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Tip: The Perils of Flexibility
Is there a point when flexibility stops helping students, and starts harming them?
I have been thinking - and writing - about flexibility for a while now. From figuring out what HyFlex even meant, to thinking about how to tackle “Zoom classes” when they were very first a thing (for most of us), to where I landed (for now) in designing for online with synchronous, asynchronous, and in-person options. I think many of us who teach in higher ed have become more flexible with deadlines and grading, with how we design our classes, and with how we facilitate student learning.
I see something like the Twitter thread started with the tweet above, with journalist after journalist chiming in to say that deadlines are absolutely firm, no exceptions, and I wonder - is there a point when flexibility stops helping students, and starts harming them?
I think part of the conversation is about preparing students for future success academically, and part is looking ahead to their professional lives. John Warner reflected on his experience with deadlines as a professional writer and as educator, concluding:
I’ve come to realize that one of my chief skills is not meeting deadlines, so much as managing them. It is only through learning how to manage deadlines that I am able to meet them.
I’m not sure I can answer - for myself, let alone for anyone else - how important firm deadlines may or may not be to helping students develop work habits that will serve them well in the future. It’s a bit easier to know how important firm deadlines are for keeping students’ momentum in the course, and of course much easier to figure out when flexibility for students means a disaster on the faculty member’s side of the equation. Knowing that tipping point is absolutely important, particularly for new instructors - or when teaching in a pandemic. Re-envisioning how you give feedback and what role grading & assessment play can help, but cannot entirely right the unbalanced ship. Too, because I’m always concerned that being flexible when asked for grace from a student means that some students will ask but others equally in need of extra help will not, I prefer to build in from the start of the semester whatever flexibility or choice I plan to offer.
One strategy I have used in the past - and will again - is that of having students choose due dates for various assignments. I like asking students to plan their own deadlines, within reason, because it places value on learning and practicing the skills of metacognition. I find having students negotiate deadlines works in three ways…
Teaches evaluation & planning skills
Students who are given a general plan or list of assignments they need to complete over the semester have to really think about how my course and its assignments fit into the work they're doing for other courses, and how it all fits into the other pieces of their daily life. They have to evaluate how long an assignment will likely take, what outside help they might need to complete the assignment, when they would need to ask for that help, and how to work backward from the end of this semester to fit everything in. This is not an easy process, and it's particularly challenging for students who are new to college, so I always offer a suggested timeline that some students prefer to follow. But by engaging students in the process of thinking about what the big picture timeline looks like and how that fits with the rest of their classes, they're still getting practice in evaluating various own responsibilities and thinking about how all of it fits together
Helps students articulate their process
Asking students to engage in a process of negotiating deadlines means students have to think about their study habits and articulate the process by which they work. This helps them to think about their own thinking and their own learning, and helps me to better understand who they are and how they are approaching the course assignments.
The big picture of course is that all of this thinking, evaluating, planning, and negotiating helps students better understand how they learn and how to explain their learning process to others. Beyond any content and skills, this clarity of self-awareness - I believe - serves them well as they continue in their academic programs.
What do you think - is there a point when flexibility and choice are just too much?
For more reading…
Great set of resources collected by the Open CoLab at Plymouth State University, including Strong Instructional Practice: Flexibility with Deadlines;
Specifications grading can help make deadlines unnecessary (or at least simpler to manage)