It is near the end of Week Seven here at Oregon State University. It is about the time faculty will be getting a lot of requests from students. Requests for more time for a paper, for a quiz, or for an exam. Requests for recording lectures, copies of notes, or zoom links. Most faculty want to be flexible and compassionate educators. While these attributes foster positive faculty-student interactions in the best of times, they are critical in the worst of times.
Many parts of the last two years have felt like the worst of times.
We have gone through four phases in the last two years: 1: When we Pivoted (Emergency remote teaching), 2: Remote teaching, 3: The Return (Fall 2021), and 4: Now (2022). For each one and the before times, it paid to be Compassionate, Clear, Organized, Multifaceted, and Engaging, (CCOMFE1). Even adhering to this principle may not quell the increase in requests.
How can educators be fair but not be taken advantage of? How do instructors best manage requests for accommodations? Attempting to respond on a case by case basis is exhausting and is a suboptimal solution. Here are some considerations to help with managing student requests.
First, it is important to remember that students are as exhausted, stressed, and fatigued by the pandemic as educators are2,3. In the before (pandemic) times, some faculty would look askew at upticks in the frequency of absences due to losses in the family, often going to the extreme of asking for death certificates. While insulting and hurtful to many students and implying a lack of trust, the PET 4 equivalent is asking for proof of a positive COVID test to justify an absence.
In addition to taxing an overburdened health care system, requesting certificates creates more work for all concerned. The confluence of stressors may elevate already rising mental health issues. A simple solution: Have more trust in what students say. If they are lying, let that be on their conscience. What they miss from an absence (or the effort to make it up) is already a punishment.
A multitude of requests for extra time to complete assignments may be an indicator that your course design calibration needs some work. During PET 2 many classes showed engorged syllabi as faculty aimed to increase assignments to make up for not teaching in person. With the additional stress of the pandemic, normally manageable class loads may become less manageable. Sometimes educators feel pressured to cover all the content or hold to their standards of rigor. While both are commendable and understandable, they should also be open to modification. Are the assignments and assessments mapping onto the course learning outcomes? Maybe there is more leeway in your design than you know.
Reworking course design and content is a fine agenda item for the next time one teaches. How do educators cope with the requests right now? There is a philosophical answer and there are some pragmatic ones.
An important starting place is for instructors to have a clear idea of what is really important to them and why. If you require attendance, why do you require attendance? When you set a due date, why can the student not turn it in a little later? Examine your teaching philosophy and have a clear idea of what you do not want to budge on (and why) and what you are willing to be flexible on. Once you are clear on what you are willing to be flexible on, then be fair and clear about your decision and as specific as possible. Often, consulting scholarship of teaching and learning can guide your decisions (see the guides at https://ctl.oregonstate.edu/ for evidence-informed solutions to pedagogical questions). If you are open to students turning material in late, is it for any reason or only for COVID-related reasons (and is it fair to make the distinction)? Every student should have the same options.
I taught 400 students during Fall 2021. The return to the classroom was exuberant for most but to minimize issues my course policies allowed any student to take extra time on any assignment except exams. It could be if they were not feeling great, had COVID, or had some other emergency. In any of these cases they did not have to email me or let me know to get the extension. There would be no late penalties and no need for doctor, parent, or peer notes. This decision cut down on potentially 100s of emails and a lot of hassle on students’ parts and mine.
It worked well. There is no evidence that learning suffered. If anything, these allowances enhanced learning according to student testimonies. Objectively, my class scores were not significantly different from scores for the same class taught in the before times or during PET 1 or PET 2. My student evaluations were perhaps some of the highest they have ever been.
Not all educators may be ready to be as flexible. Some may be ready to be more so next term and perhaps are even planning to a course redesign and rebuilding CCOMFE into their syllabi and classes. There are still many pragmatic solutions before next term:
- Once you are clear about where you stand with allowances, broadcast them to the class immediately, even midstream of the term.
- Post clear statements about your policy on late assignments, penalties, and absences, or modifications of them if what you started the term with no longer holds.
- Discuss these changes in class and make it clear why you have these policies.
- Be genuine about what you will not allow and why.
- Consider using Canvas “availability dates” to keep assignments open beyond due dates.
- Create one common response you can use for all requests for accommodations that elucidates your position. Cut and paste it in response to emails and requests you get (one trick is to create it as a signature file and then add THIS signature to a request).
A great tip related to this from Nicole Wolf (School for Psychological Science). Check out the “Quick Parts” feature in Outlook on the “Insert” tab of your ribbon. This feature allows you to save as many text templates as you like without formatting as a signature (i.e. if you want to add multiple “quick parts” you can without them overriding each other like with signatures). One downside is that you can only access it if you “pop-out” your email reply; essentially, you have to have the email in it’s own window to access the “Insert” tab and the Quick Parts menu. But adding text is super easy; just select the template text you want and in that drop-down menu, select “Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery”.
- Different class sizes (large lecture, small discussion) and class levels (first year, final year) may allow for different allowances, but avoid case by case decisions instead have a position.
- Most importantly, it is alright to say no! While being fair and flexible is a worthy goal, being firm also helps your students. When you show you are open to change, have given your philosophy thought, and that your decisions are not random but tied to a philosophy of education, then holding firm to it is justified.
- You may want to run your position on allowances by your supervisor who can support your position. This is important given some supervisors may want the entire department to share a level of flexibility and compassion.
Learning is a challenge and teaching effectively is a demanding proposal. Both teaching and learning got substantially more difficult during the pandemic. There are undoubtedly more challenges downstream. Being ready to cope with students concerns and fears, even if it means re-examining our philosophies, is work that will help us all get through these times better.
- Gurung, R. A. R. (2021). Inspire to learn and be CCOMFE doing it. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 62(4), 348–351. https://doi-org/10.1037/cap0000277
- Gonzalez-Ramirez, J., Mulqueen, K., Zealand, R., Silverstein, S., Reina, C., BuShell, S., & Ladda, S. (2021). Emergency online learning: College students’ perceptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. College Student Journal, 55(1), 29–46.
- Gurung, R. A. R., Mai, T., Nelson, M., & Pruitt, S. (2022). Predicting learning: Comparing study techniques, perseverance, and metacognitive skill. Teaching of Psychology, 49(1), 71–77. https://doi:10.1177/0098628320972332
About the author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University and Professor of Psychological Science. This post is based on a piece that first appeared in Inside Higher Education (earlier this week) and has been modified for OSU.