How do you find a balance between flexibility and structure?
Flexibility is a critical part of alternative grading: By being flexible in how and when students can show what they’ve learned, we respect the way that humans actually learn. But at the same time, unlimited flexibility can put a serious strain on both instructors and students.
We’ve written extensively about various forms of flexibility, both on this blog and in our book (which is now available! Woohoo!). Today, I’m going to summarize key ways to add flexibility in classes that use alternative grading, with links to longer discussions of each. I’ll also discuss the overarching idea of flexibility: Why is it important? When and why does it need limits? And finally, how can you keep your workload manageable while remaining flexible?
Flexibility is important, but so is structure
Learning is a fundamentally messy process. Flexibility is essential as we attempt to respond to students’ somewhat unpredictable learning journeys through feedback loops. Flexibility matters in other contexts too: Students – who are human beings! – have lives, families, and jobs that demand their attention. All of those affect students’ work for our classes. More subtly, an alternatively graded class in which deadlines and other policies have no flexibility sends a mixed message: Does the instructor want students to take the time and effort to learn, or do they want students to perform exactly on the instructor’s timeline and terms?
I’ve seen more and more instructors jump into alternative grading and intentionally throw all deadlines and limits out the window. This is always well-intentioned: Deadlines are often arbitrary, as are (for example) limits on the number or frequency of reassessments. If the goal is to see what a student knows, why artificially limit their ability to do so?
But there’s a catch: For many of the same reasons that flexibility is important, so is structure. As a result, instructors shouldn’t offer unlimited flexibility.
Fundamentally, humans also depend on structure to help prioritize and focus their attention. Deadlines and other limits, at their best, provide this kind of structure. They can provide a roadmap, curated by an expert, that helps students know where to focus their attention and effort. This roadmap can help students make the most of the limited time in a semester by guiding them in determining what is most important to work on, and helping them stick to a plan (this is sometimes called a “commitment device”1). Without that sort of structure, humans can get lost in a maze of competing interests. This is especially true for students who are by definition not experts when studying new topics, and who are often just learning how to prioritize and organize their own lives.
So you don’t have to go deadlineless, limitless, and gradeless, in order to be a “good” alternative grader. In fact, throwing out structure in that way can hurt students more than help. The pendulum can also swing too far the other way: Arbitrary deadlines or limits, imposed harshly without thought for the people involved, replace structure with rigidity. At both extremes, the benefit is lost.
So it’s essential to provide flexibility, but also critical to provide structure. How can you find the right balance? And how do you do all of that, while respecting your own schedule, life, and time?
In the following sections, I’ll briefly summarize some common ways to add flexibility with structure, discuss their advantages and disadvantages, and also describe how to keep them from getting out of hand.
Flexibility with tokens
One of the most common ways to add flexibility with limits is to use tokens. These are basically an imaginary currency that students can use to “buy” flexibility in specified ways. Students begin the semester with a certain number of tokens, and instructors often provide ways to earn more.
Most commonly, spending a token allows students to extend a deadline (by 24 hours, until the next week, whatever you decide) without penalty. But they can be used for many other things too: Allowing a reassessment (or perhaps an additional reassessment beyond the normal limits); permitting a student to submit a missing assignment; forgiving a missed preparation assignment; anything you can think of.
By having a clear policy about how tokens can be used, instructors provide a structured form of flexibility. Students are free to use tokens whenever they want, for any of the allowed purposes, but they are limited in how many times they can take advantage of this flexibility. For much more about tokens, see Robert’s post on “The Care and Feeding of Tokens.”
Tokens are a form of artificial scarcity: Because the number of tokens is limited, they artificially limit a student’s ability to take advantage of the benefits. This is both an advantage and a drawback. This scarcity can provide a level of predictability for instructors, and encourage students to carefully plan for their use. But it can also lead to students being unwilling to spend tokens for fear that they’ll have a greater need in the future.
You might not like the artificial scarcity of tokens. Or, perhaps their transactional nature rubs you the wrong way, and doesn’t fit with your teaching style. All of that is fine – it’s critical to pick forms of flexibility that work for you. Keep reading for other ways to add flexibility.
