New web resource promotes ‘Flexibility with Boundaries’

The Tar Heel Teaching and Learning Collaborative put together a clear, concise and easily relatable guide on how to balance compassion and accountability.

College teacher leaning towards row of students and speaking to them.
Tar Heel Teaching and Learning Collaborative member Kelly Hogan in the classroom.

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is abundantly clear: Burnout and fatigue are real for both instructors and students. Beginning in March of 2020, we pivoted and, in many ways, we’re still pivoting.

During those early days of crisis, a group of two dozen people across a variety of Carolina schools and units led by Vice Provost for Digital and Lifelong Learning Todd Nicolet dove in and produced a set of COVID-19 resources aptly named Keep Teaching to support the unprecedented move to online instruction.

This same group, now known as the Tar Heel Teaching and Learning Collaborative, has developed a new web resource for instructors called “Flexibility with Boundaries” in time for the 2022 fall semester. Clear, concise and easily relatable, the guide offers up a series of common scenarios involving absence, extension and missed-work policies.

Say you’re an instructor, and you want to offer flexibility around deadlines, but you’re worried that students will wait until the bitter end to submit work? If students procrastinate and cram, they aren’t learning optimally and you get stuck with lots of last-minute grading — both negative outcomes.

To help you avoid this result, “Flexibility with Boundaries” offers a bulleted list of best practices and even includes a model script for improving your course syllabus.

“Teaching and learning during the pandemic have been hard and stressful,” said Tar Heel TLC member Viji Sathy, director of the Townsend Program for Education Research and a professor of the practice in the College of Arts and Sciences’ psychology and neuroscience department. “We hope that we can be helpful to instructors by providing resources, strategies and scripts that will allow them to demonstrate their care for students without overburdening themselves.”

Indeed, the pandemic and related college mental health crisis have made flexible teaching practices more important than ever. When these practices recognize diverse learner needs and situations, they have the potential to foster not only student and instructor wellness, but also student thriving more uniformly for all.

The need for boundaries

To be most effective, however, flexibility must have clear and well-defined boundaries. Otherwise, even well-intentioned flexible course frameworks can tax educators and leave students with too little structure.

“Compassion without boundaries actually creates a lopsided power dynamic,” said Tar Heel TLC member Jennifer Larson, director of credit programs and summer school in Digital and Lifelong Learning and an adjunct teaching professor in the College’s English and comparative literature department. “It disempowers the student since the instructor retains all the power to determine whether the compassion is ‘granted.’ Such decisions easily become arbitrary at best and biased at worst. Boundaries create the infrastructure that allows compassion to remain a mutual agreement with tangible responsibilities on both sides.”

That infrastructure benefits both instructors and students. “In many ways, what we are doing is helping to ensure that educators are feeling equipped to support students. The nature of our work has shifted considerably in the past few years,” Sathy said. “Students are more openly sharing hardships they are encountering. We need to be prepared as an institution to support instructors and students — and not just in their teaching and learning, but also their wellness.”

The resource tackles a handful of scenarios that will be familiar to most instructors:

  • You want to be flexible with your students, but you’re worried about them taking advantage of your compassion.
  • A student requests an extension on an assignment or assessment.
  • A student asks to attend one or more classes remotely, even though the course is taught primarily in person.
  • A student tells you that they are struggling with keeping up during finals due to family or other personal concerns and asks what options are available for finishing up the course.

Inclusivity and the ‘whole learner’

Flexibility with boundaries is an important aspect of inclusive teaching, said Sathy, who recently co-authored “Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom” with Tar Heel TLC member Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation, QEP director and STEM teaching professor in the College’s biology department.

“We need structure and transparency for equity,” Sathy said. “For example, some students know to ask for an extension, while some may not feel it is appropriate and turn in something that isn’t their best work. Structure and transparency mean we are making it clear to the students what our policies are so assumptions are not being made.”

Acknowledging today’s students in all their fullness and complexity is critical.

“Inflexible pedagogical practices operate on the premise that students only exist in our classroom,” said Leslie Rowen, an instructor and doctoral student in the College’s English and comparative literature department and a graduate assistant in Digital and Lifelong Learning. “The ‘whole learner’ approach is about recognizing students as individuals with responsibilities and priorities outside of our classroom.”

Though these teaching and learning concepts were honed during a time of crisis, the Tar Heel TLC stressed that they are broadly applicable. Many colleges and universities have developed collective statements about the importance of inclusive teaching for their undergraduate students.

“We hope with more conversations around inclusive teaching and using good teaching practices proactively, we will develop a culture where this becomes the new norm, the new mindset,” said Tar Heel TLC member Manisha Mittal, instructional designer in the School of Nursing. “We are working intentionally to balance the equation for instructors and students, so that students succeed and instructors avoid burnout.”

A note from the Tar Heel Teaching and Learning Collaborative

We anticipate that there will continue to be opportunities to engage around flexible teaching and expect to continue to collaborate across units. If you have a question about whether your unit/role is represented or if you would like to suggest someone to include (self-nominations welcome!) please contact Digital and Lifelong Learning staff member Megan Johnson at We also welcome idea submissions at the Center for Faculty Excellence’s Remote Teaching Field Notes webpage.