Dear Mentor: Granting Extensions in Pandemic Times?

Dear Mentor,

I have a full teaching schedule this fall. It is 100% online. All of us know this is not the way we’d like it to be, but it’s what we have to work with. After the initial challenge of figuring out how to take my courses online in a way that is engaging, I am now facing a new issue: responding to requests for extensions and other special considerations around exams and assignments. In “normal times” these are not always easy to respond to, but the current circumstances make it more difficult. What does it mean to show grace right now? When is it appropriate to hold students to the expectations laid out in the syllabus — for their own good? How do I discern between a legitimate request and a student taking advantage of the situation we are in?

from mentor and chemistry professor
Dr. Ellane Park


Covid-19 has certainly made it more difficult to answer these questions. Requests for extensions and special considerations around exams and assignments seem especially tricky to answer now when students may not perceive the same accountability as they once did in pre-covid days. Pre-covid, I have been known for my strict deadlines and have told myself (and my students) that it is always for the students’ own good. Granting extension after extension may likely put that student in an irreparable situation where they may not be able to make up a large pile of work within a short period of time. In the past, I have given each of my students one “grace pass” with no questions asked, but this term, I have given out two or even four grace-passes. I asked myself, “Why is this time any different? Am I actually helping my students by offering more grace passes or am I just postponing their stress?” I will likely never know the answer to these questions and have not figured out the “ideal” number of grace passes we should give to each student during a pandemic. But I have found myself praying more for my students this semester. When I think about my first-year students who started college during this odd time of a pandemic, I sense their stress, exhaustion, immaturity, loneliness, and confusion. Just as we, professors, are struggling to figure out how to best teach our students in the various teaching modalities, students are struggling even more. I pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us to be bold in setting excellent standards for our students’ work yet be compassionate with students whose work that do not meet our expectations. As an academic, I struggle with subpar work, but perhaps this pandemic is an opportunity for us to slow down and self-reflect on potential idols of perfection/achievements that grip our hearts. While I do believe God wants us to produce excellent work, I wonder if this pandemic has challenged us to show ourselves some grace in areas of our teaching and scholarship as we extend that grace to our students. 

from mentor and accountant
Prof. Pamela Simmons


Get to know your students — yes, even online!

I think we would all agree one of the biggest disappointments and challenges associated with being fully online is missing natural opportunities to build relationships with our students. Mourning this but not yet ready to give up, I decided to try a new idea I gleaned from a webinar on building connections in an online environment. I created a low-point assignment to allow students to share a little about themselves. My list of questions ranged from inquiring as to their prior experience with the subject to asking them to share their current responsibilities at work, school, home, etc. I asked them to identify two goals for the semester, a course of action they would take toward achieving their goals, potential challenges that might impede them, and strategies they might take to overcome those challenges. I also asked how I might best support them and whether there was anything else they would like me to know. I found this extremely helpful when responding to individual requests and concerns throughout the semester. Was this the desperate cry of a student facing unprecedented pressures, trying to juggle work and school while suddenly homeschooling their children or that of a bored student that was finding it difficult to remain motivated and disciplined in an online environment? Knowing more about each student helps me best support them individually.

Allow room for grace without jeopardizing academics.

Life happens for us all, both before and during Covid, so I decided long ago to build a standard exception into my grading scale by automatically dropping the  two lowest scores of each type of homework or quiz assignment. This practice allows me to treat everyone compassionately but fairly and significantly reduces the number of emails I receive citing technology issues, illness, etc. I encourage students to “save” these drops for unexpected emergencies and to always work well ahead of due dates to allow for inevitable technology issues.   

A new step I took, specifically since Covid, was to create mini recordings of my lectures. I realized some students would struggle with poor internet service, conflicting responsibilities caring for children suddenly at home, and a variety of other new challenges this fall. Students unable to attend our live session can still access the content through the recordings. I also require these students to complete an additional assignment, which helps supplement the material and tends to encourage them to join our live sessions when possible. 

