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Examining Our Course Policies

Recent pedagogical interests have me wading through research on multi-tasking and revisiting what’s happening with cheating. In both cases, most of us have policies that prohibit, or in the case of electronic devices, curtail the activity. Evidence of the ineffectiveness of policies in both areas is pretty overwhelming. Lots of students are cheating and using phones in class. Thinking about it, I’m not sure other common policies such as those on attendance, deadlines, and participation are all that stunningly successful either. I’m wondering why and guessing there’s a whole constellation of reasons.

I hear you: your policies do work. I’m still going to gently point out that given the number of students reporting that they engage in prohibited activities, somebody’s policies aren’t getting the job done. Could faculty in general be overestimating policy effectiveness? I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. But even if your policies are successful, there are still some generic issues with policies worthy of exploration.

Course policies are necessary and their inclusion is motivated by the right reasons. Students (in fact, people in general) aren’t good at multi-tasking. Being on the phone gets in the way of learning, which is what we are being paid to promote. Attending class leads to better performance in the course. Participating in discussion has a whole range of benefits, and what profession doesn’t require deadlines. A lot of students are novice learners. They’re new to college-level learning and aren’t clear about what it takes to succeed in higher education. So, there is strong justification for policies.

I wonder, though, if students see the need for and value of our policies, or if from their perspective policies look more like power moves teachers make to control (or try to control) students. And don’t our strong words — underlined, in bold and all caps — absolutely prohibiting an action reinforce these messages of authority and control? DON’T ARRIVE LATE TO CLASS! Is it possible to say “don’t you dare …” so loudly it drowns out the quieter message that being on time is an important professional characteristic and one that’s best learned before a career begins?

We tend to look at policies individually, trying for the best possible combination of details. What we don’t do is take the collection of policies used in a course and look at them as a group. Policies play an important role in creating the classroom climate—a role we underscore by carefully going over those policies when we first meet students. It’s useful to look at the policies as a whole and ask what kind of climate they collectively create. What’s their relationship to learning? How do they promote it, individually and collectively? Are they doing that as effectively as they’re promoting the power and position of the professor?

It’s clear that policy effectiveness is very much a function of context. There’s no need to quest for the “right” or “best” policy in any absolute sense. An amazing array of different policies work, depending on the course, its setting (online, in a lab, around the seminar table), the instructor, the students, and the institution. Some professors do well with policies that fail miserably when others try to use them. What makes a policy “right” or “best” is how it works in a given situation. So, rather than looking for the failsafe, universal policy, we need to be regularly, objectively, and with feedback assessing how well our policies are accomplishing their learning-related goals.

Policy effectiveness involves more than compliance. An attendance policy can get students to class and still do little to promote their learning. Yes, that could be a student problem. Ultimately, they are the ones who decide whether or not to learn. But if students are coming to class because there’s a policy that docks them if they don’t, there’s also a chance they aren’t in class because they see that being there makes learning in the course easier.

Students need our course policies. They also need to understand the rationales on which they rest. And most important of all, they need to see themselves becoming the kind of mature learners that set their own rules.