likely to help you in this balancing act.
- Transparency: Explicitly communicate with students your course policies and teaching practices—and how these are designed to support students’ learning. Don’t assume that students will ask for what they need (more time, help, etc.). Instead, let students know up front what options they have to get additional help, request an extension, make up missed work, etc.—and reiterate these policies and options at key points in the term.
- More frequent, lower-stakes assignments: In general, a course assessment plan that leans more heavily on regular, smaller learning activities and assessments (e.g. weekly or biweekly homework, labs, quizzes, online discussion posts, reflections, etc.) will better support student learning. Such an assessment plan gives students space to practice and grow, learn from mistakes, receive formative feedback, and improve over time.
- Built-in flexibility: Assume that, over the course of the semester, each student will experience a week or two in which they’re ill, overwhelmed, or otherwise unable to do their best work. Consider how to build in enough flexibility that an occasional bad week doesn’t have a catastrophic impact on the student’s learning and course grade—and you as an instructor aren’t overwhelmed with student requests for extensions or make-ups. Here are a few examples of ways instructors may do this; feel free to adopt the strategy(s) that best match your teaching context and needs:
- Drop 2 or 3 of the lowest scores on assignments or quizzes.
- Set online quizzes to allow for second attempts. This works best when quizzes are also set up to draw randomized questions from a larger question bank.
- Permit students to revise and resubmit. If this isn’t sustainable on all assignments, you may permit it for a limited number.
- Permit students a limited number of “no questions asked” free extensions, with which they can submit an assignment a few days or a week late with no penalty.
- Design assignment due dates to permit a “grace period” or “window of availability,” within which students can still submit the assignment.
You’re always welcome to contact CETL with specific questions about your course and assessment design. CETL consultants can help you think through which forms of flexibility and accountability make sense in your teaching context and will support the learning outcomes of your course(s).
For further reading and concrete suggestions on balancing flexibility and accountability, see:
- “Teaching in Fall 2022: Balancing Flexibility and Accountability,” from the U of Michigan Center for Research in Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Blog, 22 Aug 2022.
- “The Deadline Dilemma: When it comes to course assignments, how much flexibility is too much?” by Carolyn Kuimelis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 Nov 2022.