Other students struggle with attention in an online environment. A teacher’s job is to meet the varying needs of their students, providing extra support when needed while not losing the interest of the rest of the class, but in an online environment, it can be difficult to distinguish a lack of attention or effort from a lack of understanding. After realizing I was revisiting the same concepts numerous times after receiving less than stellar responses from several students, I decided I needed a new strategy. I told the class we would need to pick up the pace to cover all the required material but, encouraged those who might benefit from reinforcement to watch the recordings before class, while noting that others who found they were not following closely could go back and review what they missed. This allowed me to maintain a steady pace and keep the class engaged while providing extra support as needed. 

Be open to input from students.

This is an unprecedented time for all of us, so it is ok to be flexible and adapt as we work to figure this out together. Recently, after receiving multiple requests from students to extend our homework deadlines, I decided to bring it to the class for a vote. During our session, I shared my rationale for the current schedule designed for optimal proficiency while still meeting the rigid course requirements. I had them vote privately (a nice benefit of online sessions) and was surprised when half the students voted to shift the deadline only a few hours while the remainder voted to extend it a full day. I decided to move the deadline from the start of class to the end of the day to allow me to address any last-minute questions while still helping students wrap up each chapter in time to move onto the next. This allowed me to welcome feedback, demonstrate empathy, and communicate my desire to support them while ultimately choosing what I felt would best bolster their success. 

Like parents, I believe we must show students we care and are committed to their success while making judgments in their best interest. It is important to listen to their concerns, appreciate their perspective, explain why we have certain guidelines in place then consider adjusting when appropriate. This is certainly a time for grace, but we also do our students a great disservice if we jeopardize the quality of their education. Instead, let us use this time to help them persevere in the face of adversity and achieve their goals while taking the opportunity to hone our own skills and refine our approach in the process. With God’s grace, we could all emerge from Covid better teachers than ever before! 


from mentor and chemist
Dr. Rachel Barnard


Dear sister in Christ & colleague,

This is a good question! If this were normal times I would say, “Let’s grab a coffee and talk!” But I am writing to you in October of 2020, eight months into living and working from home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has made your question much more urgent for many of us. Your discipline, your job security, your local department and disciplinary norms, and your current policies will likely all influence how you handle “special requests” from students. In short, I do think this is a season for extra grace, and I’ll explain why below. For context, I usually teach large general chemistry lab and lecture courses and am in a local culture that strives to be both rigorous and supportive of student needs.

Why do we grade at all? I would suggest that we grade not because we like the power of giving/taking points, but because we have a personal and professional commitment to giving feedback to students as they learn. Most of us hope that students actually read our feedback and us it to improve their later work.

So why do we have deadlines? Often so that the work actually gets done. (Am I the only one who works better with a deadline?) Students — like most of us — need specific goals to work towards. Sometimes assignments are in sequence and so missing an early deadline (submitting something for peer review) will impact others and future work, but not always. Assignment deadlines help faculty spread out the time we spend giving feedback into more manageable chunks. If an extension primarily impacts your ability to give feedback right after the due date (were you going to grade it immediately?), then I would encourage you to consider seriously giving the extensions to those who ask. If we’re committed to their learning and they need another day to round that out, then giving them that day does get us all closer to the goal.

What policies have you already set in your class? I usually teach large (>100 students) lecture and lab courses, so lateness policies are stated clearly in the syllabus. Contrary to popular opinion, syllabi aren’t actually contracts. My syllabus does have clear policies for late work (including that we’ll drop one in a set of assignments, and only have small lateness penalties on another type of assignments) and so I do hesitate to accept late work from students when they ask. What if other students aren’t asking because they have read the clearly stated policy? Wouldn’t it be terrible for a student to learn later that a peer had asked for an extension and gotten it (beyond the stated policy) just because they asked? If you do decide to be more lenient mid-semester (and there is good reason to do so, especially in Fall 2020!) then consider telling all your students what kinds of new leniency they can expect.   

What are the norms of your co-instructors and colleagues? Particularly if you’re worried about promotion and tenure, it can be helpful to be “calibrated” to what your colleagues are excusing and extending. I know in my group of colleagues I am one of the least likely to immediately think to grant an extension when a student asks. From conversations with colleagues I have learned that others are comfortable in giving more extensions, and that helps me to realize that I can too. We have decided that short-term issues related to Covid-19 and grief absences will get extensions, but even that is suggested in our stated policies. 

