Humanize late policies for better learning

You are on a flight back from a conference where you presented your latest work. Your partner calls and tells you that a pipe burst in the basement. They are trying to save what they can, but need your help as soon as you arrive. Unfortunately, you have a report due to your department chair the next morning. You diligently blocked out time to complete it after returning home. As your flight prepares for departure, you grip your phone and send a last-minute email asking for an extension. Upon landing, you check your email. Relief washes over you when you see you have been given have two more days. You can now return home and focus on the basement disaster, then turn your direction to the report the next day.

Featured instructor: McKinzie Sutter (

Empathy is critical for working with humans. As teachers, sometimes we hold a tough line to ‘prepare students for the real world,’ but as the situation above demonstrates, the real world can be messy. What we really need is not to hold strict lines on every deadline, but to be on the lookout for patterns that hurt students’ learning.

McKinzie’s video shares a few critical questions she asked about deadlines in her introductory-level, small enrollment (35 – 50 student) online science courses that led to significant changes in her policies. The questions she shares can help instructors with learning to walk the line between holding students to high standards and holding compassion for students in their real lives, known as ‘humanizing teaching.’

If the scenario at the beginning seems extreme to you, consider the following. Three-quarters of today’s college students have one of the following characteristics: they’ve delayed enrollment in higher education, they have a child or other dependent, they’re enrolled in school part-time, they work full-time, or they are a single caregiver. About a third of today’s students have two or three of these challenging circumstances to manage (Nadworny and Dependbrock, 2018).

Humanizing teaching isn’t just warm and fuzzy, it is based on research and brain science. Jaggars and Xu found that how well an online instructor was able to communicate their care and support of their learners was the only factor that significantly impacted their students’ performance in their course (2016). A sense of care and connection also helps the learner reach the stage of ‘relaxed alertness' in the brain required for learning. Alternatively, if a student feels a threat, even a social threat, their brain is hijacked by the amygdala and their “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) is shut down, thus shutting down learning (Hammond, 2015). The opening scenario included an amygdala hijack, but it can take far less extreme circumstances to shut down the prefrontal cortex. A planned pedagogy of care serves as the antidote.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers & Education, 95, 270–284.

Nadworny, E., & Depenbrock, J. (2018). Today’s college students aren’t who you think they are. NPR: Changing Face of College.

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