A Little Structure Can Go a Long Way

By Liesl Wuest

By now you are probably up to your eyeballs in advice about teaching online, sometimes even receiving contradictory advice. You have likely been told at some point to relax hard deadlines and give students more leniency this year. That can be good advice to an extent – maybe a submission window of 24 or 48 hours -- but requiring no deadlines may do more harm than good, and here are a few reasons why.

Practice Time

Courses that require progression through the material rely on students being introduced to, practicing, and mastering content or skills, in that order. If you remove the requirements around this progress or make them too soft, students won’t have the time they need to learn or practice.

What can be done?

Rather than removing all deadlines, give students a week to complete a task—a quiz, a short response, a discussion, a problem set. Depending on your material and how critical each piece is, you could even allow students to complete 10 out of 12 exercises, so if they have a rough week, that can be a pass. You could offer two different ways for them to participate – for example, either in an online discussion board with clear parameters or by submitting a reflection. Or by completing a problem set or a quiz.

Online Courses Weren’t a Choice.

Typically, when people opt into an online course or program, they are intrinsically self-motivated to complete work on their own and on time. Online courses have fewer visual cues and interpersonal contact for faculty to make sure all students are on track, and therefore, adding additional structure into their course can support students who might have more difficulty completing things on time than they would in a face-to-face class, where you might informally check in with everyone on a regular basis.

Multiply This by a High Course Load…

Students not choosing the online format multiplied by four or five online courses at once might set them up for a pretty rough ride at the end of the semester if they have had no accountability -- or I prefer the term “support”-- during the semester. Whether it’s a major project or a major exam, if they haven’t been putting in the time earlier in the year, it’s going to be more difficult at the end.

To this some may say, they are college students; that’s their responsibility. My first response to that is, if you are removing deadlines to help students, perhaps consider adding some deadlines, to help students. If the goals are learning and student success, interaction with the material over a period of time will produce the best results. Some students might do that on their own, but many won’t.

What can be done?

Rather than think of deadlines as a way to punish students who fall behind, use them as a positive way to keep them on track. Most people can’t run a marathon without putting in shorter runs ahead of time, and those runs help keep them on track for their final goal. Think of these shorter assignments as their running log: what do they really need to do to succeed? Where is there a little flexibility for choice or taking a day off?

Final Thoughts

A lot of advice around online learning comes down to one of my favorite phrases, “it depends.” It depends on your students, it depends on your course size, it depends on your course goals, and so on. But one thing that never hurts students is adding in a little extra structure to keep them on track and remove the unknowns. So, as you adjust your course to support students through this unprecedented experience in their academic career, keep in mind that intermittent check-ins, aka deadlines, could do a lot more good than you initially thought.

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