Academic Excellence and Student Expectations

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.

Academic Integrity

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.

Academic Rigor

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”.

Compassionate Flexibility

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.

Additional Resources

Alternative Forms of Grading

Many instructors and educational developers have begun giving new consideration to specifications gradingcontract grading and/or labor-based grading and how they may help support more equitable assessments and grading policies. One potential benefit to these approaches is that it allows instructors to maintain a series of low-stakes assessments without overburdening students with criteria-heavy weekly assignments that can feel like “busy-work.”

In Specs- and labor-based grading, you can retain well-aligned formative assessments and activities, but alleviate some of the anxiety that these may provoke amongst students (e.g., their focus is on the outcome versus their grade)—particularly if you provide students some choice in which assessments students may complete or revise.

In his book on contract grading, Asao B. Inoue argues that labor-based grading contracts support anti-racist and social justice-oriented assessment that enhance equity in the writing classroom. Other scholars have made similar arguments about contract-based and specifications grading, all of which provide more agency to students and remove the emphasis on “grading” and “grades.”  Though there are some differences between these approaches, we encourage you to worry less about those, and focus more on whether there are elements to these approaches to grading that may work well for your class. Here are some of the core elements of “ungrading” that you may wish to consider:

  • Assignments and activities are all graded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory (or acceptable/not yet, etc.).
    • Instructors provide very transparent about what constitutes acceptable work for each assignment. In labor-based grading systems, effort is central; for specifications grading, instructors often use standards that align with work that might garner a “B” in traditional schemas.
  • Students are allowed to revise unacceptable work at least once.
  • Students have some agency or choice in the assessments/assignments they complete for the course or even for each unit/module. “Bundles” of assessments and/or grading contracts are still linked to learning outcomes.

If you’re intrigued by the possibilities offered by these approaches to grading, consider reading a bit more about each before you make a decision. Check out this presentation from UNC Wilmington’s CTE for a brief overview of these alternative grading formats.

Created by: Virginia M. Schwarz

Questions for Critiquing

  1. What course is the contract for? Are the decisions appropriate for that context, audience, purpose?
  2. How might teacher identity and identities of students impact contract grading?
  3. What assignments, behaviors, and/or labor requirements are included in the tiers?
  4. Thinking in terms of importance (essential vs optional), do you agree with placement on those tiers?
  5. Build up? (C start) or Begin high? (A start) What are the benefits of each?
  6. Is this contract negotiated with students?
  7. Is peer review and self-assessment discussed?
  8. How does the instructor present/ explain this to students, if at all?
  9. Does this contract appear to be embedded into the culture and/or assignments of the course? In what ways does this respond to a larger teaching philosophy?
  10. Is “rigor” addressed? If so, how?
  11. Is student labor on assignments accounted for? (see Asao Inoue)
  12. What are the choices in length, tone, language, naming?
  13. What design choices did the teacher make? (for example, is the contract part of the syllabus)
  14. What degree of flexibility do you perceive, and are “violations/ negotiations/ surprises” addressed?
  15. How does/doesn’t this contract address the needs of traditionally high-achieving and low-achieving students according to your perception?
  16. How might the contract potentially further the working relationship with students? Students relationships to one another?
  17. How does the contract make you feel?

Questions for Composing

  1. What are the goals and outcomes of the course?
  2. How might I/ we account for teacher and student identity?
  3. What assignments, behaviors, and/or labor requirements actually help students learn and how are those incorporated into the class? [defamiliarize learning]
  4. Which of those are absolutely essential and what could be optional? [for making tiers or designing optional projects]
  5. Build up? (C start) or Begin high? (A start)
  6. Am I ready to negotiate this contract with students?
  7. How might I incorporate peer and self-assessment (process steps)?
  8. How do I plan to present/ explain this to students (and colleagues, and admin)?
  9. How do I plan to embed this in our classroom/ program culture? In what ways does this respond to a larger philosophy?
  10. How do I talk about “rigor”—do I even include that in my rationale?
  11. Do I account for student labor and if so then how? (see Asao Inoue)
  12. What should I do in terms of length, tone, language for the syllabus/ contract?
  13. What design choices did the teacher make? (for example, is the contract part of the syllabus)
  14. What degree of flexibility should I offer, and should I discuss violations, incorporate negotiations?
  15. How does/doesn’t this contract address the needs of all students?
  16. How does the contract potentially further my working relationship with students? Students relationships to one another?
  17. How do I hope students feel after reading?

Don’t Let the Canvas Gradebook Stop You

As you contemplate each of these approaches, CATL can help you deal with navigating the Gradebook so that doesn’t hold you or your students back should you wish to use a form of labor-based, specs, or contract grading.

Schedule a CATL consultation on alternative forms of grading.

An "I Voted" sticker on green plaid fabric.

Civility in the Classroom Post-Election

While this fall semester looks and feels different, social distancing does not mean that we are socially distanced from the events of the world around us. In fact, it sometimes feels as though being socially distanced from one another amplifies the impact of the events in the world around us.  

As we navigate the days and weeks after the Presidential election, we may find ourselves confronted with realities of this significant event even if we have not invited the election into our classroom. Our students may ask questions, discuss reports about the election, or share perspectives that we may not be prepared to guide an entire class through, especially in an online, asynchronous modality.  

If you are concerned about how you will engage students in polite political discourse as we move through the post-election responses, you are not alone. Here are a few resources that you might find useful as you consider if and how you could include discussion of the election in your course.  

