SIP 3.8 Designing Classes to Accommodate Diverse Students’ Out-of-Class Obligations

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Young woman cuddling babyOur students have very complex and complicated lives that pull them in many directions between school, work, and family obligations. We want to respect our students’ lives, however we also want them to do college work and participate in class. How do we balance these competing needs?

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As faculty, we have much more autonomy than we may realize. We are required to meet the strictures of the syllabus, but we have a lot of flexibility in how we teach content and assess student engagement.

We would like students to be able to schedule their lives around our classes, but the reality is, sometimes they cannot because of out-of-class obligations like a surgery mid-semester, having a baby, a babysitter calling in sick, kids have no school and there is no babysitter, having to take a parent to a doctor’s appointment, etc. Often, we can accommodate their complicated lives rather than making them choose between their personal obligations and their school obligations. Research on retention of “non-traditional” college students demonstrates that they persist when they feel like they do not have to choose between work, school and family.

Since students’ needs vary so widely, it is best to ask yourself a series of questions to help you decide if you can meet their needs:

Questions to ask yourself:

Is there a reasonable way I can accommodate the person’s request?

This is a chance to consider whether accommodating the student will negatively affect you, the class, or the student’s learning. Perhaps a student can attend by Skype or FaceTime on an IPad or smart phone rather than in person if the babysitter calls in sick but the student still wants to participate in class.

Is my decision in compliance with institutional policy?

Be willing to consider unusual requests as long as they do not go against university policy. For example, say a student is a new mother and breast feeding; she requests being able to bring her baby to a class. The infant is small, sleeps all the time, and will just need to eat once during class. Would it be possible to allow the mother to bring her infant once or twice during the semester without causing harm to the class if it does not go against university policy?

Is my decision fair and equitable?

Equity means giving people what they need rather than making everything the same for everybody. So “fair” in a class might not mean exactly the same thing for every student. If this feels uncomfortable, you can also ask yourself, can I offer this exception to everyone in the class? For example, if there are several sections of a class and a student has to miss your class for a legitimate reason, could you work with the other instructors before the semester starts to let students from one section attend another section one time?

How can I best explain this decision to others who may ask about it?

Sometimes it feels ethically complicated to extend more flexibility to a student who asks when maybe another student would like the flexibility and did not choose to ask. If other students do hear there has been an extension made for one student, what will be your response? Do you take the opportunity to let the whole class know that they may have an extra day as well or do you explain that you would extend a little flexibility to anyone who needs it on an as needed basis? It is up to you – you are the instructor and have the opportunity to make students fit life and school together more easily.

Here are six areas of your class where you can offer adaptations for some or all students to help them balance their out-of-class obligations and school work. Keep in mind, your goal is to help students master the content in the syllabus – how you get there can take many forms.

  1. Quantity – Adapt the number of items that the learner is expected to learn or number of activities student will complete prior to assessment for mastery. Sometimes a student has demonstrated mastery before the expected amount of practice. Could that student or all the student be able to move on to the assessment?
  2. Time – Adapt the time allotted and allowed for learning, task completion, or testing. Although we must adapt time if a student has a documented disability, we have the flexibility to make all assessments untimed for some or all students in a class.
  3. Level of Support – Increase the amount of personal assistance to keep the student on task or to reinforce or prompt use of specific skills. Enhance adult-student relationship; use physical space and environmental structure.
  4. Input – Adapt the way instruction is delivered to the learner. Given that most content can now be accessed visually (through reading or watching) as well as orally, and from peers not just from the instructor, creating multiple ways for students to learn new material helps with learners from diverse backgrounds.
  5. Output – Adapt how the student can respond to instruction. You can have “soft deadlines” that give students a range of dates within which they can complete most assignments (some deadlines are “hard”), which builds flexibility and the ability to accommodate students’ hectic lives in the class upfront.
  6. Participation – Adapt the extent to which a learner is actively involved in the task. For example, you can allow students to participate in Class Discussions and quizzes either in class or online (using Blackboard). It gives students some options should they miss a class.

(adapted from

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1 comment

  1. People who make the choice to study, work hard or do whatever they endeavor is to give it the max on themselves to reach to the top level. And you have the people who get envy and jealous, yet are not willing to put that work in, and they want to get the same praise.

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