This week:

  • I share insights on balancing compassion for students with your expectations for them from our recent virtual event.
  • I pass along a question from a reader looking to support first-year students and the professors who teach them.
  • I link to recent articles on teaching that you may have missed.

Giving Students a Why

How can instructors balance the compassion they have for students with the expectations of their courses? It’s a question we’ve heard professors wrestle with throughout the pandemic, and one that Beth posed last week to our panel of teaching experts during the first installment of Talking About Teaching, our new virtual-event series, which was focused on the changing student/professor dynamic.

Our panelists recognized the tension. “Flexibility is important,” said Regan A.R. Gurung, associate vice provost and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. “But it’s also important to be fair, and important to be firm.”

Gurung sums up his approach to teaching as “care.” Professors should be flexible, adjusting plans when circumstances call for it. But caring, Gurung said, does not always mean doing what students prefer. “I’d like to tell my students, Look, you don’t have to agree with the choices that I’ve made for the class, you don’t have to agree with my design, but I really hope I make it clear to you why I’ve chosen it.”

Isis Artze-Vega, another panelist, built on those remarks. “I think we owe students a why,” said Artze-Vega, vice president for academic affairs at Valencia College, in Florida. “Often we’ve had policies, we’ve had rules, we’ve had deadlines — and they just are. They’re in our syllabus, they’re firm, sometimes they’re bolded, underlined, all caps. I think what we started doing as a result of the pandemic, what many faculty started doing, was to really ask themselves: Why is this here? Is it essential?”

“I think it’s a form of respect for our students,” she continued, “to be able to have a why, and where we don’t have a good one, really then thinking about whether that’s a policy we can do without.”

But like Gurung, Artze-Vega underscored that being student-centered does not mean doing everything students ask for — or subordinating yourself to their needs. “You can be a really important why,” she said. “Your wellness, your boundaries, the limits on your time are super-, super-important.”

During the event, we polled the roughly 1,000 attendees to ask if they’d found it difficult to create a course that’s flexible without making a lot of extra work for themselves. Forty-five percent of those who responded chose “yes,” 34 percent said “somewhat,” and 21 percent “no.” Attendees elaborated on their answers in writing, with comments like this one: “I have found flexibility can be frustrating for students who really want/need direction and struggle with less-specific direction. Hence, I end up spending a lot more time with those students to help them feel confident within the flexibility.”

Later on in the conversation, I asked the panel a related question we hear all the time: What if professors are flexible and students take advantage of them? “I often think about how we balance compassion with clarity,” Gurung said. “There are times,” he added, “when students will really push it beyond.” If professors have been clear and fair, he said, they can also be firm.

That made me wonder: How do you know when it’s time to be firm with students about your course policies, and how do you frame it to them? Have you found a way to make those tough conversations any less painful for students, or yourself? Share your thoughts with me, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and they may appear in a future newsletter.

Last week’s online conversation covered much more ground than that, digging into how professors’ race and gender shape students’ perceptions of their policies and how to get institutions to reward the emotional labor of teaching, among other things. If you missed the event, you can watch it on demand here. Once you register for that, you can also join our Slack channel, where attendees have been posing questions and sharing advice.

And stay tuned for details on the next event in our series, which will take place on Friday, February 25. The topic will be fostering motivation and engagement in your courses; if you have burning questions or great ideas, it’s not too early to send those our way.

As always, Beth and I are interested in your feedback. You can email us with any perspective you’d like to share on the series, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and/or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Going to Class, but Not Doing the Work

Last semester, professors teaching first-year students at Bethel University, in Indiana, noticed a troubling pattern. “Many of our freshmen came to class, but never turned in homework or studied, and then they failed out,” explained Janna McLean, dean of the arts and sciences division, in an email to the newsletter. Instructors, McLean added, aren’t quite sure what to make of this, but suspect “it has to do with the fact that many students during the online-teaching part of the pandemic really were just passed along in high school, regardless of what they did.”

The university is offering training for professors who teach first-year students, and McLean was eager to hear examples of what’s worked at other institutions. Have you found strategies that help this cohort of first-year students succeed? Share your experience with me, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Is “faculty development” the right term? “I’ve realized that we need a lot less development and a lot more support (I bet that’s true for staff and students as well),” writes Karen Costa in this thought-provoking Medium post that’s sparked some good conversation on Twitter.
  • Inside Higher Ed reports on the surprising hiring of the ed-tech critic Sean Michael Morris by the controversial study-guide provider Course Hero.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.