The following frequently asked questions are the most critical to attend to when planning to teach, because they are either:
- the most likely to cause problems if you don’t know the answer or
- the most urgent in getting students the help that they need
Absences (Instructors) – Q: May I cancel class if I am sick, attending a conference, or out of town for research purposes?
A: Do not cancel class unless there is a dire emergency. At Penn State, faculty should not cancel classes; only the University cancels classes. Be sure to create contingency plans in case you become sick or need to travel (e.g., to an academic conference). Contingency plans could include an arrangement with a colleague with whom you agree to teach the other’s course if illness occurs; or plans could include a guest speaker who can be flexible about the date for a guest presentation.
Faculty don’t cancel classes, Penn State cancels classes. If a faculty member can’t hold a class, the expectation is that instruction will occur in some other way (i.e., remote instruction, asynchronous activity, guest speaker, etc.). Generally, faculty should not cancel classes; if they do, they should let the academic unit know so that they can field questions. Certainly, there are times when a last-minute cancellation due to an emergency or illness is unavoidable, but faculty should have contingency plans in place should they have to miss a class.Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, Dr. Kathleen Bieschke
Absences (Students) – Q: May I require evidence to support a student’s excuse for missing class, and am I required to provide make-up opportunities?
A: You may not ask for evidence to support a student’s excuse for missing class if the reason for missing class is medical. You may, however, use a Penn State Excused Class Absence form to collect dates and times when individual students will miss class due to university-approved activities.
Within reason, instructors should provide opportunities for students to make up work missed due to missing class. See the University Faculty Senate’s 42-27 Class Attendance policy and E-11: Class Attendance and Evaluation of Student Performance procedures. Be sure to consult the former for expectations on make-up work and the latter for specific guidance regarding classes missed due to illness.
Academic Integrity – Q: What do I do when I suspect a student has cheated?
A: Never handle the problem yourself, because doing so denies the student due process. Instead, you must report the student using the academic integrity process, outlined in the G-9 procedures designed by the Faculty Senate.
There are several benefits to using the formal process, aside from due process issues. The process also allows us to catch and to sanction repeat offenders. The process also ensures that the student learns about issues of academic integrity and to experience appropriate sanctions in the educational environment of the University. And it ensures that sanctions are consistently applied across all cases.
Review definitions, procedures, forms, and policies on the College of IST’s Faculty Academic Integrity Resources page.
Accommodations – Q: What do I do when a student has a disability and asks for an accommodation?
A: Do not make decisions about disability accommodations yourself. Instead, refer students who ask about student disability accommodations to the Office of Student Disability Resources Office (SDR).
SDR staff members work with students and instructors to provide course accommodations for students who need them. Accommodations look different for every student. Share the information on the Student Disability Resources page, and tell students to make an appointment with a counselor from SDR. For specific questions or concerns about your course and accessibility accommodations, email ISTLearningDesign@psu.edu.
If you receive a notice from the Office of Student Disability Resources Office (SDR), stating that you must provide particular accommodations, follow the guidance on What to Do Regarding Accommodations page.
For more on accommodations, see the Disability Resources heading in the alpha Index on the Policies and Procedures page of the College of IST’s Teaching site.
Course Content – Q: How much latitude do I have to adapt and create the content of a course I am assigned to teach?
A: Despite possible variation in pedagogical style, course materials, delivery mode, or location, regular courses (i.e., not special topics courses) approved by the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee must include a minimum of 80% of the core content and learning objectives described in the most current course proposal as approved by Faculty Senate.
The 80% rule is stated in University Faculty Senate 170-10 Course Uniformity/Course Coherence policy. Consult the undergraduate or graduate bulletin for the general course description. In addition, for undergraduate courses, see undergraduate course webpages and contact the course committee chairperson to learn about the most recent version of the course. For graduate courses, contact the Director of Master’s Programs or the Director of Doctoral Programs, listed on the faculty leadership page.
Distressed Students – Q: How do I support and respond to distressed students?
A: Respond to students with care and concern and refer them to appropriate resources on campus. To do so, use Penn State’s Red folder. Familiarize yourself with the contents, so that you have a sense of where to begin, should you encounter a distressed student in your course or lab.
