Can flexibility in assignment deadlines promote equity?

Deadlines for college coursework teach students time-management skills and give professors a framework for delivering timely feedback, educators say. However, many professors set aside punitive late-work policies during the COVID-19 pandemic as students adjusted to remote learning and worked through other pandemic-related challenges. 

Although most U.S. colleges and universities have resumed in-person instruction, many returning students are confronting ongoing mental health and financial concerns, as well as feelings of academic underpreparedness, which have led some to dissociate from their coursework altogether. As a result, professors are re-examining their expectations, debating how much flexibility students need, and which students need it the most, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

More equitable coursework policies?

To provide support for their students, some professors have removed penalties for late work after seeing how negatively the pandemic affected students. Morgan Halstead, an associate professor of English and literature at Malcolm X College, who mostly teaches students from vulnerable populations, says she refused to deduct points for late work because “It just seemed like one less trauma to give them.”

Other professors maintain, however, that they need firm due dates so they have the time to evaluate student work and engage with large classes. “You can’t give students full flexibility and then still be able to feel like you have some gas in the tank for yourself,” says Viji Sathy, an associate dean for evaluation and assessment in the office of undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although their approaches may differ, professors are working to create more equitable policies that help, rather than punish, students struggling to balance their academic obligations with their personal challenges, the Chronicle reports. Educators point out that lenient policies are only one way of supporting students, and sometimes those who need help the most do not ask for it, including first-generation students.

Sarah Craig, a senior at Georgetown University, tells the Chronicle that she didn’t ask for an extension until her junior year of college. “As a first-gen student,” Craig says, “I didn’t feel like I had enough credibility or understanding of how to navigate higher education to feel OK doing that.”

“Far too often, it’s been the student who is empowered or confident or socialized enough to know they can ask for an extension who gets it,” says Regan A.R. Gurung, associate vice provost and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University.

Although more research is needed to determine which approaches are equitable and effective for both students and faculty, experts advise that professors consider which deadlines are pedagogically useful, clearly communicate to students which due dates are more flexible, and stay engaged with students to determine who needs more individualized support.

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