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Course Policies and Learning Behaviors

By Judith Ross-Bernstein

I’m curious and in pursuit of other higher education bloggers since my earlier entry (Relationships at the Heart of Learning). In that entry I settled on a teaching policy, hard on standards and soft on students. Drawing from personal narrative, I portrayed a faculty disposition toward student support that is highly personalized, empathetic, responsive, and forward moving. In the spirit of reflective dialogue with faculty at the Center for Faculty Excellence, I’m fixed on pushing this a bit further. My colleagues generated dilemmas stemming from Crow’s essay (2015), Hard on Standards and Soft on Students that are worth mentioning:

  • Coming from high school, how do students understand what it means to be a college student?
  • How do we teach what is seemingly “implicit”, their role among other roles inside and outside of the classroom?
  • Language matters. What language do we use to communicate the meaning of these roles (e.g. Do you call your students, folks, colleagues, friends, class etc.?)
  • How do students come to understand the difference in quality of study/work versus the quantity of study/work?
  • How do we gain student’s trust in our teaching and assessment?
  • How do we manage the morale of the class?
  • How do we discuss what is fair and unfair with the students?
  • How do we make our thinking visible to the students (Do rubrics help?)
  • How do we balance individual and group needs of the class?

Consider the full weight of the questions on the table. One response to making our expectations explicit is communicating policy to students. Policy and consequence seem interwoven: what happens if you miss class one, twice or more; what happens if you plagiarize or cheat; what happens if you use your smartphone for personal texts in class, etc.

In her blog entry, Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions, Dr. Lolita Paff asks a provocative question, “if policies are supposed to prevent those unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?” To this she suggests a few reasons:

  • Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt their effort to learn.
  • Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive.
  • Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding.
  • Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to become self-directed learners.

Is it likely that we routinely communicate the policies of what NOT to do, rather than what TO DO. But of great import, how do we communicate to students, (how and what do we teach), to support their incremental development as mature and independent learners?

“Policies are necessary. It’s important for students to understand what is expected of them and the consequences when they fall short. But to develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences.” (Paff, 2015)

Paff notes strategies and practices help students to grow as self-sufficient, motivated and mature learners?

  • Homework logs, learning reflections, student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading can allow student ownership of their own learning
  • Connect data and reasoning to policy. Link discussions of low exam scores, or missed concepts to missed attendance. Internalizing why a policy is made to support learning strengthens buy-in to your methods.
  • Speak explicitly about learning behaviors: task management, timeliness versus procrastination, persistence, the importance of taking a break – as you explain assignments.
  • Have students reflect on their own thinking and learning. Use metacognitive strategies for planning, monitoring and assessing that pertain to your discipline. Here are a dozen prompts to suggest to students (Stanger-Hall 2012).
  1. Ask yourself “How does it work?” and “Why does it work this way?”
  2. Draw flowcharts, diagrams, concept maps
  3. Break down complex processes, step-by-step
  4. Compose your own study questions
  5. Reorganize class information
  6. Compare and contrast information
  7. Fit the facts into a bigger picture
  8. Close your notes and see what you remember
  9. Figure out how and why ideas are connected
  10. Draw diagrams with missing pieces and fill them in
  11. Ask, how does this impact my life, my body, others?
  12. Use Bloom’s taxonomy to write your own study questions

What teaching and learning policies do you communicate in your coursework and how does that impact student behavior? (On this last point of interest, Professor Dave Gondek will share his strategies (11/11 12:30-1:45 @ the CFE) for helping students to develop metacognitive skills.)


Crow, M.L. (2015). Hard on Standards, Soft on Students. University of Texas System, Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Paff, L. (2015). Why policies fail to promote better learning decisions. Faculty Focus. Higher Education Teaching Strategies From Magna Publications.

Stanger-Hall, K.F. (2012). Multiple Choice Exams: An Obstacle in Higher Level Thinking in Introductory Science Classes.  CBE—Life Sciences Education.Vol. 11, 294–306.

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