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My journey through academia has been a hard-fought battle against myself and all my worst traits. I'm now finishing my PhD and concurrently teaching courses in which I inevitably come across students who do things that remind me of my own mistakes. I find myself empathizing and trying to find bits of 'life wisdom' to impart, with the goal of being helpful.

I don't remember ever being on the receiving end of such an email. I'm also certain that my colleagues don't it, which, given that they're quite good at their jobs and I'm relatively new at this, makes me want to evaluate this tendency critically.

Here's an example:

Student missed a deadline for a makeup assignment. Class policy (decided elsewhere) is that this forfeits their right to an exam retake. So I send all the boilerplate emails, and they apologize, saying that they didn't have the time or energy to get it done before the deadline.

I totally get it, so I write back that I'm sorry, I understand it's rough to play catch-up in these situations. Then I said that teachers often have greater leeway to offer students who ask for extensions before it's due, and that sending a quick email to a teacher explaining the situation upfront can be really helpful. I say that I was totally oblivious to this fact when I was a student, so I try to tell students this now.

Then, I explained that it was still really important to complete the replacement assignment anyway, because it's easy to glance at it, think you understand it, then realize during the test that there were nuances in its application that you didn't actually understand.

Then I offered to look at the student's assignment if they could send it within a few days, just to make sure there weren't any obvious knowledge gaps.

It seemed reasonable as I was writing it, but afterwards I wonder if it's preachy and patronizing. Given that it's exactly the sort of advice I give my teenager on the regular, it makes me wonder if it's the sort of communication best left to their parents and not their teachers.

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    Are these school or university students? If the latter, are their parents really monitoring their work and exams that closely? Personally I would send emails with advice like this as it's not going to actively harm anyone and may help those struggling students a lot. – astronat Mar 8 at 12:13
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    @astronat, these are undergraduate university students, largely first-years. I also teach some third-year classes and have had similar moments where I take what I'm now identifying as a very mom-ish approach to communication. – Danielle McCool Mar 8 at 12:16
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    Glad you asked. Yes, do this! – Ethan Bolker Mar 8 at 15:27
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    Not all students are in regular communication with their parents, so one cannot rely on this. – Tom Mar 8 at 23:02
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    You could probably setup a wiki/mock FAQ with such advice, and provide the link to the students at the beginning of the course. – clef Mar 9 at 16:32
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It's totally appropriate especially for first year students. Learning college level study skills is one of the crucial tasks of the first year. Additionally, many students whose parents did not attend college (and even some who do have such parents) are totally unaware that they can do things such as attend office hours or email the professor if they need an extension or have a problem. In fact the way you have structured this, you could even in the future think of developing such knowledge as a learning outcome.

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    Additionally, this topic (academic skills) would be a great topic to place in the syllabus and also to discuss during the first class when the syllabus is discussed as a way to inform ALL students and to give them a skillset which will be important throughout their entire academic career. – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng Mar 10 at 19:39
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It looks like you give your advice because you care and this is all that is important. The notions of being "preachy" and "patronizing" may be applicable to the wording of your message in this case but not to the message itself. In any case, your advice makes no harm and can potentially make some good. As usual, a fool will ignore it and a smart person will listen and decide for himself whether it makes sense or not and that is all you can expect, but I wouldn't be afraid of "stating the obvious" if it once was not obvious to you. I would even put a few things like that in the syllabus.

Unfortunately (at least in the USA) we cannot rely on parents guiding our students because we are not even legally allowed to discuss their performance with them and guess what type of students are most prone to hide their achievements and problems from their parents.

So just continue what you are doing. It makes perfect sense. If you wonder why your colleagues are not doing that, just discuss it with them. You may discover that they have other ways to communicate such messages that they find more efficient. As to myself, I usually give advice like that in class rather than sending individual e-mails (so if I see that obvious thing that can benefit one student, I just tell it to everybody).

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Advising better ways to handle academic life is not, IMHO, stepping outside of your boundaries as a teacher. Sure, if you were meddling in their personal lives then, yes, it would be better to leave it to their parents.

A second point is that, from your message, it seems some students might get different conditions than others. This is dangerous territory and I would not recommend going into it. Specially since, with experience, you'll realize that these occurrences are the norm, not exceptions. In my experience, students that ask for more time (and get it) during their first year continue to do so until they eventually graduate. Also, some students might start pressuring other teachers to open exceptions and soften rules.

A strategy that I implement is to make these "exceptions" part of the rules. For instance, delivering assignments late (up to a certain point) deducts points from their grade as long as it does not make a passing student fail. So there is a consequence to delivering late (smaller grade), but it does not fail a student that has (eventually) achieved all the courses' objectives.

Another strategy I use is to allow for individual time extensions, but students must ask for it one week before the deadline and must also have at least X% of the assignment done. This one is great to communicate that if the student plans to do the assignment on the last moment and then something unexpected happens, it's the student's fault and they do not deserve more time. Shit happens in adult life and they should start taking that into account. Of course, we can throw a "shit happens" rule so students can deliver at most one late assignment without consequences.

I usually present all this upfront at the start of the semester, so student know what they will have to live up to. It can also be a nice way of bringing up the subject of how to handle academic life and help students that are struggling.

