This week:

  • I share the stories of two faculty members who argue that pandemic-era flexibility did more harm than good in their courses.
  • I point you to articles about teaching you may have missed.

Time to Go

Recently I asked readers whether it’s time to discard some pandemic-driven changes to teaching. Starting this fall, should colleges get rid of optional attendance, flexible deadlines, streamlined content, and recorded classes? Should there still be hybrid and online class options?

I received many thoughtful responses, which I’ll share over the coming weeks. In reading through your emails, one thing became immediately clear: There is no one right answer. Some of you explained how such policies fostered bad habits among your students and created more work for you. Others found such flexibility invaluable at a time when students were juggling multiple challenges.

This week, I’ll share stories from two readers who feel strongly that pandemic-era accommodations did not work well for their courses and their students. I’ll follow that up next week with stories from instructors who feel differently. I’m quoting people at length because the specifics of their situations are important to their arguments.

First up, Steven Walton, an associate professor of history at Michigan Technological University. It is a residential campus in a remote part of the state, where most students are traditional-age and “by and large are not dealing with local families, children, or lots of paid work outside school,” he wrote. More than 80 percent of undergraduates at Michigan Tech are STEM majors, so he primarily teaches students who are there to fulfill their general-education requirements.

“All the flexibility for the last two years have absolutely cratered a large number of my students’ performance, more in terms of just finishing assignments than in terms of capabilities,’' he wrote. “I believe this is because with their limited bandwidth, learned low expectations, and the host of other elements of disengagement that have been widely discussed, but also specifically here it is because they focus their energies extensively/exclusively on their major courses that they value. It has reinforced and exacerbated pre-pandemic attitudes that distribution courses are the thing you attend to last, if at all.

“I’ve never had more incompletes for courses than in the last two years, so signaling to students that their distribution courses are flexible and accommodating has only let them de-emphasize them even more. So we have to return to rigor and higher expectations, or turn universities into trade schools with no distributions (which I am not in favor of, obviously).”

I asked Walton to tell me more about the setup at his university. He said classes were fully in person but instructors were encouraged to record lectures and be highly flexible with due dates. The result: Most days he had less than 50-percent attendance, and he received a lot of last-minute emails from students who said they woke up that morning with a headache or otherwise not feeling well. A few filed documented absence requests, but not many, suggesting that these were not serious illnesses, like Covid.

He is not alone in his concerns, he added. The STEM faculty “is adamant” about returning to face-to-face labs and teaching, “and I think a generally overwhelming/universal agreement that remote instruction is not even close to, much less superior to, [face to face] for most categories of instruction.”

Walton said his plan for the fall is to return to more-strict late-work policies, allowing, say, extensions for up to two weeks or the due date of the next assignment. “I just don’t think it is doing the ones who are tuning out any favors,” he wrote.

The second story comes from a faculty member at a small private college who described her experience teaching biology lab courses.

“I am firmly in the camp of returning to pre-pandemic attendance and participation expectations in my classroom,” wrote the assistant professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “We meet once a week, and content flows rapidly from topic to topic each week. Missing one lab results in a lot of learning loss.”

Before the pandemic, she explained, students were allowed two absences, with documentable reasons, and they had to make up the lab that week or during one of several predetermined times throughout the semester. Students were also responsible to stay up to date on the work and seek extra help from a tutor, TA, or the professor. During the pandemic, faculty members were “highly encouraged” to be as flexible as possible with students, such as allowing unlimited absences and no deadlines.

“Having ‘flex attendance’ to accommodate Covid or mental-health issues has had a horrendous toll on both student outcomes and my own sanity,” she wrote. She created online versions of lab content because it became clear that students could not stay on track otherwise. “If they were absent, it was like the missed content became unimportant, and if they missed the lab they were somehow also automatically excused from learning the content (?). This greatly impacted assessments. In addition, several students took full advantage of the policy because documentation was not required, and there were no caps on absences.”

In addition to developing twice the content for every lab course she taught, make-up labs were offered using a “mutually available” method rather than a predetermined schedule. “I ended up having to develop a spreadsheet just to keep track of which students in which sections missed which labs..”

“You can see how my own well-being was cast aside to try and keep students on track. What did I get for this effort come evaluation time? A lot of students thought that I was not accommodating enough (!!!) — and that I had ‘too strict make-up policies’ that resulted in students feeling ‘stressed’ and ‘overwhelmed’ with having to make up the content they missed. I scored low on student evaluation of my ‘concern for student well-being’ and for being respectful toward students. How is it that they could not see everything I was doing to accommodate them while trying to maintain course integrity (at the expense of my own sanity)?

“I’m so over it,” she wrote. “I am going back to my pre-pandemic policies, which worked just fine. Students need to just readjust and meet me halfway.”

I asked the faculty member if she thought these problems were more prevalent in content-heavy STEM courses. Yes, she wrote, STEM courses seemed to fare worse. Her colleagues struggled with many of the same issues she did.

While part of the problem was that “students did not seem to have the capacity to self-regulate their learning if they were not specifically guided through content,” she wrote, 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.

That isn’t possible as an anatomy instructor for students in pre-medical fields. ”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,” she wrote. “Any discipline that requires a large amount of rote memorization in addition to concept application was especially challenging for students this year.”

Next week I’ll share stories of professors who had an opposite experience, and found that flexibility was important for keeping their students motivated.

If you haven’t weighed in and want to do so, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • It’s time to take a formative, not punitive, approach to evaluating teaching, Andrea Follmer Greenhoot and several counterparts write, in this Chronicle advice piece about the benefits of peer review.
  • Want to create a sense of community in your classroom? Neil Garg and Kevin D. Dougherty give tips on how to do that in this Inside Higher Ed advice piece.

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.

— Beth

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