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Special Cases

Every so often, usually one to two times a year, a special case comes along. There will be a situation or a student with unique needs that don’t fit neatly in the lines of your carefully planned course. For whatever reason, your policies and procedures just don’t apply, and you need to adjust.

Sometimes it’s the precursor to a shift in how things will be done in the future, so everything needs to begin to adjust to accommodate a new way of doing things. Usually, it is merely the annoyance of the ubiquitous ‘exception to the rule.’

If you are like me, you are doing good to keep the normal things humming along, and you don’t relish the thought of having to figure out how to fit this road bump into your schedule. I have found a reasonably simple solution to moderate the effect of these special cases.

Make it part of the lesson.

Pull the students involved aside and discuss their situation with them. Ask them what ideas they have on how to handle it, and listen to them. It often inspires unique solutions in my own mind that ‘springboarded’ off of theirs.

By making them partners in the process, they become owners of the situation, and don’t mindlessly depend on you to solve their problem. Bring them in conspiratorially as co-investigators. Make it clear to them (and yourself) that since this is an experiment in progress, adjustments will likely need to be made as you go, and that’s fine.

As for the grade, it can be a special project or simply a percentage of the assignment. As the instructor, you generally have the authority to make adjustments off-syllabus for special cases.

The trick is to have everyone involved agree to it in writing. It can be as simple as an email to them laying it out and asking for them to respond with their agreement, and keep modifications communicated in email. Make sure that the work involved is comparable to the opportunities all other students have for their grades. Being able to demonstrate that it is fair to the entire class and that the accommodations are appropriate and equitable helps if there are any complaints.

One example I’ve done is when a student is medically unable to do lab work, I have them do extra library work, and share it with their partner, who’s collected all of the data. Then they each do their own data analysis, discussion of results, and conclusions, but they’ve each contributed to the work.

When I’ve introduced a new lab experiment, I’ll have a student do a run through as a special project, beta testing it. Then when I roll it out to the class as a whole (usually the next semester), I’ll work more closely with the first couple of groups through it and see what new bugs are discovered, and not grade them as stringently for their assistance in helping me refine it. They probably work harder and make more mistakes due to things not being clear, so they aren’t penalized for those things.

In each case, I’ve communicated with them their partnership in the process, and they get excited because they feel they are helping to shape the class and take a more active role in their education, and they probably learn more as a result.

And you don’t have to be the expert with the solution, or even fake it. You build rapport with your students. It takes away the pressure on the outcome, because you don’t have to have a ready-made “product” for them. You are undergoing “product-development” with them, not for them. This is both mentorship and discipleship at its best. It is teaching them how to fish, and they are doing the work, and you are supervising it. Not a bad way to take a load off when something unexpected arises.


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