Tl;dr, automated extensions are a low-effort, high-reward way to improve equity, empathy and student success in your course.
With a well-built system, it can be easy to think that anyone who can operate a spreadsheet will be able to run extensions. This is partially true. However, the mindset of the person handling extensions has an outsized impact on student outcomes.
Some instructors try to mitigate this by applying blanket policies to reduce bias. However, this can mean students are turned down via Policy. This both undermines DSP accommodations and standardizes “unintentional” cruelty. Instead, we can reduce bias by assuming every student has the potential to succeed and then demonstrating that belief with our actions. This notably simplifies our approach.
- can operate a spreadsheet AND
- fully believes all students have the potential to succeed
will be able to run extensions easily and effectively.
A lot of the current time lost to making “decisions” about extensions is used to judge whether a student or their situation is worthy of an extension. When the person managing extensions believes in each student’s potential, they get this time back for free! Instead, they can now use this time to support the small subset of students with alarming situations they can’t resolve on their own. As course staff, we are in a unique position to connect struggling students in our courses with resources. I find short meetings with this subset of students to be most effective.
Congratulations! This is actually what led me to write this post. It’s a hard question, and requires an understanding of discrimination and bias to answer. If you’re in the position to make this decision, please take some time to read or watch some of these resources, and feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss further.
Some important things to look out for:
- Incorporates the growth mindset into their teaching. Article, Video
- Tangible experiences with how discrimination shows up in the classroom
- Assumes the best of students, based on a solid understanding of intersectionality. Article, Video.
- Comes from a trauma-informed perspective
While it’s often easiest to choose a TA whose work you know, and has already demonstrated these values through their actions, we also want to evaluate new staff members or those without prior student support experience. I’ve found some of the most useful information comes from open-ended questions, or specific hypothetical questions. For example, when asked “Do you believe all students have the potential to succeed”, many people will respond yes. We don’t get much insight into how deeply they have inspected and addressed their internal biases, or how they would apply their values of equity to students. Meanwhile, their answers to questions like
- How will you contribute to our mission to support diverse students with a welcoming course climate?
- What would you do if a student is a week behind in your section because they are “having trouble focusing”?
often gives us much more useful information about their mindset.
The decisions your course makes regarding extensions have a notable impact on your course climate. When requesting an extension, students in vulnerable situations are showing trust and implicitly taking responsibility for finishing their assignments on time. By approving it, we are acknowledging that they are adults, and that we trust their judgement of their own abilities and situation. Even if for some reason the student is not able to finish the work or does not pass the course, the mutual respect remains. Students generally don’t put responsibility for the situation on the course, and instead see us as “on their side”.
When we turn down extensions, we are passing a judgement on the student or their situation. At times this can be explicit, like with paternalistic statements about “falling behind”. It can be tempting to automate or outsource these rejections, so we can run our course without considering student wellness, or having to account for extensions or slip days when releasing answers. However, these still don’t change the impacts these have on your course climate. When you don’t design your course with empathy in mind, students will either find fault with the course staff, feeling unsupported and unheard, or worse - with themselves. For students in marginalized groups, these rejections can re-enforce false beliefs that the student is the problem. “Why can’t I make this deadline when everyone else can?” It may feel like another assertion that these students don’t belong in the major, the department, or even the school.
Out-sourcing extensions puts one of your primary impacts on student wellness outside of your control. However you handle extensions, make sure you are cc’d on every email that is sent to students regarding them. Read over them, and make sure they represent your goals for your course.
The information below applies to the Berkeley EECS department, for the academic years Fall 2021-Spring 2022, and Fall 2022-Spring 2023.
The UC Berkeley EECS department offers some administrative services through its course managers. While their services are excellent for handling exam logistics and DSP letters, while running extensions for our courses, multiple emails sent to students did not reflect the beliefs necessary to uphold an empathetic course environment. After multiple meetings with the department, the underlying causes have still not been resolved. For EECS courses at Berkeley, we recommend running extensions in-house through Spring 2023.
- Proposed policy
- DSP crossroads slack (educators working to improve DSP experiences at Cal): [email for access]