By Lolita Paff, PhD
Policies are necessary. They serve as a warning to students: this is
what will happen if you are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late,
text or surf the Web during class, and the like. Most institutions
recommend teachers spell out consequences in their syllabi. Some schools
employ institution-wide policies for certain behaviors like academic
dishonesty. If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive
behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why
policies don’t work?
Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt
their effort to learn. Despite extensive evidence to the
contrary, many students believe their learning is unaffected by
technology distractions. “No screens” policies are aimed,
at least in part, to minimize distractions that hurt learning (their own
and peers’). But policies aren’t nearly as powerful as an
activity that demonstrates the effects of distraction.
Split the class into two groups. One is allowed to text; the other turns
phones off. After the lecture, students complete a short quiz. Ellis,
Daniels, and Jauregui (2010) report students in the phones off group
score significantly higher. Differences in points or scores will grab
students’ attention and are more likely to get them thinking
about their mobile technology use in and out of class than a “no
Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive. A student engages
in a behavior that isn’t addressed in the syllabus. A common
reaction is to add a new policy or rewrite the existing one for the
following term. The syllabus grows by a few lines. But the new policy
assumes future students will behave the same way. Different students may
behave in different ways, again, not covered in the policy. And the
student whose negative learning behavior precipitated the new policy may
not be in future courses. Has the new policy accomplished anything for
Sometimes these behaviors are one-offs. No policy fix is necessary.
Generally, a “new” negative learning behavior would be
more effectively addressed if the teacher talked with the student
individually or thought about what may have caused the behavior, and
then identified strategies to prevent it. Adding or editing policies is
a quick fix, but not one that advances student learning.
Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage
loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) The focus is on grades,
lost points, and consequences, instead of on learning and the learner.
Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse-making.
Meanwhile, inflexible policies often have an implied message
that’s probably unintentional: “I don’t care what
is going on in your life. This is the rule. Deal with it.”
Learning is personal. Harsh language and rigid rules diminish community
and send a message of distrust, and generally suggest teachers
don’t believe students will do work without the threat of
penalties. Worse, these policies suggest faculty don’t believe
the best about students. This leads to students believing teachers
don’t like or care for them.
A focus on rules and policies shifts interest away from learning. One
way to redirect attention is to share the learning and professional
rationales that underpin deadlines and policies. Provide opportunities
for students to have input about some assignment details or a few due
dates. A policy students help to shape is one they own, and one they are
more likely to live up to.
Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to
become self-directed learners. Policies, especially those with
harsh consequences, may reduce the number of times students arrive to
class late or show up unprepared. But what happens when the policy stick
(or carrot, for that matter) is removed? If students are only behaving
in a certain way because of a penalty or reward, what have they learned
about the value of the behavior (like reading) as part of learning?
Fortunately, there are teacher practices that help students mature as
learners while promoting positive learning behaviors. Teachers can
incorporate homework logs, assign learning reflections, facilitate
student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading.
Each of these strategies increases student ownership of learning and
advances their development as independent learners.
Consider how a strict policy commands attendance. Instead, or in
addition to policy, provide data that shows the negative correlation
between the number of absences and exam scores. Or, provide the dates
specific topics and concepts were covered and tell students the dates
they were absent. If students see that they lost points on topics that
were learned during their absence, they can see the consequence of
skipping class. This kind of evidence teaches more about the value of
attending class than does a policy requiring it.
Supplement course deadlines with a conversation about learning behaviors
like procrastination and time management. Share your own strategies for
juggling multiple responsibilities and meeting short- and long-term
commitments. Could students share their successful and not-so-successful
time management experiences? Have students been asked what would help
them get the work done in a timely way? Discussions about punctuality,
procrastination, and time management advance students’
understanding of how they work and learn.
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
Ellis, Y., Daniels, B., and Jauregui, A. 2010. The effect of
multitasking on grade performance of business students. Research in
Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.aabri.com/rhej.html.
Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at
Penn State Berks and is chair of the 2016 Teaching Professor Conference.
You can follow her on Twitter @1313lolita