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Many students think more flexibility on classroom deadlines, attendance and participation would boost their academic success, a recent Student Voice survey found. About a quarter of students also see strict attendance or participation requirements and unrealistic deadlines as actively impeding their success. But how do students define flexibility? In a new Student Voice pulse survey out today from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, nearly three in four students say that deadlines should be flexible when there are extenuating circumstances. Nearly half of students say that deadlines should be more flexible in general.
At the same time, half of students say they rely on deadlines to stay motivated and on track, and few think that deadlines should be eliminated altogether.
The survey of 1,250 four- and two-year college students at 55 institutions, fielded in March, also found that one in four students thinks class participation shouldn’t count toward a final grade. And nearly a third of students think that class attendance shouldn’t be tracked or count in grading.
Here are five takeaways about deadlines and flexibility:
- Some 72 percent of students over all agree that deadlines should be flexible for extenuating circumstances, such as family emergencies and health issues. Relatively more women than men say this (75 percent versus 67 percent, respectively). First-generation students (n=515) are less likely than their continuing-generation peers to want this kind of flexibility, however (65 percent versus 76 percent).
- More than half of students (56 percent) agree that it’s helpful when professors break down big tasks into smaller deadlines throughout the term—an approach recommended by experts on executive function in college students—with a slightly higher share of women again saying so than men.
- Half of students say they typically rely on deadlines to motivate and keep them on track. By field, arts and humanities students are likeliest to say they rely on deadlines (57 percent). Four-year college students (n=1,000) are also much likelier than two-year college students (n=250) to say so, at 59 percent versus 42 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, just 10 percent of students from the full sample say they do not need deadlines to motivate them or stay on track, with 17 percent of LGBTQIA+ students (n=356) saying this.
- Forty-five percent of students say that deadlines should be flexible in general—not just in emergencies. Students who are receiving financial aid (n=814) are likelier to say this than students without financial aid, at 48 percent versus 34 percent. This may or may not be linked to financial aid being tied in many cases to maintaining a certain grade point average, with flexible deadlines being a perceived buffer of sorts against lower grades. Additionally, students in the arts and humanities (57 percent) seem to want more general flexibility than students in the sciences (41 percent) or the social sciences (48 percent).
- While just 9 percent of students say that deadlines should remain firm, doing away with deadlines is unpopular, too: just 12 percent of students say deadlines should be eliminated altogether.
Stance on Class Attendance
How do students define flexibility regarding class attendance? Three takeaways:
- Thirty-one percent of survey respondents say that class attendance shouldn’t be tracked or considered in grading, with students graduating this year much likelier to say so than freshmen (35 percent versus 25 percent, respectively). Arts and humanities students are likelier than students in the sciences to say that attendance shouldn’t matter, as are LGBTQIA+ students relative to straight students, and men to women.
- Another 40 percent of respondents—the largest share—say that students should be allowed to miss three to four classes per term.
- About one in 10 students says they should be able to miss one to two classes per term. The same for five or more classes.
Asked how participation in courses involving class discussions should factor into final grades, one in four students says that participation shouldn’t count at all for in-person courses. Similar to the responses on attendance, students graduating this year are more likely to say participation shouldn’t matter than are freshmen (31 percent versus 18 percent).
A third of students—the largest share—say that participation for in-person classes with discussions should be 5 to 10 percent of the final grade.
Another quarter of students say participation should count for 15 to 20 percent, with students at private institutions more likely to say this than those at publics (32 percent versus 24 percent).
Just 8 percent of students say class participation should count for 25 to 30 percent. Bigger class credit options were even less popular.
Students’ responses regarding participation in online courses were nearly identical to those for in-person classes.
Procrastination: Frode Svartdal, a psychologist at the Arctic University of Norway, has researched how academic environments foster procrastination and recommends against long deadlines for college students. “A student high in self-regulation (and low in procrastination) would probably accept flexibility because they know they can handle deadlines and attendance, but they would also accept a stricter regime because such a regime aligns with their own work habits,” he tells Inside Higher Ed.“However, students low in self-control would most probably prefer flexibility because of the opportunity to procrastinate, and chances are high that they would dislike a stricter regime.”
While the Student Voice pulse survey didn’t ask about procrastination explicitly, students who rely on deadlines to stay motivated are much likelier than students who don’t to: 1) prefer that professors break down big tasks into smaller deadlines throughout the term, 2) disagree that deadlines should be eliminated and 3) prefer flexible deadlines for emergencies over generally flexible deadlines.
Returning to Svartdal’s hypothesis, if students who rely on deadlines for motivation are more likely to be procrastinators, then these students seem interested in interim deadlines that help them work toward long-term goals, with flexibility reserved more for emergencies than general use. And if students who don’t rely on deadlines are less likely be procrastinators, they appear less interested in a strict deadline regime.
Structure vs. flexibility: Melissa Hills, an associate professor of biological sciences at MacEwan University in Canada who has written about how some flexibility around deadlines helps students manage their workloads, says both students and faculty members need structure. “However, sometimes life happens, workloads become unmanageable and a little flexibility can benefit student learning experiences.”
Building flexibility into course structure via transparent, accessible policies empowers students “to be self-directed learners and respects the inequitable barriers many face.” Hills adds that students should not have to make special requests or disclose personal information to use such policies. And faculty members developing these policies also must acknowledge “that we have structure imposed on us by term schedules, faculty workloads, institutional policies and more.”
Examples of flexible deadline policies include a no-questions-asked 48-hour extension and a one-time “free pass,” Hills says, noting that her own research demonstrates students use such policies sparingly. (Another strategy for helping students manage deadlines is the comprehensive syllabus, used by academic coaches at Wake Forest University.)
Similarly, Hills says that attendance policies should strike a balance between structure and flexibility, “where we ensure that students are achieving learning outcomes but respect that sometimes life happens.” Students must attend “most labs” if they’re to acquire the skills they need to be successful in subsequent courses, “and our policies have to reflect that.” Again, there is “no perfect solution, but some flexibility can and should be accommodated, and that flexibility should be accessible to all students.”
Meaningful participation: Regarding input during class, Hills cautions that any participation grade policies should reflect how different students engage in learning in different ways, with an emphasis on student “choice and flexibility in how they choose to participate.”
William S. Altman, a professor of psychology at Broome Community College of the State University of New York, says that whether class participation should be graded “depends on your objectives” as an instructor.
“Why would you want participation? What are you going to get from it? If you want groups to work together, then participation becomes important. If it’s just a way of taking attendance, then find another way to take attendance.”
Echoing Hills’s emphasis on transparency, Altman advises, “Whatever you choose, make sure your students understand why it’s there. Because if they understand why it’s there, they will participate if that’s what you want.”
And like Hills, Altman doesn’t necessarily require students to participate in group discussions. Instead, he asks students to complete quick written assignments at the beginning and end of class. The former ask students to respond to a quote or idea related to course content, and the latter serve as a memory-consolidation exercise as to what students learned or still have questions about from the class period.
These assignments only count for 5 percent or less of students’ grades, Altman says, but they’re significant nonetheless: “We have jumping-off points for the next class, as well. But the whole idea is, the more engaged the mind is, the better able it is to learn.”
Read more from the Student Voice survey on academic life, including how students view professor teaching style as a barrier to their success.