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Combining course structure and flexibility will help your students learn what you expect them to. That means giving students clear expectations, deadlines, and steps they need to take on a regular basis to succeed. And it means providing students with options for how to continue to learn and to demonstrate their learning when life intervenes and they cannot meet those expectations or timetables.

Integrating structure and flexibility and communicating both the course structure and a plan for how you will adapt to help students continue to learn when things come up and they cannot follow that structure can provide guidance and reassurance to students.

Strategies for incorporating structure and flexibility into your course.

Explaining the purpose and value of class time for students’ learning can help students know why attending these sessions matters and can help you in deciding how to adapt when students must miss class.

Possible strategies:

  • Help students understand what is expected of them during class time. You might do this by:
    • Introducing the goals or most important takeaways at the start and end of class;
    • Letting students know how and when you want them to participate or ask questions;
    • Setting clear guidelines and expectations for group work and active learning experiences;
    • Beginning class in the same way each time to help students transition to a learning mindset.
  • Provide specific guidance around how to prepare for class. This might involve sharing reading questions or otherwise letting students know what they should do to make sure they understand pre-class materials.
  • Detail course expectations and what students should do when they need exceptions in the syllabus.
  • If you count attendance and class participation toward student grades, build in the assumption that students will have to miss some classes. Then decide on a set number of missed classes that students can take without consequence.
  • Consider how you will enable students to make up learning and engagement they may miss: ask students to engage with course materials by writing a response or summary or taking a short quiz.
  • Give students access to lecture materials, such as class recordings, notes or PowerPoints. Create study groups so students know peers they can turn to for class notes. This can also help students who are overwhelmed during class time.
  • Let students know if and how you want them to communicate with you if they cannot participate in class.
  • If you have students who are missing classes, consider CETLI’s Strategies to Help Students Stay on Track When They Must Miss Class.

Students need deadlines to help them organize their time and stay on top of their work through the semester. But students’ lives also can include unexpected challenges and they need options for what they can do if meeting those expectations is not possible.

Plan those options in advance and communicate them to your students. Making your policies for extensions and missed work non-judgmental and clear to students upfront will encourage all students to communicate with you before they fall behind and save you from negotiating each case individually.

Possible strategies:

  • Provide a clear schedule of your assignments and due dates that establish a predictable rhythm when possible.
  • Explain your policies for extensions and missed work clearly in your syllabus and on Canvas.
  • Specify your expectations for assignments clearly in advance. For challenging assignments, explain steps students should take to approach the work.
  • Scaffold assignments so students complete and get feedback on steps of a large project throughout the semester.
  • Provide multiple, low-stakes assessments. This can keep students on top of the course through the semester. To reduce student stress around multiple assessments, consider grading for completeness, while still giving students feedback so they can improve.
  • Allow students to drop or skip one or more missed exam, test, or low-stakes assignment. Students’ circumstances may sometimes inhibit their studying or mean they have to miss class. This can also enable students catch up more easily when they fall behind.
  • Give students opportunities to redo assignments or take new versions of a test.
  • Allow students a set number of late days for assignments that they can use at their choosing without penalty.
  • Let students know when and how to communicate with you if they will fall behind or miss work.

Inevitably, some students will face challenges and struggle to focus on their classwork. No matter how well you communicate and set expectations and build in flexibility, some students may need more support. Reach out for help or find ways to get students connected to help as soon as you see students falling behind.

  • Send a Course Action Notice: These email notifications go to the student and the student’s school advising office and can help advisers know they need to reach out.
  • Reach out directly to a student’s adviser: You can find students’ advisers in your class list.
  • Contact student resources—like Student Counseling or the Weingarten Center—to consult about how best to connect a student with additional support.
  • More information is available at CETLI’s page on Resources to Support Your Students.