Flexibility with Boundaries

Flexible pedagogical practices that recognize diverse learner needs and situations have the potential to foster not only student and instructor wellness, but also student thriving. To be most effective, though, absence, extension, and missed-work policies must have clear and well-defined boundaries. Otherwise, even well-intentioned flexible course frameworks can quickly become too taxing for faculty and/or too unstructured for students.

This resource provides a series of scenarios with tips and approaches as well as related model scripts that can be used on course syllabi.

General Acknowledgement of Flexible Learning

Scenario: You want to be flexible with your students, but you’re worried about them taking advantage of your compassion.

Tips & Approaches:

  • Determine what flexibility you’re comfortable allowing from the outset and develop policies that are mindful of both student needs and your own. 
  • Communicate policies and expectations clearly to your students via Class Features in Connect Carolina, in the syllabus, during the first session, and often during the term.
  • Reiterate your policies and goals consistently and frequently throughout the course.
  • Discuss statements and policies with department colleagues for consistency and support.
  • Consider your resources: how can you leverage TA or IA support? What university resources are available?
  • Use a welcoming and collegial tone; avoid assertively punitive language.
  • Consult and collaborate with unit leadership about department-wide expectations.
  • Be open to co-constructing a flexibility statement with the class at the beginning of the term.
  • Include information about and contact information for UNC’s Accessibility Resources and Services (ARS) office.

Sample Syllabus Text
We all come to this course with a variety of experiences, responsibilities, needs, and feelings. This means we have much to learn from each other, but it also means that we may all learn differently and at different paces. I practice a “whole learner” approach to instruction. This means that all learners in our classroom (myself included) are not just students/instructors, but people with outside lives that will both inform and possibly sometimes interfere with this class. As such, the course policies below offer options for seeking extensions, making up missed classes, and taking an incomplete (IN grade) in the course. All of these policies offer flexibility, but also ask for accountability. Both are integral to creating a productive learning experience for our entire classroom community.

Extensions & Missed Work

Scenario: A student requests an extension on an assignment or assessment.

Tips & Approaches:

  • Decide before the first day of class what assignments are eligible for extensions and clearly detail all applicable policies in the syllabus. For example, you might allow paper assignments to be turned in late without explanation, but not allow for quiz/text make-ups for unapproved absences. Or, you might allow extensions on any course work, but only for a pre-determined time frame.
  • Avoid open-ended extensions; you or the student should determine an alternate submission date.
  • If you’re teaching a large class with recitation sections, work with TAs to standardize extension policies.
  • For low-stakes assessments, consider a generous “drop” or “oops token” policy that allows students to show progress toward outcomes but still allows room for temporary underperformance or missing work.
  • Communicate policies and expectations clearly to your students via via Class Features in Connect Carolina, in the syllabus, during the first session, and often during the term.
  • Maximize University Resources, such as the Undergraduate Testing Center 
  • Create a system for tracking extension requests and/or late submissions (e.g. with Google Forms, Qualtrics, or MS Bookings). Such systems can also be managed by TAs or IAs.
  • Consider student privacy rights and needs when determining whether to require students to provide a reason for extension requests.
  • Consult and collaborate with unit leadership about department-wide expectations, strategies, support, and/or policies.

Sample Syllabus Text #1:
Our due dates in this class are not arbitrary. The course’s pacing is designed to help you make steady and productive progress toward the learning objectives, so all work should ideally be submitted by the specified due dates. A 10% per day penalty may be applied to any work not submitted at the specified due date unless I have been notified in advance of the due date (or as soon as possible after the due date if there are extenuating circumstances) via this form that you need an extension. Then, please use this form to inform me that work has been submitted after the due date. Work will be graded within 3 business days of form submission.

Sample Syllabus Text #2:
I assign due dates for class assignments because they afford the course structure and become natural milestones for course progress. Assignments will be accepted up to four days late, with a 20% penalty for each day late. If you know something will be late, or are otherwise struggling, please let me know you need an extension at least 24 hours before it is due. It can be as simple as “Would it be possible to submit this assignment on Thursday instead of Wednesday?” I don’t need proof that you “need” extra time, and chances are, I will give you the extension. 

Sample Syllabus Text #3:
There will be “guided readings” for many of the assigned readings in this course. Guided readings are essentially open-book quizzes on key points from the texts. The goal of these guided readings is to make sure that these key points catch your attention, perhaps for further consideration in other unit activities. Guided readings are not timed, and the lowest 5 guided reading scores will not count toward your final course grade.  Submissions that are not received because of unapproved absence, technical problems, etc., will be a part of the 5 scores that are not counted unless you have a University Approved Absence (please see full University Approved Absence policy above).  

Sample Syllabus Text #4:
Sometimes things happen that get in the way of your best intentions to complete an assignment on time, study for an exam, or simply do homework prior to class. To account for the unexpected situations in a way that is caring and flexible, I am implementing the use of “life tokens,” which are a set number of “cards” or “passes” that give you the opportunity to redo an assignment or retake a quiz with no questions asked. “Life tokens” can soften the impact of class policies in ways that avoid negatively impacting your overall grade in lieu of an unexpected event, because as we all know: life doesn’t stop for school work!