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  • I appreciate this answer because the perspective differs and suggests why other teachers react differently. In this particular case, it's one of many workgroups for a lecture with hundreds of students. Because the goal is fair treatment of each student, there are specific rules with built-in exceptions, rigorously documented. Explicitly, little room is allowed for individual circumstances, but we are nevertheless responsive to people who ask. I think this speaks to a true nature of the "real world," biased in favor of those who communicate. Maybe communicating this fact helps mitigate it? – Danielle McCool Mar 31 at 9:54
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I think it is great that you care both about your students and about doing things rights. Having had similar questions and being myself a child of parent that did not have higher education on top of having to move to a different city to study, reducing my interaction with my parents, I fully share your concerns that some sudents may not have access to the information this kind of arrangements are possible from their family.

A core concern I have about this is: how are you making sure it is not unfair? To build on you example, some other students in similar situation may have been able to meet the deadline in a way damaging to themselves (e.g. poor quality assignment, overwork or even straight up giving up on university before getting your boilerplate emails). If I was in the second group I would be very upset about the fact that some other could get out of it by simply asking nicely, especially since I would never have imagined it was possible or considered acceptable in any way.

This is not to say that you should not give these kinds of advice, but rather that they are so essential that if possible you should distribute them to every students equally before they even need it. If universities had clearly layed out and broadly publicized policies about when getting an exception to a rule is possible and acceptable, it would probably be ideal and you would not have to be concerned about it yourself. Things being what they are, your inputs are unvaluable.

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    I'd suggest bringing it up during the lecture - so that the students who rushed poor quality work would know they they could have requested an extension as well. – nick012000 Mar 9 at 3:02
  • "If I was in the second group I would be very upset about the fact that some other could get out of it by simply asking nicely" Asking nicely is always an acceptable option. – Captain Giraffe Mar 9 at 3:39
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    @CaptainGiraffe I suspect it may be cultural. I can definitely imagine situations where asking for a favor would not be considered proper, even if it is asked nicely. – Kolaru Mar 9 at 14:53
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I'd like to chime in with some experience from my PhD time (as a student, we either had deadlines about which there was no discussion, or there wasn't any deadline as in, submit whenever you like, but there won't be a grade before)

My professor had a very good reputation for teaching. That is, teaching analytical chemistry. As a PhD student, however, there were a whole lot of points which I did not understand - not chemistry related, but more about the management of research and research politics and the like. Many years later, I can now see likely (and good) reasons why he said what he said, wanted me to do things the way he wanted, and acted the way he did.

I'd now say that after receiving a formal tertiary education in chemistry, as a PhD student I did an apprenticeship of learning by doing a 2nd profession: that of an academic researcher. Back then I had only the hazy idea that I did not quite understand what was going on.
And I'd also say now that he probably also never had the idea that - maybe - the profession of research (or group leading, academic management, lecturing, ...) could be taught in an explicit way like we teach chemistry.

With that in mind, I'd like to encourage you to go on reflecting also these "secondary" professions and then teaching it to your students, like you teach your field.

The same applies to dos and don'ts of how studying at university works.
(BTW, we were told as first year students e.g. that the failure rates are usually high [we performed as usual, with about 1/4 passing the 1st semester at the 1st time, and another ≈ 1/4 passing after re-doing 1st semester], and has always been so since university works quite differntly from school and most people need time to adapt to this.)

Like teaching your field, the question what to email or say in a one-to-one setting vs. bringing up a topic in the lecture is a decision that may differ depending on what the point in question is.


I wonder if it's preachy and patronizing

This is a valid concern, but to me the very fact that you worry about it indicates that you are much less likely to err in this way than others who never waste a single thought on it. :-)

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    This is highly insightful. I never quite paused long enough to see these "secondary" professions stand on their own. They clearly have plenty of enough impact on academic performance and the morale within the team that approaching them as subjects of their own importance seems like excellent advice to me. Sometimes just having such a mental framework enables to apply rational thought to some setting that could otherwise seem much harder to reason about. Even just having a name for common experiences leads to better outcomes. – Kuba hasn't forgotten Monica Mar 10 at 19:56
  • I like the way you describe it as a "secondary" profession. I've been thinking about it as the academic "meta" but it's really much more than that. I think that I was quite blessed in my Research Masters program to have been taught many of these soft skills explicitly, but I wonder if they might have been better conveyed earlier. I guess it's either an oversight, due to lack of space in the curriculum, or... maybe because undergraduates aren't yet ready to receive the information? Anyway, thank you, I think this really is a helpful way to think about it. – Danielle McCool Mar 31 at 9:38
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Increasingly, late-stage undergrads are being recruited to do some mentoring to address similar concerns. That indicates a need for it.

I suspect similar conversations happened face-to-face until recently, in tutorials or project-related discussions - I've had similar ones. Transferring this to email communication should be easy enough, but some of the nuance is lost, making things harder. It's also harder to spot problems early on when you're not meeting face-to-face.

Students need support, and it's good that you're someone who offers it. You might want to check what else is happening, either to help you support them, or to avoid stepping on any toes.

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  • I think this is a good point that I hadn't really considered, especially in situations where I sense that what I'm offering up may not be enough. My low-level mentoring might be like trying to put a Band Aid on a severed hand, and the student would be better served by communication that tries to establish what resources they need realistically. – Danielle McCool Mar 31 at 9:33
  • @DanielleMcCool Any support is likely to be good support, and knowing there's someone supportive around can be a benefit in its own right – Chris H Mar 31 at 9:50
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I am not a doctoral student, but the question seems weird. Is it okay to help someone with something you believe you can help them with.

Yes, it's okay, I would even say, it's a moral obligation to remove a stumbling block from before the blind.

Once you clearly voiced your advice, especially if the other person is mentally an adult, it's their responsibility to decide whether to follow your advice.

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