By Student Fellows Brett Fedderson and Joan Lavaki

During our session at the Adams Center, we presented to faculty the idea of caring for students through course structure. Sometimes as students, we experience structural course elements that are unhelpful to both our academic success and personal wellness. Although these course elements are not designed or intended to be harmful, they can add unnecessary stress and difficulty to being a student. The purpose of our session was not to condemn or accuse faculty of not utilizing course structure well; we simply wanted to start an ongoing dialogue concerning the ways in which the structure of a course might actually support and promote student well-being, both in academic success and personal wellness. We asked the following questions to prompt initial thought on the topic and identify elements of a course’s structure that we discuss:

  • In what ways does the structure of a course help or hurt students?
  • What structural elements help students in your view? What elements hurt?
  • Can the structural elements of a course that are unhelpful to students be changed?

Then, for the majority of our session we discussed the following three structural elements which we have oftentimes found to be most unhelpful, but which also have great potential to help students.

Late Work Policies: A student is less likely to complete an assignment after it is due if a professor assigns automatic zeroes or has harsh late penalties for big assignments. Students may feel pressured to prioritize completing assignments solely to receive good grades and pass the class rather than to produce quality work and truly learn the material.

Attendance Policies: Certain courses at ACU only allow excused absences for university-approved events. If a student is considering taking a mental health day or is sick, this policy can be detrimental to them as they may feel pressured to choose between their well-being or showing up for class. It can also be challenging for students when professors resist sharing course material outside of class time. If, when a student has to miss class for a family emergency, for a mental health/sick day, or for work obligations, the professor refuses to share materials outside of class, a student potentially loses the opportunity to learn that material. 

Weekends and Breaks: Having the proper amount of rest is an incredibly important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and both students and professors can often neglect this basic need. Classes that require students to work over the weekend in order to receive an above-average grade, classes that have major assignments or exams on the first day after a break or on Monday morning, and classes that have assignments due on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday morning can interrupt important rhythms of sabbath and rest for both faculty and students.

Finally, we humbly proposed suggestions for remedying some of these structural difficulties.

  • Tokens to be used for assignment extensions, personal days, dropped quizzes, remediation points, etc. Even if a student does not use all the provided tokens in a given semester, some unhealthy stress can be relieved just by knowing that tokens are available to be used.
  • Due dates set on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of each week help students have Sabbath over the weekend, giving the option to work ahead over the weekend if a student so chooses. 
  • Exams that are not scheduled for the first couple days after an academic break help students actually rest over the break without feeling an obligation to study or do homework during times of intended rest.
  • Extra credit opportunities offered once or twice throughout the semester can help cater to students who learn in non-traditional ways and can help ease some stress about poor grades or missing assignments during a particularly hectic or demanding season.
  • Student resources that are worked into the structure of a course, such as tutoring or interaction with different campus offices that aid in student success, can be a huge benefit to students who are struggling or who are unaware of the resources available to them.
  • Being flexible with class materials can be helpful for students who struggle with understanding and retaining the information given in class the first time it is presented to them. Posting presentation slides, lecture notes, and handouts from each class session onto Canvas can be a great study tool for students.
  • Awareness and consideration of the university schedule (e.g., Homecoming or Sing Song) and its demand on students should be a key factor in scheduling due dates, major assignments, and exams.
  • Knowing your students is important for student success. Including time for genuine connection and conversation in your course gives students the opportunity to truly get to know you and be known by you. As a result, students are more likely to be engaged in their learning, to feel comfortable reaching out for help or support, and to care more about succeeding in your class.