Throughout the pandemic, we have repeatedly asked for instructors and students to remain “flexible.” But, what does flexibility in the classroom mean moving forward? I fear that this word has been used in so many different contexts that it can cause confusion for students and instructors alike. This is why I want to use this post to briefly address students and instructors separately to provide my understanding of flexibility in the classroom and attempt to bring some common ground in this challenging space.
We have now been through a period where students have had unprecedented exposure to various levels and types of online or remote courses. Students have experienced the wide array of possibilities made possible through the increased use of technology in course design. As we have transitioned back to in-person instruction, many students may assume that a flexible course is one that offers them the ability to choose whether they’d like to attend class in-person or remotely. However, this isn’t really the case.
At UCI, instructors design their courses to provide students with a particular experience. This may be dependent on certain in-person experiences, online experiences, or a combination of in-person and online. The main point here is that each course has a purposeful design based on the mode of delivery that the instructor has selected (and had approved by the Academic Senate). Ultimately, this means that students cannot really select how they’d like the course to be delivered. Yes, many courses can be either online or in-person, but right now very few courses can be designed to be effective as both online or in-person at the same time. So, when we talk about designing flexible courses, this does not entail designing courses that offer the option to be taken either in-person or online.
That being said, what we have learned to do during the pandemic is design courses with policies and assessments that allow for flexibility in the student experience. This flexibility can manifest in many different ways depending on the experience the course is intended to provide. For instance, it can include policies such as allowing a certain number of late assignments or assignments that have a submission window instead of a fixed deadline. It can provide alternatives to attending a certain number of classes. It can offer multiple ways to demonstrate mastery.
The list of options is surprisingly diverse, so it does mean that students need to pay close attention to the policies of each individual course. It also requires a level of trust between instructor and students. Students need to trust that the instructor has selected specific elements of flexibility because they contribute to the desired experience and outcomes for the course. On the other hand, instructors need to trust that students will understand this, embrace the different expressions of flexibility, and make honest choices that align with their personal situations and individual needs.
Students also need to understand that this is a work in progress. The goal of these changes is to make our courses more inclusive and better equipped to address when “life happens.” In this way, flexible course policies and assessments give students a level of control that enables them to balance the demands of individual courses with work, family obligations, and other responsibilities. As instructors experiment with various forms of flexibility, we will continue to learn new ways to take advantage of technology and creative policies that maintain and increase the quality of educational experiences while simultaneously increasing inclusiveness.
For many instructors, the idea of flexible policies that handle a range of situations is becoming the new normal. However, I still get some relevant questions that are worth briefly commenting on. In addition to the answers I provide, I encourage anyone with these questions to reach out to their colleagues. There are many ways to approach this and getting different perspectives is incredibly valuable.
One of the important implications of flexible policy designs is that they help with potential inequities caused by any “exception” policy. Many traditional courses function on a set of relatively fixed policies, and if something occurs in a student’s life such as illness, car trouble, work issues, etc., it is the responsibility of the student to both ask for an exception and convince the instructor that the exception is “worthy.” Though in principle this appears fair as the policy applies to everyone, the rigidness can lead to unintended inequitable applications. Policies that rely too much on exceptions are susceptible to a range of implicit biases and other barriers to equitable outcomes as one tries to adjudicate which exceptions are “worthy” and “justified.” In contrast, a policy that is designed to handle these life occurrences without compromising standards, student experience, and learning outcomes can create a more equitable experience, reduce student stress, and even reduce faculty workload!
In regards to flexibility, a question I regularly receive is “Aren’t we trying to teach students to manage deadlines? Doesn’t offering flexibility undermine this lesson?” For me, there was a moment when I realized a few things. First, in the “real world” most deadlines are flexible. For example, in many real life situations, our deadlines are often coordinated within the context of a professional work environment where there is typically some level of flexibility built in for discussion and adjustment. Of course, this does not mean anything goes and that there is no structure. There is simply an understanding that unexpected circumstances and changes will require adjustments to deadlines. All this is to say that if we are serious about teaching students to manage deadlines, it is our responsibility to teach our students how to actually engage with and navigate deadlines rather than treating them as rigid cutoffs with no room for consideration or adjustment.
Second, all courses have at least one “hard” deadline—the end of the quarter! So, even if we design courses that offer flexibility for various deadlines during the duration of a course, there is still a hard deadline that students are aware of and expected to comply with. This solves the problem of teaching students how to manage both flexible and hard deadlines.
Another issue that gets raised with regard to flexibility is the need for students to attend/do everything. This seems especially important within the context of a quarter system. There is very much a sense of limited time, so if students miss anything, we perceive it to be a significant problem. This often leads to a very inflexible connection between attendance/completing every class activity and grades. The challenge here is to reflect on the balance between mastering the course goals and time spent on course-related tasks. Certainly, instructors design all of their course-related tasks to lead to particular outcomes for students. At the same time, students have always navigated courses through diverse paths. In my own experience as a student, I favored attending class more and perhaps reading less, but I am aware of friends who read more and attended class less, and all of us ended up achieving the learning goals and being successful in the course. Again, this does not mean that anything goes; I’m just pointing out that 100% student participation is rarely necessary for the equivalent of A-level success!
Finally, I have heard many instructors raise concerns that flexible grading options come at the expense of academic rigor. In my opinion, this is simply not the case. Flexible grading options are not about making courses easier, they are focused on appropriately measuring student mastery of learning outcomes. Many of our courses already have redundant measures of what students have achieved, especially in cases where there are final papers, projects, and exams that cover most, if not all, of what is expected of students. And yet, many grading schemes are based on relatively rigid “averages” that do not account for improvement and learning. While part of this is due to historic challenges of scales and availability of tools, the existence of new technologies now make it possible for us to improve in this area!
For Students and Instructors
As we move forward, it is clear to me that we need to continue the conversation between faculty and students as we figure out the optimal level of flexibility through course policies and not through individual student requests. However, I think we can all agree that creating more flexible courses is a positive idea. It represents an opportunity to reach a new level of inclusion within our courses while maintaining, if not increasing, standards. There is growing evidence that appropriate levels of student agency in navigating a course actually increases student success and can help close opportunity gaps. If nothing else, this is a classic case of a win-win situation—less stress, less administrative work, and better student outcomes!