- For assistance during normal business hours, contact the Office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
- For assistance after normal business hours, contact the Community Crisis Line
Extra Credit – Q: How do I handle student request for extra credit?
A: Extra credit refers to points students can earn for participating in an evaluative event (e.g., workshop participation; research study participation; extra quiz questions, problem sets, or papers) that is offered in addition to the originally scheduled evaluative events (e.g., quizzes, exams, individual or team assignments) that are published in the course syllabus. All students need to be afforded the same opportunity to participate in additional evaluative events.
Further, if offering extra credit (i.e., an additional evaluative event) for research participation, students must be offered alternative and equivalent evaluative event opportunities, so that no student will feel compelled to participate in research. Read more here: IRB link.
Be sure to address IRB and equal opportunity considerations before deciding whether or not to offer extra credit.
Final Exams and Projects – Q: Can I schedule an exam or final project during the last week of classes, rather than during finals week?
A: You may not assign a final exam or final project during the last week of classes. You may schedule quizzes or other small assignments during the last week of classes; however, those quizzes or assignments may not exceed 10% of the student’s final grade. See University Faculty Senate 44-20 Final Examination Policy, especially point #3.
Parent/Guardian Conversations – Q: What do I do when a parent or guardian of one of my students wants to talk to me?
A: You may not talk to a parent or guardian of one of your students, unless the student has provided written consent as specified by law (see below).
In the United States, the privacy of academic information for learners who are 18 years old or older is protected under federal law, referred to as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Unless students specify individuals who can have access to their academic information, you may not disclose information about your students to others. If you confirm (with the College’s Advising Office) that the student has provided written permission for a parent or guardian to speak with others about the student’s academic progress, then you may engage in conversation with the person(s) named.
For more information on the law and what is covered, see the University’s FERPA FAQ page.
Student Complaints about Grades – Q: What happens when a student challenges a grade, and what do I need to do?
A: When students complain about points on an assignment, either you or your course assistant (i.e., Teaching Assistant, Instructional Assistant, or Learning Assistant) should gather information from the student (via course email or a face-to-face meeting) to ascertain the nature of the discrepancy. In such cases, the best tools to have on hand are the grading rubric for the assignment and the completed rubric for the individual student.
Rubrics express expectations for assignments and specify performance levels (i.e., increasing levels of understanding and competence) with a range of points to be assigned. If a student expresses that they “should have gotten more points,” turn the conversation into a learning conversation with, “Where in your assignment have you shown the levels of understanding and competence that would warrant more points for your work?”
You may find that there was an error in grading, and you can change the points. In such cases, be sure to consider whether it is right and fair to make such changes across the board, if other students were inadvertently marked incorrectly. Alternatively, you may find that there was no error in grading. In these cases, a conversation about what you expect and what the rubric means can be helpful to the student.
If the student’s complaint is about the final grade in the course, the student would need to follow the University’s formal procedures. See the University Faculty Senate’s procedure G-10: Grade Mediation and Adjudication for details.
Student Complaints about Teaching – Q: What happens when a student complains about how I am teaching a course, and what do I need to do?
A: When students express a complaint about teaching, they may address you directly, or they may address another member of the faculty in a leadership position—often the Dean of the College. In all cases, begin by listening to the complaint and considering its merits.
- Are there things you could be doing differently to reach a wider range of students?
- Are there norms of which you were previously unaware and to which you could adjust?
- Are there colleagues to approach for guidance?
- What does the complaint reveal about their preparation for the course?
- What does the complaint reveal about their study strategies, and how can you assist in sharing better strategies?
- What resources (e.g., tutoring) can you suggest to students?
Approaching complaints from a concerned, problem-solving position generates the best solutions.
If the complaint is submitted to someone other than you, you will receive an email with directions about how to handle. This may include any one or more of the following:
- If the student agrees to approach you about the issue, make time to speak with the student directly; and determine the best course of action.
- Meet with the faculty leader to discuss the complaint.
- Work with a member of the College’s Teaching, Learning, and Assessment team to collect data and determine the best course of action.
- Schedule a consultation with the University’s teaching center: Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.