The Students Learn Students Vote Coalition and Ask Every Student host a recurring virtual post-election gathering to discuss resources for campus stakeholders and faculty. Ask Every Student also provides a detailed Post-Election Campus Resource and Response Guide. The guide is broken into six key areas with suggestions and resources for each:  

  • Prepare partnerships ahead of time. 
  • Instill confidence in election results. 
  • Allow time and space for processing.  
  • Facilitate opportunities for healing.  
  • Hold spaces for dialogue and verbal expression. 
  • Move towards action. 

One way you can better support your students in engaging in polite political discourse is to create and frame a space for them to express their thoughts in your Canvas course. If you have a class discussion forum – you may call this the class questions, class forum, water cooler, or in the halls discussion board in your Canvas course – you could start a thread specifically to discuss the Presidential Election. Remind students with the initial thread that this is a public space for students to share their thoughts in a collegial and respectful manner. 

Maintaining civil discourse in an online environment is not a new concern and there are a lot of resources to help guide how you frame an online dialogue with students. Jean Dimeo’s 2017 article, “Keeping it Civil Online”, provides faculty-tested strategies. Alyson Klein’s more recent article, “Talking Civics in a Remote Classes in 2020: What Could Go Wrong?” contextualizes the challenges with online discourse to our current context. Plus, you can always reach out to CATL directly to share your ideas about how to frame a potentially charged conversation in your online class. 

If the thought of an open discussion forum leaves you a little uneasy, you may want to direct your students to other resources. You could post an announcement or refer students who reach out to you directly to any of the following virtual events: 

There are also resources on campus that can help students process their emotional response to the election. UW-Green Bay’s Wellness Center provides free counseling services for students and a variety of other resources related to wellness and mental health. Counseling is also available at the Manitowoc, Marinette, and Sheboygan campuses.

Every four years there is a significant political touch point that can ignite any classroom into incivility. Our goal as faculty is to foster polite political discourse. While that goal may seem more challenging in our current learning landscape, it is not impossible. 

Equitable Communications with all Students

Much of the communicating you’ll be doing may have to move between modalities, unless you’re teaching exclusively online. By considering possible communications issues now, you’ll be better prepared to reduce student confusion and misunderstanding, regardless of how they’re attending at a particular point in time.

Questions to consider about communicating information to students:

  • If you are teaching in-person how will you ensure that you’re communicating the same information to the students who are not attending in-person?
  • If you are teaching almost exclusively online, how will you communicate expectations for the week or day-to-day of the course?
  • If you are pivoting between modalities, is there a tried and true way to communicate important information to students using tools built within Canvas?
  • Are the tools within Canvas enough to help you communicate your expectations to students?

Consider using Announcements in Canvas to remedy some of these issues. Announcements can be used to help students have a centralized place within their course to see a history of updates, notes, reminders, etc. When set-up, notifications in Canvas will send emails to users when you post announcements.

Consider creating Transparent assignments so that all students benefit from knowing the Purpose, Tasks, and Criteria for success. Not only will this assignment design technique will decrease what you might need to explain to students who can’t attend an in-person session, but it’ll help the students who can attend the in-person, as well because they’ll be less likely to need to ask you further questions!

Questions to consider about communicating with students about the course (not necessarily information for everyone):

  • If you’re teaching in-person, you may leave time before class or after class to have unstructured time for questions about upcoming assignments, time for quick check-ins with students, or time to ask students if they heard about “x”—is there a way for you to move that communication online so that all students can “see” it and know that that is also where they can ask questions of you?
  • If you’re teaching almost exclusively online, did you create a space where students can answer each other’s questions about course expectations or as a place to post topical content that isn’t necessarily going to be covered during the course? This can sometimes look like an asynchronous discussion: “TOPIC OF COURSE” in the News, and you can encourage students to post here should they find relevant content.
  • If you’re teaching in-person, but have students participating asynchronously, online, on certain days, will you create small groups to encourage sharing “pop-up” information with students who are not attending in-person.

Consider using Canvas discussions to facilitate the “Topic of the Course” in the News prompt or a “Raise Your Hand” discussion topic.

Be sure to let students know how best to get in touch with you and with their classmates. You could ask students to create a buddy-system to communicate “pop up” information that may not necessarily be anywhere else in the course. Remember to add that information to the course at some point so that students who cannot attend due to a myriad of circumstances (e.g. students who may be. immunocompromised, are self-isolating, are ill themselves, or if you are ill) will have all of the information they need to be successful.

Questions to consider about building community between students:

  • If you’re teaching in-person, and there are some students attending on alternate days, will you work to create community with those in the classroom only, or will you try to facilitate building community between those different student groups (e.g. students who attend in-person on Mondays still engage with students who attend in-person on Wednesday; students who always attend in-person work with a smaller sub-set of students who cannot attend in-person.)
  • If you’re teaching almost totally online, how will you create community when many conversations are happening asynchronously?
  • If you’re moving fluidly between in-person instruction, synchronous online instruction, and online, asynchronous discussion how will you ensure that you’re providing equal community building opportunities to all students?

Overview of Accessibility and Universal Design


Accessibility is the legalistic twin of Universal Design. Both are concerned with expanding the reach of courses to include all learners. Where Universal Design is about opening your course up to a holistic mindset, accessibility is about compliance with section 508 of 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Where Universal Design gives instructors autonomy to work within a framework, accessibility is a list of prescriptions that courses should abide themselves by. As such, where Universal Design provides multiple pathways and is difficult to assess, it is relatively easy to determine whether or not a course is accessible.

Accessibility checklist

You may use our quick, one-page checklist to see if your course materials are accessible. For a more comprehensive list, please see Penn State’s accessibility website.

Universal Design

The presentation below provides information on how to add Universal Design elements to your Canvas course. For more information on Universal Design, please consult the National Center for Universal Design’s website, which provides many helpful tips and ideas.