Pedagogical Investments in Flexibility and Accountability

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently an Instructional Designer at Salem State University’s Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI). At times I will use this space to highlight some of the work I’ve been taking up at SSU as an instructional designer. I’ve got a few different motivations for doing so:

  • I’d like to amplify some of the work I’m doing at SSU beyond our more local networks and communication channels
  • I’m interested in documenting some of that work in a more permanent way since university websites get revamped, emails get deleted, etc.
  • I’ve talked to some folks about what it’s like to move into the world of instructional design and I’d like to give those people a clearer and more informed sense of the kind of work that I do in our little corner of that world.

One of the ways that the CTI team supports faculty at SSU is by distributing a weekly newsletter. In addition to information on upcoming programming, tips on teaching with technology, and links that may resonate with our faculty community’s pedagogical interests (among other things), we also take turns writing “Recommended Read” content on time-sensitive teaching topics or on subjects that are hot topics in higher ed. My colleague Abby Machson-Carter has been the main force behind our newsletter over the last few years, and we’ve found that this particular format and approach seems to resonate with our audience at SSU (based on faculty feedback as well as analytics generated by Mailchimp on open rates, clicks, etc.)

The content below was originally shared in an email sent on February 2nd (2023), and its original title was “High Standards and High Care: Flexibility and Accountability.” Thanks to CTI Director Eliza Bobek for that title, and thanks to Abby for copyediting and for providing light revisions to this piece.


In the early days of the pandemic, many instructors chose to be more flexible with students regarding attendance, the submission of coursework, the amount of readings and tasks assigned, and other course expectations. More recently we have heard concerns about continued movements toward flexibility: that it may negatively impact student engagement, that it does not prepare students for expectations in professional settings, that there is a loss of academic rigor and accountability (among other arguments). 

But investments in flexibility do not mean that instructors and students are abandoning accountability. It can be helpful to be precise and transparent with students (and with ourselves) about why we might see the benefits of flexibility, while also setting clear expectations to students who may need extensions, absences, or breaks in course workloads. We can model approaches to flexibility taken up in numerous other professional contexts, and commitments to the benefits of flexibility do not have to mean that we are neglecting obligations to educate and prepare our students for their lives beyond the university.  

Here are some perspectives on how to practice flexibility while also teaching students about the value of accountability:

Prioritize Learning, Not ComplianceIn a Twitter thread in which he discusses why he no longer grades attendance or class participation, educator John Warner notes that he asked himself “Am I rewarding compliance or am I measuring learning?” Answering that question helped Warner reflect on the roles that structure and guidance played in his teaching and course materials. 

Define what flexibility means to you: Despite good intentions, sometimes notes about being open to extensions or absences can be a bit unclear or vague to students, especially to first-generation students or to students still learning how to communicate and interact with their instructors. A recent article looks at the ways that making expectations explicit rather than implicit can help improve clarity of expectations and make the task of completing coursework more equitable for all.

Flexibility Beyond Deadline ExtensionsAdvocates for flexible teaching approaches in The Chronicle of Higher Ed note that flexible deadlines are important to them. But they also discuss the ways that they meet students where they are. They make course expectations more transparent, introduce more forms of active learning, and create space for students to build relationships with one another. If students are struggling with major projects and their attendant deadlines, consider revising those exercises into smaller, more discrete segments with early opportunities for feedback. If students are struggling with attendance but keeping up with other work, it could be helpful to reflect on what’s happening in live sessions and see if there are strategies or structures that would make attendance more urgent or engaging.

Further Reading

Staying Flexible Without Being Overwhelmed

Balancing Flexibility and Accountability

How To Give Our Students The Grace We All Need

Email Jim if you have questions or comments / feedback: jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail