Extending Flexible Course Options to Our Students

By Diane Chapman (Office for Faculty Excellence), Michelle Bartlett (Dept. of Educational Leadership Policy and Human Development), Carlos Goller, Dept. of Biological Sciences), Melissa Hart (Dept. of Business Management), George Hess (Dept. of Forestry and Environmental Resources), Erin McKenney (Dept. of Applied Ecology), Lori Petrovich (Dept. of Chemistry), and Maria Gallardo-Williams (Office for Faculty Excellence)

The last two years have challenged the resolve and tested the patience of educators all over the world. Every day we continue to work to reach our students, be it in-person, online, or in hybrid modes. But much like us, we know our students are tired, their reserves depleted. This latest stage of the pandemic might require that we extend more grace to them and ourselves than ever before.

A gesture that can be very meaningful to students is to review our attendance policies, and to revise them to remove the requirement to provide documentation for certain absences. This is especially important when it comes to mental health-related absences. Doctor’s notes are not equally / equitably accessible to all students due to differences in insurance coverage, time constraints, etc. Requiring a doctor’s note or counseling center verification increases the stress the student is experiencing. It also increases the administrative burden on already burdened university services. The more students who need absence verification, the more clogged the mental health system can become. Ultimately these clogs impact a student’s ability to verify an absence in a timely manner.

These administrative burdens can also fall on you as an instructor. Reading and answering student emails, reviewing absence verification documentation, and developing make-up plans could be very time-consuming even before the pandemic, but now situations where many students may be sick or quarantining at the same time have increased this. When carefully planned, implementing flexible course options can actually reduce the number of emails you need to exchange with your absent students.

Giving grace to students is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are also reasons to be flexible in other situations such as a death in the family or a sick roommate. Requesting documentation might be impractical and difficult to implement equitably.

The University regulations relative to the evaluation of a student’s performance in a particular course or section (REG 02.50.03) leave room for the instructor of the course to decide what documentation is required to excuse absences. At this time when our students and ourselves are so overtaxed, it is our prerogative to implement flexible attendance, exam and assignment policies whenever possible. We may have had pre-pandemic policies that worked for us then, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t review them and update them, to humanize them.

Following are a few suggestions from faculty who have actually implemented flexibility in their course policies.

For Attendance:

  1. Offer a generous number of “drops”. For example, in my class, the students that attend (participate) in 75% of the class meetings are considered to be “in full attendance”. This significantly reduces the concern by students to attend if they are not feeling well, isolating, quarantining, or having a bad hair day! It also reduces the amount of emails of explanation (Melissa Hart, Department of Business Management)
  2. Instead of taking attendance, I award 5 points for completing in-class activities to encourage students to build community through conversation / collaboration as they apply concepts. I generally create a template Google Slide deck or Google Sheet for the activity in a shared folder, so students can copy and customize the template to add the names of all contributors and their own personal focus / “flair” for the assignment. I find that providing a template and keeping them low-stakes (only 5 points) makes these activities straightforward and easy to grade; and I automatically extend the deadline to midnight for any student who can’t attend class live on a given day. (Erin McKenney, Department of Applied Ecology)
  3. I have a shared Google Doc where the whole class can take lecture notes and see the contributions of the class. Students who are not in attendance get multiple viewpoints of the content being discussed and it is a shared file that can be accessed after the course so the knowledge is not lost. Attendance flexibility is important with the increased chances of missed classes due to multiple variants and because the aim is knowledge growth. I also give an option to write a paper on the topics missed for the day so that students can make up the time missed by reading and synthesizing the content into a paper, using readings, class notes, individual investigation of the topic, etc. (Michelle Bartlett, College of Education)
  4. I am live streaming and allowing students to enter their Top Hat answers remotely. I also have a surplus of possible attendance points to make it easier for students to reach 100%. (Lori Petrovich, Department of Chemistry)
  5. Here is some possible language to share with your students: To the degree possible, I’d love to see you in our classroom during class times – that’s where I plan to lead activities. I do not lecture (much) and instead take an approach that is very conversational and interactive. That is why we will meet live during class time. But I recognize that you are all facing different situations and challenges, so there will be a Zoom portal for anyone who really can’t attend in person for short periods of time; it’s not intended for long-term use. I will record the main Zoom room for class sessions, but there will be lots of breakout rooms that are not recorded and in-class discussions don’t record well because of the limited technology in our classrooms. Being there is important.
    If you’re sick or test positive for Covid, please use the Zoom portal. Otherwise, please come to the classroom. Regardless of why – and I don’t need to know why – if you cannot attend class in person for more than a day or two in a row, please talk with me as soon as possible so that we can figure out the best way forward. (George Hess, College of Natural Resources)

