Combining Structure and Flexibility

Combining structure and flexibility means giving students clear expectations, standards and deadlines, while providing students options when they cannot meet those expectations -- all so that students can learn what you expect them to.

Structure provides students the steps they need to take to succeed on a regular basis and the schedule by which they need to complete those steps. Learn more at CTL’s page on adding structure to your course.

Flexibility accommodates the ways in which the pandemic has made life increasingly complicated for you and your students by providing options in case work can’t get done. Learn more at CTL’s page on adding flexibility.

Attendance and Class Participation

If you will be conducting synchronous online class meetings, explaining the value of this time for students’ learning can help students know why attending these sessions matters and can guide you in deciding how to adapt when students miss these sessions. 

Possible strategies:

  • If you count attendance and class participation toward student grades, build in the assumption that students will have to miss some classes. Then decide on a set number of missed classes that students can take without consequence. 
  • Consider how you will enable students to make up learning they may have missed: ask students to engage with course materials by writing a response or summary or taking a short quiz. 
  • Give students access to lecture materials, such as class recordings, notes or PowerPoints.

Deadlines, Assignments and Exams

Students need deadlines to help them organize their time and stay on top of their work through the semester. Students also need options for what they can do if meeting those dates is not possible.

Plan those options in advance and communicate them to your students. Non-punitive alternatives will encourage students to communicate with you before they fall behind. 

Possible strategies:

  • Allow students to drop one missed mid-term, exam or test.
  • Provide multiple, low-stakes assessments. This can make dropping a missed one easier. To reduce student stress around multiple assessments, consider grading complete or incomplete, while still giving students feedback so they can improve.
  • Give students opportunities to redo assignments or take new versions of a test.
  • Scaffold assignments so students complete and get feedback on steps of a large project.


To help make sure students understand how you will be conducting class this semester and the guidelines and limits you are setting out, communicate clearly and regularly with them.  

Possible strategies:

  • Detail course expectations and what students should do when they need exceptions in the syllabus.
  • Use Canvas for assignments so that readings, class materials and due dates are in one regular, predictable place. What Students Want From Canvas Sites provides more insight into what students want from Canvas.
  • Send out a weekly email to the entire class about what students should be doing that week and with reminders for important graded work that is coming up.
  • Spend time in synchronous sessions previewing assignments and homework (and where students can find them in Canvas) and connecting what you do in these sessions to what you do outside of class.
  • Survey students so you know where needs may be.

What to do if students fall behind?

Fall of 2021 has shown that students are facing a number of different challenges and struggling to focus on their classwork.  No matter how well you communicate and set expectations, students may not be able to complete the work. Remember, you do NOT have to address these issues on your own.  Reach out for help or find ways to get students connected to help as soon as you see students falling behind.