Course Policies: Enforce or Be Flexible?

Policies governing deadlines, missed assignments, makeup quizzes or exams, use of electronic devices, extra credit, and grade calculation are part and parcel of college courses today. Most appear in the syllabus and are discussed when the course begins. Even though a policy may clearly state that assignments cannot be turned in late or that missed quizzes cannot be made up, chances are good at least one student will request an exception. The teacher then faces a decision: enforce the policy or agree to an exception.

For most teachers, enforcing the policy is the default position. But most teachers have also had students with very legitimate reasons for requesting an exception. However, granting those requests even for legitimate reasons raises issues of fairness. And if word gets out that the teacher grants exceptions, then requests for them multiply, sometimes exponentially.

But how do students feel when teachers enforce the rules, or respond to requests for exemptions with some flexibility? Those were some of the questions of interest to a faculty group in psychology. To ascertain students’ reactions, they asked 162 of them to read a hypothetical email exchange between a student and a teacher. The student has missed an assignment deadline and is asking if the work may be submitted for credit the next day in class. In one response the teacher sticks with her policy and says no. In the other response the teacher says yes, but the student will only receive partial credit for the assignment. Students in the study were told to imagine that they were the student and to indicate how the teacher’s response would make them feel.

As might be anticipated, when the teacher said no, students reported higher levels of hostility and guilt than when the teacher responded flexibly. “However, students were also surprised by policy flexibility and perceived policy adherence as more consistent with the course protocol than flexibility.” (p. 25) It’s almost as if students expect the teacher to say no, but on the off chance she doesn’t, they go ahead and ask.

The research team designed a second study. They wondered how students would respond if the request was for something larger than a deadline extension. What if a student with a final score close to the next higher grade asked the teacher to bump up his grade? And would students respond to the policy exemption differently depending on the teacher’s gender, and whether the response was delivered with “interpersonal warmth” (conveying concern and understanding for the student’s request)?

They used a similar method in the second study—an email exchange, only in this case students saw a gender-revealing picture of the professor and the language used to convey the response was more interpersonally warm in one answer than the other. Basically student response in the second study was similar to the first, although this second group registered higher levels of guilt, probably because they were asking for something more significant than an extra day to do an assignment.

However, “contrary to expectations, the instructor’s gender did not significantly affect students’ reactions.” (p. 29) “Regardless of the instructor’s gender, students recognized the policy adherence decision as consistent with the instructor’s classroom management decisions.” (p. 29) Beyond that, also independent of gender, students responded positively to interpersonal warmth. “Although interpersonal warmth did not improve reactions to policy adherence, it did contribute to higher perceptions of interpersonal fairness and informational fairness.” (p. 29)

The results of this analysis are not surprising. Their value lies in verifying what most teachers suspect about student responses to policy exception requests, and in establishing that when the request is denied and the policy enforced, it helps to share that news with a certain degree of warmth and compassion.

Reference: Bailey, S.F., Jenkins, J.S., and Barber, L.K. (2016). Students’ reactions to course policy decisions: An empirical investigation. Teaching of Psychology, 43 (1), 22-31.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="https://www.teachingprofessor.com/free-article/its-time-to-discuss-student-evaluations-bias-with-our-students-seriously/" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...

wpChatIcon
Policies governing deadlines, missed assignments, makeup quizzes or exams, use of electronic devices, extra credit, and grade calculation are part and parcel of college courses today. Most appear in the syllabus and are discussed when the course begins. Even though a policy may clearly state that assignments cannot be turned in late or that missed quizzes cannot be made up, chances are good at least one student will request an exception. The teacher then faces a decision: enforce the policy or agree to an exception. For most teachers, enforcing the policy is the default position. But most teachers have also had students with very legitimate reasons for requesting an exception. However, granting those requests even for legitimate reasons raises issues of fairness. And if word gets out that the teacher grants exceptions, then requests for them multiply, sometimes exponentially. But how do students feel when teachers enforce the rules, or respond to requests for exemptions with some flexibility? Those were some of the questions of interest to a faculty group in psychology. To ascertain students' reactions, they asked 162 of them to read a hypothetical email exchange between a student and a teacher. The student has missed an assignment deadline and is asking if the work may be submitted for credit the next day in class. In one response the teacher sticks with her policy and says no. In the other response the teacher says yes, but the student will only receive partial credit for the assignment. Students in the study were told to imagine that they were the student and to indicate how the teacher's response would make them feel. As might be anticipated, when the teacher said no, students reported higher levels of hostility and guilt than when the teacher responded flexibly. “However, students were also surprised by policy flexibility and perceived policy adherence as more consistent with the course protocol than flexibility.” (p. 25) It's almost as if students expect the teacher to say no, but on the off chance she doesn't, they go ahead and ask. The research team designed a second study. They wondered how students would respond if the request was for something larger than a deadline extension. What if a student with a final score close to the next higher grade asked the teacher to bump up his grade? And would students respond to the policy exemption differently depending on the teacher's gender, and whether the response was delivered with “interpersonal warmth” (conveying concern and understanding for the student's request)? They used a similar method in the second study—an email exchange, only in this case students saw a gender-revealing picture of the professor and the language used to convey the response was more interpersonally warm in one answer than the other. Basically student response in the second study was similar to the first, although this second group registered higher levels of guilt, probably because they were asking for something more significant than an extra day to do an assignment. However, “contrary to expectations, the instructor's gender did not significantly affect students' reactions.” (p. 29) “Regardless of the instructor's gender, students recognized the policy adherence decision as consistent with the instructor's classroom management decisions.” (p. 29) Beyond that, also independent of gender, students responded positively to interpersonal warmth. “Although interpersonal warmth did not improve reactions to policy adherence, it did contribute to higher perceptions of interpersonal fairness and informational fairness.” (p. 29) The results of this analysis are not surprising. Their value lies in verifying what most teachers suspect about student responses to policy exception requests, and in establishing that when the request is denied and the policy enforced, it helps to share that news with a certain degree of warmth and compassion. Reference: Bailey, S.F., Jenkins, J.S., and Barber, L.K. (2016). Students' reactions to course policy decisions: An empirical investigation. Teaching of Psychology, 43 (1), 22-31.