Burned out by the pandemic and faced with unprecedented levels of student disengagement, some instructors want to ditch pandemic-induced changes to teaching and go back to their old policies. Doing so will not improve student performance. Instead of going back to these strategies, instructors can adapt what they have learned during the pandemic.
In a recent teaching newsletter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie shared stories of two faculty who plan to end pandemic accommodations, such as flexible deadlines and attendance. They believe that remote teaching is far inferior to face-to-face teaching. These faculty blame such accommodations for the lack of engagement and time-management currently reflected by their students, and seek to remedy this by returning to pre-pandemic policies like stricter late-work policies.
One thing to note is that both of these faculty are speaking from a distinctly STEM context: “She found that some colleagues in humanities disciplines ‘did not fully grasp the issues we had,’ because they could alter assignments and content in ways that still met learning outcomes while providing greater flexibility for students.” Because STEM fields often rely on labs as part of coursework, the move to virtual instruction was particularly challenging for them. To sum up, one faculty member wrote: “‘I’m so over it . . . I am going back to my pre-pandemic policies, which worked just fine. Students need to readjust and meet me halfway.”
Except those policies did not work just fine and reverting to pre-pandemic teaching strategies will not solve the challenges these faculty face. The issues that emerged during the pandemic already existed in our face-to-face classes and harsher penalties do not really help to ameliorate them. On the other hand, students who would have benefited from a bit more flexibility in our classes will now be negatively impacted by a move towards “more rigor.” Such policies will also not help students who will continue to arrive in faculty courses, including rising college students from lower-levels and high school students and even middle school students who had their learning disrupted.
Let’s talk about how we can adapt flexibility around deadlines as we transition to a new normal, recognizing the realities of our students as well as faculty workload. There is a middle ground between limited absences and no late work and unlimited absences and accepting all late work with no consequences.
Here is what I do. I build in structures that help alleviate the negative impact of late work. I organize my course so that students can miss two weeks without an adverse effect on their grade, in part because I drop the lowest grades on low-stakes assignments for all students in the class. The major assignments are distributed so that missing days of class will not result in a failing grade. Designing my course this way takes time, but down the road it cuts down on my workload.
I design my assignments so that students complete one part of the assignment asynchronously and the next part part during class. This encourages students to begin the assignment early and gives them the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback when they really need it. The also get support from their fellow classmates. When the entire assignment is due, students receive a 24-hour grace period after the due date. The trade-off is that the assignment will not receive comments. This allows me to start grading, but does not penalize the student for work this is a bit late. Beyond the grace period, students can turn in the assignment any time up until the end of the course and will receive a flat grade of 66. This arrangement covers 90% of student late work, because most students just want a bit of extra time to finish. The other 10% represent students who have what I call a catastrophic event: serious illness, death in the family, or something that completely wrecks their world. I work with these students to create a make up work plan.
While some faculty might view this as overly generous, I find that it cuts down significantly on the negative impact of late work on students. I’m trying to teach students to be more strategic, make informed decisions and take responsibility for the decisions they make by making the rationale and consequences transparent. We don’t have to haggle and argue. There are plenty of other strategies that faculty can use to support students and help them develop skills that help them succeed in our courses.
One last thing about STEM courses and student engagement. One faculty member in McMurtrie’s piece wrote: ”There are not a lot of different ways to ‘express’ how well you’ve learned the anatomy of the cardiovascular system that would be appropriate; and we can’t omit the cardiovascular system for different content that might better engage students.” Engaged learning does not ask faculty to omit content; it asks faculty to create opportunities for students to engage content. Students are not necessarily retaining information just by rote memorization. There are other ways beyond exams where STEM faculty can engage students while teaching them the foundational knowledge for a course. Before the pandemic, STEM faculty were already incorporating high impact practices into courses through strategies such as authentic assessments that engage students in their courses.
I encourage faculty to adapt their pandemic policies to meet the new realities of the new normal.
Beth McMurtrie. “Some Professors Say It’s Time to End Pandemic Accommodations.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2 June 2022.
Why Reverting to Pre-Pandemic Course Policies Won’t Work by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.