On the Same Side: Crafting Humane Course Policies

It’s that time of the year again, at least on the University of California’s quarter system. As spring courses draw to a close and graduation ceremonies approach, stories from exasperated faculty friends dominate my social media feeds. The same frustrations are repeated often: students won’t read, they aren’t prepared for class, they make excuses for missed work, and then they complain about grades they don’t like.

This frustration is understandable. Most of us care deeply about our fields and about the craft of teaching. We are likely to have been excellent students ourselves, or at least we learned to be by the end of our schooling. (Few people complete a Ph.D. without developing self-discipline, focus, and a basic ability to follow instructions.) It can be discouraging to devote so much time and energy, often for very little pay, to students who behave as if they have no interest in learning.

Some sharing of complaints about students is productive, of course, as it allows faculty to support each other in challenging situations and to collectively problem- solve. But a broader tendency to ridicule student behavior can reflect what some commentators have identified as a lack of compassion for some of the most vulnerable members of the academic community. Such an attitude can produce hostile classrooms, where students and faculty come to see themselves as opponents, and every encounter becomes an adversarial situation.

The most effective teachers design their classes not from a position of opposition, but with the recognition that they are on the same side as their students. This approach means generally liking our students and recognizing the complex issues that often affect their coursework (e.g., financial challenges, employment and family obligations, mental illness, or unfamiliarity with the norms of higher education). It means appreciating that academic shortcomings are not moral failings or, as an advisor once reminded me, that “bad” students are not bad people.

In practice, approaching our teaching with an attitude of kindness and consideration for students’ lives can involve several challenges. This language around caring is highly gendered, and women faculty (and women of color in particular) are expected to do a disproportionate amount of often invisible and always uncompensated emotional labor. In addition, students too often interpret kindness to mean less time- consuming assignments, unlimited extensions, or copious extra credit.

Kindness toward students must be balanced with the need to maintain professional boundaries and the academic integrity of our courses. I recently had a conversation with Bonni Stachowiak, host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, about course policies that may help achieve these varied goals. I want to build on that exchange by sharing some specific examples that may assist those of you who are developing your first independent courses. The examples I list below primarily concern missed or late work; (you can see some of my policies addressing grade appeals, class attendance, electronic use, and other issues in my syllabus archive).

Missed or Late Work

In any given semester or quarter, requests for make-up work or deadline extensions can quickly become overwhelming. In classes of hundreds of students, it is not logistically possible to manage separate timelines for individual students. More importantly, though, I try to avoid becoming the arbiter of students’ excuses. We all juggle multiple obligations and encounter unexpected life events. I understand that my course may not always be a student’s first priority (just as it is not always my first priority). It is inappropriate for me to decide whose emergencies are “real” and whose are not, or which documentation is valid and which is not. Moreover, course policies should be equitable, and I try to avoid making accommodations for one student that are not made for all.

Depending on the course and context, the following policies may assist with these goals:

Drop one assignment

In most of my classes, not all assignments are counted in the final course grade. I might ask students to complete reading responses for six of the ten weeks of the quarter, or I’ll count three of four short essays or drop the lowest exam grade. None of these assignments are accepted late or can be made up, however.

In addition to granting flexibility to students, dropping one assignment also rewards improvement and offers the benefits of formative assessment. This policy allows students to incorporate feedback from early assignments into their later work without initially worrying too much about their overall grades.

Free late pass

In smaller classes, I have included a no-questions-asked “stuff happens” coupon in the course syllabus. Any student can simply attach the coupon to any assignment and turn it in one day late with no penalty. As more and more academic work shifts online, I’ve replaced the physical coupon with an electronic one-day pass. I have sometimes offered a small amount of extra credit for turning in an unused late pass at the end of the course.

This technique works best in small classes where you can easily keep track of late pass use. It accommodates last-minute, often one-off events (changed work schedules, crashed computers, flat tires) and encourages students to determine for themselves which events are worth “spending” their coupon on.

Late penalty

In some classes, and especially for large, single assignments (e.g., a final paper), I deduct a small number of points for lateness. A 100-point paper, for example, might lose five points a day for each day it is late. This is enough of a penalty that students work to get their assignments in on time, but it is not so significant that a student who needs an additional day or two will receive a failing grade.

This approach again allows for short-term difficulties (where a blanket “no late papers accepted” policy might not), even as it requires students to decide which events are important enough to result in a small grade reduction.

Scaffolded assignments

This policy is aimed at prevention. For many students, late assignments are the result of poor planning or procrastination that is often linked to uncertainty. When asked to produce a research paper, for example, they may not know where to begin, what steps to take, or how much time each step will require. Breaking down an assignment into smaller components—research proposals, annotated bibliographies, thesis development, outlines, and so on—both prevents last-week-of-class disasters and (our ultimate goal) helps students develop essential academic and analytical skills.

The best-laid plans

None of these policies is designed to respond to major, life-altering events. (For example, I have worked with students experiencing extended hospitalizations, cancer diagnoses, the death of children or grandchildren, etc.). Those cases generally affect all of a student’s courses and require individual attention or consultation with the school administration to determine the most appropriate course of action.