By Rebecca Baird
In March of 2020 I, like so many other instructors, packed up my classroom and left for Spring Break, not knowing that I wouldn’t see this group of students in person ever again. My office, with its remaining graded midterms and papers for students to pick up, would sit empty for the rest of the semester. As I walked the last students out of my classroom that March day they expressed fear and anxiety over the growing pandemic, but also hope that we would return to normal in a few weeks’ time. Little did any of us know at that time that those weeks would stretch into months, semesters, even years.
While the pandemic certainly upended life, it also gave me time to reflect on my teaching philosophy and the strategies I used in my classrooms, both in-person and online. For me, the pandemic and the chaos it wrought created a space for me to re-evaluate some long-held teaching styles, policies, and ingrained beliefs about best classroom practices. Ultimately this self-reflection helped shift my teaching style and enabled me to enact changes in my classes that would benefit both my students and myself.
One of the big changes I implemented in my online classes centered on due dates. For a long time, I believed that my goal as an instructor was not only to impart knowledge but also to make students understand the necessity of due dates and to learn time management skills. I had a zero tolerance late policy, meaning late work was not accepted in my class (outside of certain documented circumstances) and students who missed an assignment would receive a zero. But as the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, this policy seemed increasingly untenable and frankly rather cruel, given the number of students getting ill, caring for ill family members, or dealing with the myriad of obstacles associated with moving class online or just dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in general. That first semester, as students (and myself as well) grappled with the constantly changing circumstances, I received a steady flow of emails asking for extensions; by early April I had revised my late policies entirely to allow students to turn in late assignments without having to ask first. In Spring 2020 it seemed like a small gesture to help us all get across the semester finish line without punishing students for living through such tumultuous events.
The pandemic also required me to be more connected with my students, working closer with them to better understand their needs and the variety of issues they were facing in their lives. Although we were now physically separated by the pandemic, in some ways we were closer than ever before, drawn together by our shared anxieties, fears, and struggles. When a student told me it was difficult to find space to work where they wouldn’t be interrupted by their younger siblings, I thought of my own difficulty finding space and quiet in my home. As students expressed enormous fears about the state of the world, I heard my own fears echoed back at me.
I used the Summer of 2020 to reflect on my course policies and consider the ways they impacted students. One of the questions I really began to ask myself was whether I wanted my students to focus on due dates or the course content. Clearly there were students who were unable to achieve those due dates and now received a zero and could no longer turn in the work. Was it that important to me to punish them harshly for missing an assignment? Or was it more important for them to learn about Reconstruction, or World War II, or the 1960s, albeit slightly past the due date? What were students learning from my zero tolerance late policy, and how was it affecting their performance in class long term? Could a student still keep or raise a grade after missing a deadline? Did they lose motivation to continue working hard in the course after missing an assignment? I began to develop a new framework for my course policies, one that will last even beyond the pandemic and will help address both student equity and completion in my courses.
In the end, it came back to my desired course goals and outcomes, all of which related to History content – the due dates were really secondary to content. My new policy takes off a slight deduction for late work, which increases day by day, but also has a limit, all of which is managed automatically by my Canvas grade book. In the semesters that followed I found that students responded really well to this small change. Students who missed an assignment would still turn it in late 99% of the time. Usually students were only a day or two late, so it also did not make grading any more difficult for me – in other words, I was not getting a hundred late assignments in the last week of the semester. And even better, once I made the new late policy very clear, I no longer had to deal with the weekly emails from students begging for mercy, as some measure of mercy was now built into the course policies.
Best of all, students still were getting the course content and were doing better in class overall. I have found fewer students giving up mid-semester, and more students making it to the end, often in spite of tremendous personal obstacles. Students have much more of a safety net now, and one small incident in their personal lives or in another class won’t blow up their whole grade in my class.
For me, the pandemic has really thrown into sharper focus the variety of challenges our students face on a daily basis and how those challenges impact their work in my classrooms, both virtual and face-to-face. Knowing these challenges has helped me redevelop my courses to better engage with students and their needs, to grow with the changing times, and to help ensure student success without sacrificing rigor or content.
Rebecca Baird is Professor of History at Porterville College. Before joining Porterville College in 2013 she worked as an adjunct at community colleges and universities in Connecticut, New York, and Arizona. Rebecca holds a B.A. in European History from UCLA, an M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Arizona State University. Her doctoral dissertation centered on health care and the 1960s counterculture in Los Angeles. Before becoming an historian, she worked at veterinary hospitals in Connecticut and Los Angeles, and still has a house full of animals. In her free time, she enjoys reading about history, visiting historic sites, and learning historical sewing techniques.