Student Grandmothers, mitigating circumstances, and process

Yesterday seemed to draw the issue of ‘student-shaming’, and the murky world of staff attitudes to student’s requests for extended deadlines, into the open.  The spur for this was a piece in the USA-based Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s)

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The piece, written as a character, uses the trope of ‘student Grandmother deaths rise around Final exams period’  (see Students’ Grandmothers More Likely to Die During Finals Week, and more), is fictional, and was intended as humorous.


The response was mostly of a ‘not amused’ type. I don’t think I can improve on the Tenure She Wrote response, To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s). So I won’t try.

What it did cause me to reflect on though, was some recent conversations I have had, mostly with USA-based colleagues, where they have discussed how to deal with student requests for extensions due to mitigating circumstances. It seems, at least it is my impression, that many course/module tutors just write their own policy in the class guide – and then use that to manage the requests they receive.

This gives me a rare opportunity to praise regulations and institution-wide consistency. It also gives me a chance to say something really positive about the institution  I work at (The University of Gloucestershire). We are in a situation where, as the teacher on a module, as the leader of that module – I am not in a position to grant students extra time. At all. We introduced a Helpzone system a few years ago – whereby students who have either ongoing specific needs, or those with mitigating circumstances apply for extra time via the Helpzone. The process can be in person, or via the online system. If they are given the extension – the Helpzone amends the due date for the student’s work in the Electronic Management of Assessment system.

What I think is really beneficial here is not only am I no longer responsible for making judgements that I am not qualified to make (about student health, well being, distress, and ‘deserved-ness’), but that if a student chooses, the Helpzone won’t reveal the nature of the mitigation to me – unless my teaching needs a particular form of adaptation on behalf of the student. I can see the hand-in date for some students is not the same as the one I set – some may have a regular ‘week extra’ agreement, due to a particular need, where others will have had it amended due to arising circumstances. The student can choose to discuss things with me, many do, and I hope I provide support when they need it from me, but they are not required to. They have control of that – which strikes me as entirely appropriate. The chance that I might indulge my unconscious bias is removed, and the system is transparent and the same for all students on all courses. Now, the Helpzone still requires evidence, and is in some senses quite formal, but all students know the nature of this, and have induction into the process when they join us, alongside a wider policy of student support.

When I see colleagues talk about being plagued for extensions, and having to balance overall cohort equity with sympathy for individuals, I am always taken aback. Our system is not perfect, and there are more extended forms of support I haven’t outlined here for students with longer-term complex circumstances, but I am amazed that Universities still operate a policy where staff have to make ad hoc decisions – and have the power to do so.

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