Syllabus Shake-Up Day Four: Avoiding Assumptions about Students

It’s day four of the 2022 Syllabus Shake-Up Challenge! If you’re just joining in, don’t forget to check out days one, two, and three. In today’s installment, we’re talking about common harmful assumptions we make about students and how to combat them.

As with the previous days, there is a prompt for you to work through on your own at the end of the post. Feel free to share your thoughts with the community by commenting on this post, or on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!

Nearly 50% of college students with disabilities do not register with their institution’s disabilities service office for support.

Let’s imagine a scenario for a moment.

You, being the diligent and university admin-fearing instructor you are, provided your institution’s disability statement in your syllabus. You remind your students of the deadline to request accommodations both verbally and in online announcements. The specific importance of providing the proper documentation highlighted in the boilerplate language of the statement is emphasized.

Nearly half of colleges students with disabilities are registered with their institution’s disability service office for support, so you do inevitably receive the documentation you seek from some students.

But what about those students who haven’t registered?

Those whose accommodations were not approved by the disabilities service office?

Or those whose disabilities remain undiagnosed?

Requiring students to provide the appropriate documentation from your institution’s disabilities service office may be institution policy, but your accommodations shouldn’t begin and end there.

Assuming that only those students who have documentation need accommodations inflicts harm on those who cannot provide documentation for whatever reason.

This is just one of many harmful assumptions that we as instructors tend to make about our students. These assumptions may be overt, or they may be unintentionally enacted in our classrooms due to deep-seated beliefs about student behavior.

Below, I unpack five of the most common harmful assumptions about students.

For each assumption I offer an analysis of what’s really going on there. Then I provide some actionable steps to changing our beliefs about student behavior.

#1: Not doing the readings = laziness

What’s really going on: Students are probably overwhelmed and/or overworked.

Actionable steps to change your perspective:

  • Reframe your complaint: are your students really lazy, or are they bored, unmotivated, or disengaged?
  • Have you considered the range of external factors (e.g. clubs, sports, other classes) that may be preventing them from completing assigned work?
  • How much work are you assigning? Is it manageable for a full-time student taking an average of four courses a semester and participating in extracurricular activities?
  • What mode(s) of content delivery are you using in your course? Is it homogeneous (e.g. lecture only) or is there variety?
  • Are your assignments aligned with specific learning goals? Is the rationale behind each assignment clearly articulated?

#2: Showing up late for class = disdain for learning

What’s really going on: There may be factors in their personal lives that are affecting their ability to show up on time.

Actionable steps to change your perspective:

  • Are attendance and tardiness policies clearly articulated in your syllabus?
  • Have you explained why showing up on time for class is beneficial to your students?
  • Are you modeling the behavior that you expect from your students?
  • When students are late, have you considered the myriad of factors that might affect their ability to show up on time? For students who are chronically late, have you asked them why this might be happening?

#3: If students don’t ask for help, they must not need it

What’s really going on: Students may not feel comfortable approaching you for any number of reasons. These include feeling like they’re bothering you; feeling like their questions are stupid; feeling like they are unworthy of help; or not knowing how to contact you.

Actionable steps to change your perspective:

This post provides great insight into the reasons why students don’t ask for help. The tips offered in this post should, however, start with syllabus design.

Some ways to encourage students to ask for help when they need it include:

  • Reframing ‘office hours’ as ‘student hours’ to encourage students to seek help, rather than feeling like they are bothering you
  • Providing information about university services available to them, including ones that will help them work on skills that will improve their performance in the course – both verbally and in writing (for example, in the syllabus)
  • Using warm, friendly, and encouraging language in your syllabus to ensure that all students feel valued and respected
  • Considering involving students in the course or syllabus design process to further emphasize the collaborative, rather than competitive nature of the course

#4: If students don’t complain about offensive material, then that material is OK

What’s really going on: Certain students feel uncomfortable making a complaint about an instructor, who they perceive as their superior, because they are afraid of feeling vulnerable or potential retaliation.

Actionable steps to change your perspective:

In a really insightful conversation between Dr. Arum Park and Dora Gao recorded on the SCS blog earlier this week, Gao described their approach to inclusive and culturally responsive teaching as a graduate student instructor. Graduate students are often tasked with navigating difficult topics and material in the classroom because they are frequently not responsible for setting the curriculum.

Gao’s discussion of their approach to teaching Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education offers some key features of culturally responsive teaching that everyone – grad students and faculty instructors alike – should aim to incorporate into their pedagogical strategies:

  • Students and teacher reflect on the reading. This is followed by a discussion of general feelings about the material.
  • Provide a content warning. There is a lot out there on the inherent merits and detriments of trigger warnings. I appreciated Dora’s approach. This not only signaled to students that the reading contained difficult content, but also prioritized their students’ well-being by encouraging them to take care of themselves in whatever way they deemed necessary.
  • Explain why your students are engaging with this content. What purpose does this content serve in the broader context of the class and of their learning?
  • Validate the lives and experiences of those who are being denigrated. This can serve several purposes, but in the case of Dora’s class, it served to illustrate how British rhetoric was not only racist but also false. Moreover, it was their hope that highlighting the accomplishments of South Asia would spark interest in Indian literature and culture among students.

#5: If a student is cheating, they aren’t taking the course seriously

What’s really going on: Students have been taught that grades are more important than learning.

Actionable steps to change your perspective:

The basic perspective change that needs to happen here relates to how learning is conceptualized. Rather than viewing learning as something measured by the completion of a set of tasks, it should be understood as a process or journey.

This shift in perspective is accompanied by a shift from primarily summative to primarily formative assessments. This post provides some helpful analogies:

“I tell students: Players don’t get stats during practice, they get stats at their game. Similarly, if you’re rehearsing something, you’re allowed to mess up. If you fail your first driver’s test, you get your second driver’s test. They don’t average the two scores – you pass the second one when you demonstrate mastery, and then you get your driver’s license.”


A common approach that teachers employ in service of this shift in perspective is ungrading.

Ungrading refers to “any assessment that decenters the action of an instructor assigning a summary grade to student work” (Lafayette University). Instead, it involves formative feedback or “coaching” which may be combined with student self-evaluation and/or peer feedback.

This FAQ by Jesse Stommel goes into some detail about their rationale for and approach to ungrading.

Contract grading

A related alternative and student-centered approach to grading that is popular is contract grading.

While contract grading does assign a grade at the end of the semester, this approach involves cooperation between the instructor and their students. It entails the completion of a set number of assignments that equal a predetermined letter grade.

As Ryan Cordell notes, “when students’ final grade is based on requirements being met to a satisfactory level, it does not make sense to record grades for individual assignments, because there is no math to be done to produce the final grade.” This tends to be a common sticking point in Cordell’s classes, because students often default to point penalties for missed deadlines or inadequate work.

In subsequent courses, however, Cordell has engaged students in conversations about what meaningful consequences might look like. Thus, their focus is effectively shifted away from points and grade deductions.

Moreover, the power relations are also shifted away from external consequences inflicted by the instructor to consequences that are more intrinsically meaningful for the students themselves.

Question of the day: What assumptions have you made about your students? What actionable steps can you take to combat that assumption and change your perspective?
Comment below or share your thoughts on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!

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