Formalized Extensions and Pedagogies of Care

#RealCollege pedagogies of care recognize that students are busy. Life happens.

By Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda, University of Houston

As professors, we assign due dates based on what works for our curriculums and our schedules. Even when students know the due date weeks beforehand, these dates don’t always work for people juggling classes, jobs, and families, along with possible financial or medical difficulties.

I’ve been teaching for over a decade, and I’ve always said, “no late work,” immediately followed by, “but just let me know if you need more time.” I’ve also always reached out to students who haven’t submitted something to see what was going on and to request they still submit the work.

Last semester because of Covid-19, I taught my six classes fully online. Many of my students were taking their first online course ever; many had their entire semester consist of virtual classes. Students were often sick or had sick relatives. Students reported that bosses were less understanding than usual and constantly had them working different and longer shifts. I effectively went to a “turn it in when you can” policy. This approach didn’t work. I saw too many students get too far behind and have difficulty catching up. And, on my end, providing consistent comments and grades when assignments came in weeks late was difficult-to-impossible. Ultimately, this kind of flexibility set some of my fall 2020 students up for unnecessary difficulties, so I resolved to change that.

For our current spring 2021 semester, I’m adopting a different approach, and it’s proving surprisingly successful.

The first new feature of my pedagogy of care is a formalized 12-hour grace period for every course activity and every formal, graded assignment. This allows for the technical problems that constantly emerge and it tells students not to worry if they are a few minutes or several hours late because of children, work, or whatever.

Another change I am finding successful is substantial use of sign-up sheets. Students select their due date — multiple due dates are available almost every week of the semester — for projects that ask them to present and analyze important objects, current events, or primary sources, all also of their choice.

Formalized extensions are having the most impact.

Each student now begins the semester with four extension requests that can be used on any of the eight-to-twelve formally graded assignments. Formally graded assignments include online participation self-grading assignments, exams, papers, worksheets, and presentations — everything but weekly wrap-up discussion posts and other ungraded but required course activities. An extension gives students one additional week from the original due date.

In order to request and — importantly — automatically receive an extension, students complete a form in Blackboard created with the “test” tool.

The questions on this form are as follows:

1. What assignment would you like an extension on? [Followed by a checklist of the formal, major assignments]

2. What kind of progress have you made so far on this assignment?

3. Why do you need an extension on this assignment?

4. Do you have any questions or concerns about this assignment?

5. Do you understand that this extension grants one additional week to complete this assignment?

That’s it. It takes students no more than five or ten minutes to complete this set of questions, and the extension is theirs. Students receive the extension without any catches. An overview of some responses gives insight into how the process works. (My syllabi specifically specify that any and all work submitted for my classes may be used as examples later on with anonymity preserved.)

I emphasize to students that answering “nothing” to “what kind of progress have you made?” is completely acceptable. But I am also seeing that students asking for extensions generally have started the assignment in question. Some examples of self-reported progress at the time of an extension request include:

Responses to “why do you need an extension” prove insightful as to how much trauma students handle while also trying to complete college. Responses here are also shining examples of how students really care about their work and are doing their best — sometimes they just need some extra time.

This is the real life of a college student. It shows this process of formalized extension requests is working amazingly well!

The overwhelming majority of students are submitting assignments by the due date, but students no longer seem to worry about asking for/using extensions. They know that extensions are truly available and know when their new due date is. It’s not just a matter of the syllabus or an announcement saying, “let me know if you need extra time.” And with formalized requests, the anxiety of waiting for my reply to an email is eliminated. Speaking of emails, formalized requests are making for a slightly lighter inbox, too!

I do worry that “four” is certainly an arbitrary number of available extensions, so I’ve already told some concerned students to “please don’t worry if you run out of extensions.” At the same time, I am going to offer students with some unused extensions at the end of the semester one extra credit point — whether they have one or all four left. This is because my general practice has been to grade assignments as soon as they are submitted and to have numerous low-stakes assignments, so I want to also encourage students to submit on time so that we can all stay on top of the material.

This process of formalized requests finally serves as a reminder of the human behind each student and helps highlight the processes students go through to complete coursework.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in History and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, Time, and The Washington Post, among many others.

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