Flexibility with deadlines
Deadline flexibility seems to be one of the key places where new alternative graders can go off the rails. I’ve heard multiple faculty describe, with great philosophical flair, how they plan to go fully deadlineless. Their intentions are excellent: They want to let students show them what they know, whenever they know it, while removing stress. The outcome is often the opposite, as the lack of structure and guideposts leads to a corresponding lack of focus, and even chaos. It’s not great for the instructors either, who are often deluged by grading at the end of a semester.
So my advice is to keep deadlines, but reconsider your approach to them. The best deadlines are those that help guide and organize student thinking, while providing flexibility for the inevitable complications of life.
Tokens, described above, can add flexibility to deadlines. I’ve often used a sort of single-purpose token, called a “grace day”, whose only function is to extend a deadline by a day with no penalty. Much like tokens, grace days are limited in number, which can encourage wise use of their power – or it can lead to students “stockpiling” grace days rather than using them when they’re needed.
More recently, I’ve added unlimited flexibility to my deadlines. I still set deadlines to provide structure and set expectations, but I allow students to propose a new deadline for any assignment – all they have to do is fill out a short form to tell me about it. My experience, typically in upper-level classes, has been uniformly positive. Students have used their power to grant themselves extensions responsibly. I always reserve the right to talk with a student about their deadline changes and propose alternatives — another form of structure — and I actively do so when I notice a student making poor choices. But other instructors have reported students misusing that power, often in introductory classes. Think carefully about whether this might work for you before jumping in feet first. I describe my approach in much more detail in my post about “Artificial Scarcity.”
Finally, there are any number of “in between” solutions. For example, you could make it clear to students that your deadlines are “soft” but that any late work will have correspondingly late feedback. In a class where feedback helps meaningfully with reassessments, this can provide an appropriate incentive for students to respect deadlines most of the time. Likewise, you could allow late submissions up until you actually start grading, although I’m not a fan of the gambling that this encourages.
Whatever policy you choose, be clear and up-front about it. Don’t make students guess what actual level of flexibility your deadlines have.
Flexibility with reassessments
Reassessments are another place where even experienced alternative graders can fall into a trap. Reassessments are at the heart of alternative grading, and they are fundamentally about flexibility: They give students a chance to act on feedback and show what they know, when they know it. But that very flexibility can bury you under an avalanche of grading, especially if students are able to reassess frequently and without limits. Worse, if students know that they have unlimited opportunities for reassessment, they might not take those reassessments seriously, essentially throwing things at the wall to see what sticks and making a ton of work for you.
Luckily, there are many ways to provide limits, structure, and flexibility with reassessments. Here are just a few:
Offer reassessments on a regular schedule, such as adding a few new attempts for previous standards on weekly quizzes or periodic exams. This helps you plan for the workload, while students can be confident that they’ll have multiple chances to show what they know. Be sure to announce the standards in advance to provide structure that helps students plan.
Limit the frequency of reassessments. For example, perhaps students can revise and resubmit only one essay per week, or reattempt three standards between exams, or complete 10 total new attempts during the semester (this last one could be measured using tokens). This gives students freedom to choose what to reassess, while reducing your workload.
Require practice or reflection before submitting a reassessment. For example, have students show evidence of completing relevant practice problems before they can make a new attempt, or ask them to fill out a reflective cover sheet along with a revision. These are good practices anyhow, because they encourage metacognition and encourage students to take reassessment attempts seriously. They also can slow the pace of reassessments, and improve their overall quality.
I’ve written much more about all of these options, and ways to keep them from taking over your life, in my post on “Reasonable Reassessments.”
Perhaps this entire post can be summed up in three key ideas: First, flexibility is important to learning, until it becomes chaos. Second, structure is also important to learning, until it becomes rigidity. Finally, completely removing all deadlines, limits, and other policies removes structure that helps humans learn.
Figuring out how to provide both flexibility and structure, in a way that works for you and your students, is part of both the art and science of alternative grading. I hope this post has given you some good ideas. Feel free to post your own ideas, and your questions as well, in the comments!
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Robert wrote about research into deadlines, including in the “real world”, on his own blog. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there: https://rtalbert.org/a-real-world-approach-to-deadlines/