How do you:
- Create a course load that is challenging but manageable for students?
- Develop assignments that are engaging and meet the complex needs of the course and modality?
- Communicate expectations to students on workload, attendance, and participation?
- Discouraging academic dishonesty, particularly in online settings?
Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers, but this page tries to address the central theme to all these questions: academic excellence and student expectations. As you explore the concepts of academic excellence and student expectations, you will find that they are intrinsically linked to the design of course materials and assessments.
Defining Academic Excellence
Our use of the term “Academic Excellence” is informed by the three elements of culturally relevant pedagogy: academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Ayers et al., 2008). Since Dr. Ladson-Billings first introduced this framework in 1995, many studies have extended it, creating shifting and alternative interpretations (Ladson-Billings, 2014). Our interpretation necessarily starts with Ladson-Billings, but is influenced by conversations with practitioners. When instructors promote academic success, they articulate high standards for student learning and discuss how they combine transparency of expectations with practices, approaches, and resources that support student learning. Academic excellence includes, but is not limited to, academic integrity and academic rigor, balanced with compassionate flexibility and resources to support student success. We will break down academic excellence into these three parts and refer to them as such throughout this resources page.
The Center for Teaching & Learning at UC Berkely concedes that there is no single perfect definition for academic integrity, but that it generally “entails honesty, responsibility, and openness to both scholarship and scholarly activity”. Fostering academic integrity within your students has its challenges, but it can be handled in a preventative and even positive way. In our fall panel on academic integrity, one of the top suggestions by our panelists was to develop assignments and assessments that require analysis, interpretation, and application of learned information, rather than just rote memorization and recall.
You will find that your personal definition of academic integrity might differ from one in a different discipline, or even from another instructor within your own department. Therefore, it is important to also lay out clear, specific expectations for students at the beginning of the semester on what you consider to be plagiarism, cheating, academic dishonesty, and academic misconduct. Lastly, disclose to your students any any-cheating technologies you plan on using, such as Turnitin, and for what purpose(s) you chose to use them. Academic integrity starts with instructor transparency.
Designing quality, substantive assignments and assessments is also related to the idea of academic rigor. Academic rigor is sometimes heavily connotated with the quantity of work assigned in a course when in reality it can also refer to the quality of assignments and assessments. Cathy Davidson, professor at CUNY, addresses this important distinction in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed and argues that our focus should shift away from the number of exercises or quizzes our course includes and that we should instead “reconsider the meaning, scope, and purpose of the work we do as well as the work we assign”.
Maintaining a high standard for academic integrity and academic rigor usually leads to the highest rate of student success when it is tempered with a degree of compassionate flexibility on the part of the instructor. Compassionate flexibility for our students is particularly crucial now with the added complications of financial need, lack of access to the necessary technology, family responsibilities, and health issues (physical or mental), just to name a few. In one qualitative case study of 11 engineering students during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was found that students performed better when faculty “showed compassion and flexibility by adjusting the curriculum and assessment and effectively communicating with students”. To the greatest extreme, compassionate flexibility by an instructor can be the difference between a student surviving—and eventually thriving—in school or dropping out.
Complete flexibility can also be difficult for students to navigate. Unless you’re able to consistently check on their progress, students may find themselves at the end of the semester with many assessments left to complete, and, without the benefit of feedback. Consider what flexibility looks like within your courses, and articulate this transparently to students.
Defining Student Expectations
Communication is paramount in any course—this is especially true at a distance where even incidental contact is absent. Good communication correlates strongly with positive student feedback. The materials and content in your course could be entirely mute if students don’t know fully how you expect they interact with them. Clearly communicating course workload, due dates, etc. go a long way. You want when and how you communicate with students to be authentic to you and your course. Much as you want the materials and activities of a course to align with your course objectives, you want how you communicate to align with you.