Balancing Structure and Flexibility


During the pandemic, instructors were encouraged to adapt their teaching – not only what and how they taught, but also the academic policies and practices they developed and implemented. Specifically, instructors were asked to be cognizant of the added stresses students faced during this difficult time.  This meant paying greater attention to student mental health and well being as well as being more flexible regarding attendance, deadlines, and other course requirements (e.g., allowing extra credit, assignment revisions, and test retakes). These changes were seen not only as demonstrations of empathy and compassions but also as acknowledgements that students were distracted and having a difficult time focusing on their studies.

Not all educators supported this perspective. For example, some have argued that flexibility is the antithesis of rigor – that changing expectations is tantamount to reducing standards.  According to Jack and Sathy, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article on rigor, “For some instructors, abandoning ‘rigorous’ policies and assignments means lowering standards and watering down courses”. It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor

Now that most classes have returned to pre pandemic patterns, there is debate about whether instructors should return to their pre pandemic policies and practice. In this context, some have argued for the importance of structure as an aid to learning. Given insufficient structure, students can become overwhelmed, mismanage their time, and lose the sense of continuity within a course – all of which are detrimental to their learning.Additionally, from a practical perspective, the increased work of providing flexibility, especially for large classes, can become unmanageable for instructors; making and monitoring individual arrangements can be extremely taxing and time consuming.

Others have argued that the stresses experienced by students highlighted during the pandemic remain, especially for the increasing number of “nontraditional” students – those who are first generation, employed, primary caregiver for their families, or returning to college after years in the workforce. Furthermore, students have become accustomed to flexibility and are increasingly asking for exceptions and individual arrangements, particularly regarding course attendance and deadlines. Therefore, it is useful to have policies to guide responses to these requests, rather than responding to each student on a case-by-case basis.

One proposed approach to reconciling these positions is balancing flexibility and structure; that is, providing not only structure but also plans for flexibility should the need arise. For example, according to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Teaching and Learning, on the one hand, “A class that clearly lays out the steps students need to take on a regular basis to succeed and the schedule for completing those steps, helps diminish the mental burden students feel in trying to figure out mundane details so they can focus more on the process of learning.” This means eliminating ambiguity and giving students clear expectations and deadlines – being explicit, without being rigid. Practices for Teaching Students Living with Stress and Trauma

On the other hand, planned flexibility allows instructors to meet students’ needs when unexpected events occur. Providing a plan can reduce stress for students and instructors alike. “Planned flexibility eliminates the need to negotiate every extension and exception, and such policies particularly benefit those students who may not know they can or feel comfortable asking for help or extra time when they need it.” This means providing students with options for how to demonstrate their learning when they cannot meet the established expectations or timelines. Practices for Teaching Students Living with Stress and Trauma

It also has been suggested that both structure and flexibility are aspects of inclusive teaching. When not enough structure is built into a course and expectations are ambiguous, students make assumptions, correctly or incorrectly, about requirements and instructor expectations. Some students may ask questions, but others – especially first-generation students and students from underrepresented groups – will do their work and hope for the best. Thus, to prevent inequality, it is important to provide the same structure for everyone in the class.

Similarly, flexibility is also a crucial element of inclusive teaching, and good practice is to offer flexibility to all students, rather than making exceptions just for students who ask for them. Additionally, allowing students multiple ways to demonstrate learning is a central tenant of universal design for learning, and the association of academic rigor with rigid rules can be unintentionally exclusionary.

Combining structure and flexibility and communicating both the course structure and a plan for providing flexibility when students cannot follow that structure can provide both guidance and reassurance to students. Below are ideas for providing structure and flexibility regarding assignment completion and deadlines.


  • Provide a clear schedule or calendar of assignments and due dates
  • Provide clear policies for extensions and missed work in the syllabus
  • Specify expectations for assignments clearly in advance, using rubrics and models
  • For challenging assignments, explain steps students should take to complete the work
  • For a large project, plan assignments so students complete and get practice and feedback on steps of throughout the semester
  • Provide multiple, low-stakes assessments and give students feedback so they can improve
  • Let students know when and how to communicate with you if they will fall behind or miss work
  • If one student requests an accommodation, proactively offer these options to all students


  • Allow one late assignment per semester/term
  • Give students a total number of grace days that they can use over the course of the semester for turning in assignments (i.e., adopt a ‘time bank’ system, in which students can draw one two-day extension, or one-day extensions on two separate assignments)
  • Allow students to opt out of submitting one or two assignments by the deadline as long as they complete the work before a unit assessment
  • Allow students to drop or skip one or more missed exam, test, discussion board post, or low-stakes assignment
  • Give students a specified number of opportunities to redo assignments or take new versions of a test
  • Build in assignment choices that are available to all students (e.g., give students choices of topics subjects for papers)
  • Offer an “amnesty week,” during which students may submit assignments they missed earlier
  • Allow students to request an extension but require they do so by submitting work completed to date as well as a plan for completing the assignment
  • If course has a comprehensive final exam, allow students to replace a low or missing exam score with their score on the final


The Chronicle of Higher Education
Student Centered Syllabus

The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Deadline Dilemma

The Chronicle of Higher Education
It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor

The Chronicle of Higher Education
How to Give Your Students the Grace We All Need

The Chronicle of Higher Education
How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Teaching: Flexibility with Guardrails

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Course Correction

Georgetown University Instructional Continuity
Why is Designing for Flexibility Important?

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Blog
Teaching in Fall 2022: Balancing Flexibility and Accountability

Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning
Flexible Structure in Course Design

George Mason University Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning
Designing for Flexibility: Adapting Policies on Student Work

University of Pennsylvania Center for Teaching & Learning
Combining Structure and Flexibility in Your Courses

University of Pennsylvania Center for Teaching & Learning
Practices for Teaching Students Living with Stress and Trauma

Oregon State University Ecampus Course Development & Training
Flexibility and structure in course design: You don’t have to chose

University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence
Finding a Balance Between Flexibility and Structure

eCampus News
5 ways a flexible academic structure increases equity

Portland Community College Online Learning
Enhance Equity in your course: Part 6 – Create flexibility in your course

University of Missouri/Saint Louis Center for Teaching and Learning
Structure and Flexibility in Course Design