When to Show Students Grace: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

5 Questions on Course Flexibility
Online LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Dr. Ashley Hall is an experienced business educator with a passion for leadership development


The ramifications of COVID-19 are far-reaching. Over the past eighteen months, many instructors have been far more flexible and forgiving with all the changes and uncertainties brought about by COVID. As we head into a new academic year, should this trend continue? Where is the healthy balance of holding students accountable without sacrificing empathy or understanding for difficult situations? Let’s look at five questions to ask yourself when considering whether to hold your ground or show grace.


1.    Do you clearly outline and define your policies in the syllabus and learning management system?

To help students know what to expect, you should clearly explain your course policies and procedures in your syllabus and learning management system. Do not expect students to just know something. Tell them. What is your policy on late work? What should a student do if he or she has an extenuating circumstance and misses an assignment or exam? Your policies should be laid out in the syllabus so your students know what is expected of them. If you plan to hold your ground on your course policies, they must be clear to students.


2.    Can you prioritize course flexibility in your syllabus?

Given all the uncertainties in everyday life, especially during COVID, consider building flexibility into the course design. Instead of having due dates multiple times per week, can you have due dates once per week so that students have some built-in flexibility on when they complete their assignment? Can you scaffold assignments throughout the semester so that students are working on a larger project all throughout the term? That will help prevent students from waiting until the last minute and asking for an extension on a project that is worth a large portion of their final grade. High-stakes assignments tend to produce more requests for leniency.


3.    Is there a way you can offer course flexibility to all students without compromising academic integrity?

Consider building in opportunities for students to drop certain grades. For example, there are 15 quizzes throughout the semester. You can offer students to only count the top 12 in their final grade. This will lessen the need to re-open online quizzes or have to decide whether to allow an exception for a student who missed a quiz. This course flexibility is available to everyone and will reduce the frequency of students asking for a re-take or an extension.

Another option is to consider giving students a Late Pass. They can use the pass on one assignment throughout the semester. Once it’s used, it’s gone. This provides students ownership over when they redeem their Late Pass and grants them an extension of a pre-determined amount of time (e.g., 48 hours) with no questions asked. The student does not have to provide an excuse. Instead, they just let their instructor know that they want to use the Late Pass on that assignment. By offering the Late Pass to all students, there is a reduction in requests made to the instructor and the same grace is shown to everyone consistently.


4.    Is this the first time you are receiving a request for course flexibility from this student?

If you opt to handle all requests on a case-by-case basis, consider whether it is the first time you are hearing from a student asking for flexibility. Did the student make you aware of the issue ahead of time (if reasonable for the situation)? Is the student facing an ongoing issue that will impact their performance in the class over a longer period of time? Not all situations are equal, and some will call for more grace than others.

5.    Can the student document their extenuating circumstance?

Can the situation causing the student to ask for an extension be documented or is it just hearsay? Be sure to follow your school’s rules on what you can and cannot ask about. It is reasonable to ask for documentation for certain types of extenuating circumstances, though. Your school likely has a policy on what it constitutes as an excused absence and the documentation it requires.


Ultimately, you have to use your professional judgment when deciding whether to stand your ground or have leniency with a student. Thinking through these five questions will help you ensure your policies are well-documented, offer flexibility for all students equally, and consider student-specific requests based on their frequency and ability to be documented.


If you want to learn more about how you can be more helpful for your students, read a firsthand perspective on what it’s like to be an online learner in today’s classroom.