How academic expectations have shifted throughout the pandemic

Bhavesh Gulrajani, Campus Life Reporter

Turning in assignments on time has proven to be a challenge over the last two years. During finals week in May 2022, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “My College Students Are Not OK.” In this piece, Jonathan Malesic, a professor at Southern Methodist University, argued that loosened academic standards due to world circumstances have actually been detrimental to the success of students.

Senior Lecturer of Philosophy and General Studies Mitch Clearfield has an unusual extension policy for his classes: his students can request an extension for assignments without the need to provide justification, and they propose a new deadline for themselves. A student’s new deadline simply needs to be compatible with the material and the class.

“For extensions, my goal is to give students however much flexibility the material actually allows,” Clearfield said. “[I] encourage them to take responsibility for managing their workload.”

His official policy is that he does not accept late work. So if a student misses their own deadline, they receive a zero. 

“It’s a balance between wanting to prepare students for the world out there and wanting Whitman to be better than the world out there,” Clearfield said.

He offered a mixed assessment on how students have fared since 2020. He was pleasantly surprised by how well students were able to persevere in the wake of the pandemic with the switch to online learning in the spring and the fully online fall. At the same time, he was also a bit surprised by how many students were struggling to keep up this past academic year.

“I don’t know how much of that was fatigue, being out of practice or having their minds torn by all the other stuff that was going on,” Clearfield said. “This has been a conversation among faculty quite a lot. Students, more so than ever before, [are] just not getting things done.”

He clarified that he is in no way condemning or criticizing students. Rather, he emphasizes that these are very broad trends that reflect what the current reality is for students. Faculty continue to have conversations about how to best respond to students struggling across the board, but solutions are not obvious.

A few changes have been made though, including to the process professors use to report underperforming students. Before, professors would send out grade deficiency reports, which were copied to the ARC, the Dean of Students’ office and the student’s academic advisor. This, however, framed a student’s struggles as a primarily academic issue.

“Now there’s a single system that also includes other concerns that might show up in a student’s performance in class,” Clearfield said.

As for this current semester, Professor Clearfield has been cautiously optimistic, as his students have been missing fewer assignments and classes. 

When a student needs support beyond their professor, they may be recommended or required to visit the Academic Resource Center (ARC).

Associate Director of Academic Resources Antonia Keithahn primarily focuses on disability support services.

Keithahn explained that students transitioning to college can face a substantial disconnect with regards to how assignments should be completed. Therefore, she posited that incoming students could benefit from additional clarity in what professors expect out of them. 

“There has been a bit of [an] ongoing change in how faculty approach deadlines and how to build in a reasonable amount of leniency,” Keithahn said.

She mentioned how students may have partially regained their composure, but not to the extent that they are back to their pre-pandemic selves.

“I think there have been ways in which people would say ‘I am a different person now’… [that] impact academics,” Keithahn said. “[They now] struggle to feel that they are as connected or impassioned as the student that they once were.” 

If a student is struggling to finish their paper, the Center for Writing and Speaking (COWS) may be a good place to visit. 

Senior biology major and seasoned COWS tutor Callie Martin reported that while overdue work is rarely seen at the COWS, students often bring in papers due that night or the next day.

She has noticed that a lot of procrastinating is rooted in anxiety, which, in turn, may stem from an assignment that seems intimidating, unclear or both. Anxiety can also stem from a student being unfamiliar with how to write a longer paper, which can consequently have the student put off their work.

“I think that [anxiety is] more the case than just not caring,” Martin said. “I think that it’s actually that they care so much about it that they don’t want to do a bad job.”

When a student is feeling unsure about an assignment’s expectations, Martin will encourage them to go speak to their professor. On the other hand, if they’re feeling unsure about the work itself, she focuses on building their confidence.

“A lot of this job is not even helping with writing; it’s providing some reassurance,” Martin said. 

As the pandemic waxes and wanes and its residual effects are felt, students may continue having trouble getting their assignments done. People are here to help.