Teaching Hub

Teaching how to do college: clarity in course policies & boundary testing

Person attempting to jump over fence.
Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash.

by Lawrence Cappello, History.

Most everyone who has taught at the college level knows that students often test boundaries. Here’s now to get ahead of it.

There’s an old joke: the mortality rate of grandparents increases exponentially around finals week. Psychology Today did a tongue-in-cheek piece on the phenomenon a few years ago, complete with data.

Don’t misunderstand. Many students will absolutely experience a legitimate personal tragedy during their college years, and instructors should absolutely adjust their timelines and/or coursework when tragedy strikes so that students can submit finished work that reflects their best efforts.

But still. The grandparents thing. Most everyone who has taught at the college level knows that students often test boundaries when it comes to policies on exams, attendance, and unfinished work — and that much of this boundary testing comes in the final days of the semester. This isn’t anything new. Many of us who are now instructors did the same when we were undergraduates. Nor is this confined to college classrooms. Working adults test their professional boundaries all the time.

Good teachers anticipate boundary testing and get ahead of it. A few popular strategies:

First — establish clear grading/coursework policies upfront in your syllabus and explain them to your students, in class, as early as possible.

Are assignments due when they’re due or do you allow extensions? If so, what qualifies for an extension? Do you allow makeup assignments? Under what conditions? Will students need to produce something in writing, or can they just send an email with a story and expect an accommodation? These are not the kinds of things you want to implement on the fly halfway through the semester, and a student in crisis deserves to know exactly what about your class is up for negotiation and what isn’t.

Second — flexibility regarding deadlines, attendance, and makeup assignments are all in-bounds, but remember students must always be held to the same workload standards as their classmates.

UA students often receive accommodations, for a variety of reasons, that provide adjustments to their learning environment and their coursework timelines. These adjustments are routine, help students thrive in the face of adversity, and make for a more equitable university experience overall. But they should never result in less overall work for a student when compared to the workloads of their classmates. There are many ways to tweak a college course to give individual students the best opportunity for success – less work is not one of them.

Third — remind students of your grading/coursework policies as assignments come due and immediately before the course withdrawal period expires.

Your students are juggling different classes with different instructors, all of whom embody different personalities and employ different policies. Things get muddled at times. A few quick emails as deadlines approach reminding them what’s expected in your course will help prevent confusion.

Finally – while the desire to be a beloved instructor is entirely understandable, the policies you implement in your classroom should be foremost a blend of your particular teaching philosophy and what your instincts tell you will create the most productive learning environment for your students. If your primary goal when drafting these policies is to be popular, you’re doing it wrong.