What does giving extensions have to do with grace anyway?  As Math professor Francis Su writes in this blog post, none of use deserve grace, but by giving it we can remind students that their worth is not in what they accomplish. Giving extensions and accepting late work with kindness can remind students and faculty alike of the greater gift we have received in Christ’s work on the cross in our undeserving state and that we can thus extend that grace to others.

from an anonymous mentor in the social sciences

I applaud your desire to be helpful and supportive to your students. As we all know, these types of issues arise even in “normal times” and determining a way to handle student requests can be difficult. Many students are encountering personal or health struggles, infrastructure issues, and various expressions of inequality. Prayer is crucial to discernment; pray also for help.

I tend to take requests at face value. Some students may possibly be attempting to take advantage of the situation or are just trying to use the larger context as an excuse; some of my colleagues think they have received inappropriate requests. However, I have not and do not think that is common.

You already know how and why you structured your course and what your general guidelines are for making decisions about student requests. Your guidelines for making decisions in “normal times” still apply in this difficult semester. While there seems to be so many more things that can go wrong this semester, you likely do not need to make big changes.

Experience taught me to avoid expending significant effort evaluating student excuses. I prefer to structure the course upfront so that a lot of mercy is built in. I build flexibility into the course structure through skips/late policies/extra credit. I try to find ways for students to demonstrate engagement even if they are struggling with mastery over the material or outside circumstances (many repetitive small assignments, of which some can be dropped/act as extra credit). Notably, what works for me may not work for you. Nor can one fully anticipate all student requests. Yet patterns emerge; your adjustments this semester should be in keeping with adjustments you might make in other semesters.

Keep communication open and seek to understand what is requested. While I avoid weighing excuses, I listen and seek ways to help within the class structure and available University amenities. Attend to what the student needs that you can assist with. Sometimes they have terrific ideas for improving a course; I am certainly learning this semester. Do not be afraid to tweak your classes. The syllabus is a “contract,” so do not undertake change lightly and do not rewrite your course. Moreover, changes should be scalable to everyone in the class and you need to be able to do any extra work. Likely other students, who did not ask you for assistance because they did not think to or because they did not know they could, would also benefit from changes. Clearly announce changes. Depending on class size, you can discuss changes and gather more input, or give them a choice between “A” and “B” (I tend to use a supermajority threshold for voted changes; find a compromise for students who indicate the change is detrimental, or do not implement). I find that students are willing to be engaged in this sort of process. Be fair to everyone (including yourself) with any changes.

Only in the most egregious circumstances, where other students are likely to understand why an exception was made if they were to learn of the situation, will I consider bending (at most) my syllabus for one student. I suggest adjusting prudently, in conversation with the student, and with a clear understanding of the very specific modification(s). Students need to understand that we cannot infinitely extend options and that overall class expectations remain unchanged. A lower than desired grade, but still passing, is a legitimate outcome.

Online pedagogy is about communication, which takes time. Commit to engaging your students. I do think it is a good practice to remind students early and often about upcoming due dates. Their lives are likely much flatter with online instruction, and they might be having difficulty distinguishing their classes and assignments. Making assignments part of the class structure in the LMS, perhaps even adding a calendar to your course shell, and reserving part of your class for an ongoing discussion about the course structure will at least keep your class in their mind. Students must be more organized than before, so prompt them to begin assignments, make time to discuss where they should be in a project, and take questions. So far, most of the requests I received, and the tweaks I have made, have been related to technology and access.

Finally, as you indicated, it is okay to say “no.” You need to be gracious to yourself and not add a lot of work for yourself in a difficult season for all of us. “No” is hard; I find my syllabus is a great help in this regard. Sometimes the most gracious thing to do for someone is to hold firm on a deadline. Though classes matter, the stakes are typically lower now for our students than they will be later; this could be an important life lesson for both you and your student.


Photo by Jess Watters from StockSnap.

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