For Assignments:

  1. I try to pre-populate my Moodle course pages with all assignments and specifications so they are ready for students to view on day 1 – that way, students can start to work on assignments well in advance of any scheduling conflicts. (Erin McKenney, Department of Applied Ecology)
  2. Allow students the option to turn in a photo of homework when they have low bandwidth WiFi. (Michelle Bartlett, College of Education)
  3. Offer a range of dates for assignments. Most of my assignments are open for one full week. While this won’t eliminate those that wait until the last minute and subsequently have an issue, it will significantly reduce the number of students who have an issue overall. (Melissa Hart, Department of Business Management)
  4. Send reminders: Every week my students get the “Monday Message”, a weekly briefing about what is coming. Also, there is a reminder message on every due date. These are set up as restricted release forum posts at the beginning of the semester that go out automatically. (Melissa Hart, Department of Business Management)
  5. I schedule a few in-class project work days to support completion of scaffolded “milestone” assignments toward the completion of any long-term projects (i.e., annotated bibliography, abstract, and peer review of drafts for research projects). “Chunking” a high-stakes / long-term project into smaller segments that build toward the final project helps students learn and practice time management, and also gives them credit for all of the work that goes into the final product. (Erin McKenney, Department of Applied Ecology)
  6. Allow a choice between the written or verbal presentation of ideas that don’t require a written only assessment. While it may not work for all assignments, many assignments and learning objectives do allow for a variety of ways to demonstrate understanding. Flexibility does not decrease the quality of learning (Michelle Bartlett, College of Education)
  7. For assignments, I have been focusing on the process instead of the deadline. I have been encouraged by students asking for more time simply because they wanted to finish other coursework and had a great idea for their projects. The flexibility did not impact their learning in the course I teach and helped them achieve course objectives of not one, but several courses. (Carlos Goller, Department of Biological Sciences)
  8. Provide a menu of assignments that demonstrate the same learning objectives and let students choose which way they want to display knowledge growth. (Michelle Bartlett, College of Education)
  9. Students may enter their own extension in the learning management system for 90% credit when the absence is unexcused but I have an additional 20 points of extra credit homework to make it easier for students to receive full points. (Lori Petrovich, Department of Chemistry)

For Exams:

  1. Just like assignments, offer a range of dates. Give the students a day off from class and give them three days to complete the exam. For example, class is scheduled for Thursday morning. Give them the class day off when the exam would have been taking and give them Wednesday-Friday to complete the exam. This provides flexibility as well as reduces the density in the classroom as well as the risk that someone will feel the need to come to class if they are not well. (Melissa Hart, Department of Business Management)
  2. I am willing to give a late exam with zoom proctoring for students who must quarantine (Lori Petrovich, Department of Chemistry)
  3. I assign projects in lieu of exams in 3 of the 4 classes I teach. However, in AEC 245: Global Conservation Ecology, I do assign 2 take-home exams, about a month apart. Each exam consists of 3-4 questions, which challenge them to apply course concepts through science communication (e.g., writing an op-ed to explain climate change to a middle school audience, or designing a pamphlet about an endangered species), data collection (i.e., collecting their trash and recycling for a week, graphing their data, and proposing strategies to decrease / minimize waste production), and personal reflection. Students have 1 week to complete each exam; and after they get Exam 1 back, they have the option to resubmit one question to be regraded. (Erin McKenney, Department of Applied Ecology)
  4. Be flexible and think about other ways to assess learning and build the scholars we want. If you have to do an exam, provide a window of time for students to take the final exam. (Carlos Goller, Department of Biological Sciences)

In addition to these ideas, please feel free to use the resources that are available to you through your departments and colleges, as well as those available from the Office for Faculty Excellence, DELTA, and the NC State University Libraries in order to offer flexible course options to your students.

We want to avoid falling into the trap of equating the rigor of a course with the artificial obstacles that we create for our students. In a time when we have all lost so much, a little flexibility can be the thing that allows us to cross the finish line together.