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Flexible Structures in Course Design
While flexibility can be critically important for equitable and inclusive teaching (Dwyer and Cardamone, 2021), it also needs to be balanced with simple, coherent expectations and course structure.
For students who need to be absent for health, family, or any other reasons, flexible deadlines and multiple forms of engagement can be fundamental to their success in the course. It can also make the course more accessible for students who may need more time to process information or prefer to engage in different ways.
At the same time, too much flexibility can be detrimental to learning, particularly when it gets to the point that the course no longer feels structured (Sathy and Hogan, 2019). Without enough structure, students can get overwhelmed, mismanage their time, and lose the sense of continuity within a course. In the return to in-person classes, faculty found that structure could be particularly helpful for students who hadn’t experienced in-person college teaching and for keeping them motivated through challenging and uncertain times (McMurtrie, 2022). Too much flexibility and not enough structure can also be overwhelming for instructors.
Below are some considerations for thinking about ways to create both flexibility and structure to support student learning, while keeping your workload manageable.
Keep deadlines but build in flexibility. Deadlines provide an important structure to courses that keep students motivated and help them to plan out their work (Marcis and Carr, 2003), but being too rigid can lower students’ grades for reasons that have nothing to do with student learning. However, having too much flexibility means instructors have to spend a lot of time keeping track of and supporting student work. Some examples of building in flexibility to assignments include allowing one late assignment, giving an extra 24 hours if a student seeks help at the Writing Center, or giving students a total number of grace days that they can use strategically over the course of the semester for turning in problem sets.
Make course materials accessible to all students with guidance on how best to engage with those resources. Making course materials, such as handouts, powerpoints, and lecture capture videos, available to all students can help students to engage with the material even if they missed class. It’s important to explain to students that these are not a long-term substitute for attending class, but a way to help them stay connected with class when they do have to miss. These resources can also be helpful study aids for all students and can be particularly helpful (when possible) if they are posted ahead of time, so that students can preview the class and be more ready to engage during class time. All of these practices align with making your class more accessible to students with disabilities (documented and undocumented), especially when combined with other accessibility practices.
Explain and reflect on the specific advantages to coming to class and how best to navigate your course. Adding flexibility can sometimes inadvertently send the message that coming to class or meeting deadlines are not important. Overtly explaining how you see students’ presence and engagement as central to the success of the class as a whole can help students feel connected to each other and facilitate a sense of mutual obligation to their peers that encourages attendance and participation. Understanding your course design can support students to engage more deeply. This can also help to uncover the “hidden curriculum,” which can particularly benefit first-generation students and students from underserved schools—who may not have had as much coaching to prepare them for the elite college environment. Furthermore, asking students to reflect on the benefits of coming to class and how they may best learn in your course, as short writing exercises or integrated into course feedback, can better help them to take ownership of their learning, figure out how to best navigate your course structure, and potentially share suggestions for better supporting their needs (Aguilar et al., 2014).
Encourage attendance but allow for absences. Adding interaction to class time can help students see the value of coming to class (Eddy and Hogan, 2017). It can also help you notice students- when they are absent or when they are struggling with the material- a strong motivator for students to come to class. Adding a small grade for attendance can also be helpful (Credé et al., 2010), particularly when it is framed as important for student learning and not as a way to monitor student behavior. In larger classes, this may mean asking students to engage with poll questions that count for attendance grades or asking students to work on something in a small group that is handed in. If you do keep track of attendance, allow for a certain number of absences or give students an alternative task to complete for attendance credit, and be sure to let students know to reach out to you if they need additional flexibility for extenuating circumstances.
Give time to build community and acknowledge the current moment. Taking the time to get to know your students and for them to know each other will make for a better learning environment, enhance student belonging, and lower the barrier for students to come to you when they may need to ask for more flexibility. In stressful moments—whether acute events in the news or during more long term stressors such as the pandemic—give students some time to process their thoughts through writing exercises or short discussions (Imad, 2020). Use these moments to better understand what students are experiencing and how to adapt your class to the current moment.
Aguilar, L., Walton, G., & Wieman, C. (2014). Psychological insights for improved physics teaching. Physics Today, 67(5), 43-49.
Credé, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class attendance in college: A meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 272-295.
Dwyer, H. & Cardamone, C. (2021). Balancing Flexibility and Rigor to Advance Equity in Course Design. Teaching @Tufts. https://sites.tufts.edu/teaching/2021/09/03/balancing-flexibility-and-rigor-to-advance-equity-in-course-design/
Eddy, Sarah L. & Hogan (2014) Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE—Life Sciences Education Vol. 13, 453–468, Fall 2014 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050
Imad, Mays. (2020). Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma
Marcis, John & Carr, Darcy B. (February 2003). A Note on Student Views Regarding the Course Syllabus. Atlantic Economic Journal 31(1). DOI: 10.1007/BF02298467
McMurtrie, Beth. (August 2022). Learning from Last Year. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2022-08-04?cid=gen_sign_in&cid2=gen_login_refresh
Sathy, V. And Hogan, K. (2019). How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-make-your-teaching-more-inclusive/