Attendance and Participation

Scenario: A student asks to attend one or more classes remotely, even though the course is taught primarily in person.

Tips & Approaches:

  • Set expectations ahead of time regarding if/when/how accessing class live-streams and/or recordings will be allowed and how accessing these alternate options will impact any attendance grading. For example, you might decide alternate options for class viewing and attendance points are only allowed in emergencies (a student is ill, there is a family emergency, etc.); or you might not allow remote or make-up attendance, but you could still record all your class sessions and post them to Panopto for students to access as a review resource.
  • Communicate policies and expectations clearly to your students via Class Features in Connect Carolina, in the syllabus, during the first session, and often during the term.
  • If participation grading is linked to attendance, clarify what participation options are available during live-streamed and/or recorded sessions.
  • Clarify what the live-stream/recording experience will/won’t be (i.e., will live-stream students be allowed to engage with the in-person students or chat with each other?)
  • Create alternate attendance assignments that encourage students to interact meaningfully with the class recording.
  • Include a link to the University Approved Absence policy and form on the syllabus in the LMS (Sakai/Canvas).
  • Consult and collaborate with unit leadership about department-wide expectations, strategies, support, and/or policies.

Sample Syllabus Text 1:
Engagement is the heart of this course, as it is how we learn the most from each other; therefore, it is imperative that all students attend class and actively contribute ideas and reflections. Class session attendance is required and will be a part of your course grade as outlined on the syllabus. For each class session, please: 

  • Arrive on time and stay for the entire session 
  • Participate actively by asking questions and/or contributing comments. In order to receive full credit for a session, please make/post at least two relevant and constructive comments during the session. Poll participation will count toward the requirements. All comments in small groups/pairs participation will not count in this requirement; however, by joining a group, you will receive credit for one comment/contribution.

Also, this course is designed to be in person, so attending in-person/synchronously will likely provide the best class experience. However, I realize that in-person/synchronous attendance is not always possible, so class sessions will be live-streamed and recorded (participation will not be available during the course). If you cannot attend a class session for any reason, you can watch the live-stream/recording and complete an alternate assignment to earn the same participation credit as in-person/synchronous attendance. To complete this assignment: 

  1. Watch the full live stream/class recording (available within 24 hours of the session)
  2. Write a 1-2 paragraph summary of the session. This summary should include at least 3 quotes from classmates from throughout the session.
  3. Write a 1-2 paragraph reflection on the session: How did the session help you better understand the course material? What did you learn from your classmates that you hadn’t considered before? What would you add to the discussion (provide at least 2 comments and indicate where you would have offered them).
  4. Submit the summary and reflection in a single document within 5 business days of the missed class session.  

Sample Syllabus Text 2:
Participation will be evaluated via various assignment submissions during class (LMS assignments, PollEverywhere polls, paper to be turned in). There will be at least one (but possibly more) submissions each class session, and each submission (even if on the same day) will be counted separately. Some assignments will be individual; others will be collaborative. If you are watching the live stream of our class session, you may complete individual participation assignments, but not collaborative assignments; assignments are only available during class, so they cannot be submitted when watching a recorded class. 

  • To receive credit for PollEverywhere polls, you must be registered and you must have proper access to UNC’s wireless. Please carefully review the instructions on registering for PollEverywhere to familiarize yourself with the process.
  • Each submission is worth 3 points. Full credit is given if we see 100% effort and > 50% accuracy; less than full credit may be given if less than 100% effort is seen. 
  • 85% of your best submissions will be counted. Submissions that are not received because of unapproved absence, technical problems, etc. will be a part of the 15% which is not counted unless you have a University Approved Absence (please see full University Approved Absence policy above).

Incomplete (IN) Grades

Scenario: A student tells you that they are struggling with keeping up during finals due to family or other personal concerns and asks what options are available for finishing up the course.

Tips & Approaches:

  • Determine a specific amount of work a student must ideally complete before requesting the incomplete and include this information on the syllabus.
  • Require students to submit a detailed work plan with specific deadlines when requesting an incomplete. 
  • Set clear expectations for post-semester interaction (meeting frequency, grading timelines, etc.) to make clear that you will not be “re-teaching” missed material.
  • Direct students to applicable university grading policies.
  • Consult and collaborate with unit leadership about department-wide expectations, strategies, support, and/or policies.

Sample Syllabus Text
Wrapping up a course on time at the end of a semester is a satisfying feeling; it’s also often necessary for graduation or other academic progress requirements. However, I realize that circumstances may make this on-time finish unrealistic. Therefore, I’m willing to give an incomplete grade (IN) for students who:

  • Have completed at least 50% of the course assignments (by number, not weight, i.e. if a paper is worth 50% of the grade, but we also have 20 quizzes in the class, completing just the paper doesn’t meet the requirement).
  • Submit an incomplete request Qualtrics form with a detailed work plan and timeline for completing all outstanding work. This work plan should accompany the incomplete request unless extenuating circumstances prevent it.
  • Provide email documentation of communication with an academic advisor regarding the student’s intention to take an IN and any potential academic eligibility impact thereof.

Thanks to syllabus text contributors:

Jeannie Loeb
Leslie Rowen
Viji Sathy
Jennifer Larson