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Creating Flexible and Workable Policies for the Classroom

Crafting policies for the classroom can be tricky. Often differing by discipline, student population, course setup, instructor, and a host of other factors, they can be difficult to pin down. And while every instructor ultimately has to do what’s right for them and their students there are a couple of rules of thumb that can help a class proceed effectively:  

1. Create well-defined policies 

 “You can always be tough and get nicer, but you can’t start off nice and try to get tough.”  

In general, you can’t go in with nothing and build it as you go; students need boundaries. Try to think of all the possible interpretations and draw these boundaries from day one. That being said, it is possible that something you were trying to be firm about turns out to be a disaster. In those, hopefully, limited cases, you can always back off on a policy. It’s always easier to eliminate or go softer on a policy than to try to implement something brand new mid-semester. 

2. Be willing to modify/ clarify a policy in future semesters 

A key rule to follow: get rid of what doesn’t work and fine-tune what does. Sometimes a great idea turns out to be a dud. A policy you like in the first semester you are teaching may cease to be functional in your 15th year of teaching. You haven’t signed a legal document to uphold a policy for infinity once you’ve put it in play. Policies should be a living part of your syllabus, that can grow and mature as the instructor and student population does as well.  

3. Policy ideas for exams 

In fine-tuning the policies that do work it’s important to consider previous experiences:  

  • What did our favorite professors do? 
  • What helped the most when I was struggling in a class? 
  • What have my colleagues done that’s worked well? 

A key point of contention in policy-making that comes up for nearly every instructor and student is grading. Rather than over-structure your grading policy or face the draining prospect of debating every point and score with students, consider some options that may have proven popular and useful:   

  • A comprehensive final that also replaces the lowest test score: This was my favorite policy in college, and what I do as a professor. Students may stumble early on in a class, but if they can show at the end of the term that they’ve mastered the material a solid policy to have in place is to have an exam count twice. This removes the onus from the instructor’s plate of having to deal with bad test excuses and also gives students an extra chance to improve their grades by working hard throughout the full length of the course.
  • An optional comprehensive final exam: Several of my colleagues take this approach. This can alleviate some of the grading burdens at the end of the semester, as not all students will take this opportunity. It can also similarly provide students with an extra chance to improve their grades by demonstrating comprehensive mastery of the class material.
  • A set number of exams where the lowest test score drops: Another common option that some instructors use where instead of having a comprehensive or optional final exam, instructors simply have a set number of assessments and drop the lowest score for each student.
  • A scalable test weight, where the lowest test score is given the lowest weight and the highest test score is weighed more: A slightly more complicated option, which might be better suited for a small classroom setting. The idea here is to have the instructor set your exam scores for a set percentage of the class; for example, 60%. Then, you scale each test based on performance. So, if there are 3 exams and the student scores fairly evenly between all 3 exams they would each count for 20/20/20. However, if a student missed an exam the weight would shift onto the last 2 tests and each would be 30/30. If a student did poorly on the first exam you might do 10/25/25.

4. Policy ideas for assignments 

Be careful to make distinctions between high and low-stakes activities. Assignments, for example, are usually a little more fluid and should allow for more flexibility in terms of classroom policy. While the ultimate decision depends on the individual instructor and potentially the assignments in question, it’s important to consider some different policy rules for lower stake assignments: 

  • No late work ever: If you are going to have something that is “no late work ever” make sure it has a small point value. For example, I have short “pre-lab” quizzes and they are absolutely due before lab because the whole point is to get students ready for the said lab. Since it negates the purpose of the assignment to allow for late work I don’t accept late submissions for these assignments. However, each quiz is only worth approximately 1% of the students’ grade; therefore, missing one isn’t a make-or-break issue.
  • Deduction for late work: If you are going to make a set deduction for late work put a limit on how long the students have to submit it. Make sure to phrase your policy in terms of how many points they can still earn on any late submissions. For instance, on my written assignments students have a 2-week late submission window in which they can still earn 60% of original credit. This policy helps encourage students to turn in something for partial credit but also limits the window so that the assignment still maintains its original intent in being relevant to the classroom discussion.
  • Availability until an exam: The idea with this policy is that students have until the first exam to work problem sets (very popular within the Mathematics department). It does require maturity and responsibility on the students’ end to keep up and not wait until the night before to do everything and figure out they don’t understand anything.  

5. Policy ideas for missed items 

Regardless of how flexible your policies are, some students will simply not turn in some work. This may be because they forget, or they don’t see the value in the assessment, or they simply run out of time in a busy schedule. Either way, they will typically ask for something else-- extra credit.  

Extra credit is one of those policies that tend to polarize instructors. Some believe in providing additional opportunities to bump up a students’ score and others simply don’t believe in offering it. 

No matter which side of the fence you fall on, make sure to clearly outline your policy on extra credit and detail what it means for your class. For example, some instructors like myself, build in extra credit (or “credit recovery” as I like to call it) opportunities into the syllabus. This might include alternative assignments, optional projects, or specialized activities the students can elect to complete for additional small point gains. Setting extra credit/credit recovery material up like this early in the term allows everyone the same additional opportunities to collect some extra points if there are some hiccups throughout the term.  

About the Author

Amy G. Hurst earned her doctorate degree from Oklahoma State University in Biomedical Sciences in 2005. Following a post-doctoral position in protein biochemistry, she began her career as a Professor in Biological Sciences for Rose State College in 2006. Amy has taught both Majors and Non-Majors Biology, Microbiology, Zoology, and Biotechnology courses. In addition to teaching, she is also the Biological Science coordinator and has served as Faculty Senate president. Amy’s greatest pride and joy are her 2 sons, Tanner who is a freshman in college, and Logan who is in middle school. Both boys keep her very busy supporting them in their academic and athletic pursuits and continue to help her grow as an academic. In her free time, Amy is trying to run a half marathon in all 50 states before she turns 50.

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