A “Form” of Flexibility: An Easy Way to Grant Extensions to Students

By Dr. Raechel Soicher, 2022 CTL Blended Learning Innovations in Pedagogy (BLIP) Initiative Faculty Fellow and Instructor in the School of Psychological Science.

As with most (all) of my great teaching ideas, I got this one for supporting students from Twitter.

Let me back up a sec – some context for why I was searching Twitter that specific day: Fall term I embraced flexibility full on. Due dates in the syllabus served as suggestions, but with optional class attendance and a “no late penalties, ever” approach, students really slipped through the cracks. They stopped attending class (I was down to 2/50 at one point) and consistently turned in late work. On my SLEs, students let me know that this no-structure approach wasn’t working for them:

“By the end of the class my motivation was way down and it became much harder to complete tasks because I really didn’t care because I felt like the class was an afterthought.”

OOF! That isn’t what I had been going for at all. And, aside from the students who needed or would have benefitted from more structure, I also struggled with planning class activities, grading, and feedback.

Fast forward to the intense search for the perfect balance – how can I offer flexibility for students but keep motivation (and productivity) high?

Enter Dr. Alanna Gillis (@alannagillis3).

Dr. Gillis, in her Twitter thread, beautifully outlines the need for flexible deadlines, structure for students, instructor burnout, and equity issues related to equity. And her solution is also a beautiful one. Instructor makes available a simple Google form that includes a new proposed due date (within one week of the original). Once students submit the form, the extension is confirmed!

In my own classes, I settled on a “no questions asked” 48-hour grace period for all assignments. If students need longer to complete an assignment, they use a link in the Canvas menu that reads “I need an extension!”.

In my own version of the form, I ask students for their name, the assignment, the proposed new due date, and a few follow-up questions:

  • Do you want my help (yes/no/I’m not sure)?
  • Do you want additional support from tutoring, counseling, disability support, the HRSC (textbook help, food, housing, etc.), financial aid, etc.? (yes/no/maybe)
  • Is there anything else I should know?

Students know they’ve “got” the extension if they don’t hear from me. If they say they need something or if their proposed due date seems too far away, I send an email to follow-up. The only assignments they cannot request extensions for are their final papers and projects.

In Winter term I received approximately 70 requests for an extension across about 60 students. Some of these were from one student for each assignment in a specific week while others were just one extension form for all of the the week’s assignments. Students requesting extensions early in the term were often also requesting extensions later in the term. In any of these scenarios though, students were completing the assignments, which is what matters to me most. The assignments are carefully designed learning opportunities, after all, and I want students to experience them.

On my end, students are almost always submitting the late work within a week (or earlier) of the deadline. This fits nicely into my grading turnaround time so as not to cause any additional burden of tracking student e-mails or grading the same assignment multiple times. From an equity lens, I am no longer the ‘gatekeeper’ of students’ reasons for submitting late work. My hope is this will allow students the freedom to take care of themselves (sleep, pick up an extra work shift, spend time on a high-stake assignment in another class, take care of others, etc.) where they would normally force themselves to attend class or submit an assignment that they’re not proud of.

Initial impressions from students also seem promising:

“I really liked the late work policy Dr. Soicher had set up. I think it was flexible, but not so much that students would wait too long before turning in assignments.”

Knowing that if I really needed some extra time I could get it easily and without troubling Dr. Soicher, really helped my mental health —”

Knowing that such a small change on my end can make such a big difference for students means I’ll be using this approach again for the foreseeable future!

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