Faculty Focus


Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions

Policies are necessary. They serve as a warning to students: this is what will happen if you are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late, text or surf the Web during class, and the like. Most institutions recommend teachers spell out consequences in their syllabi. Some schools employ institution-wide policies for certain behaviors like academic dishonesty. If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?

Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt their effort to learn. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, many students believe their learning is unaffected by technology distractions. “No screens” policies are aimed, at least in part, to minimize distractions that hurt learning (their own and peers’). But policies aren’t nearly as powerful as an activity that demonstrates the effects of distraction.

Split the class into two groups. One is allowed to text; the other turns phones off. After the lecture, students complete a short quiz. Ellis, Daniels, and Jauregui (2010) report students in the phones off group score significantly higher. Differences in points or scores will grab students’ attention and are more likely to get them thinking about their mobile technology use in and out of class than a “no screens” policy.

Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive. A student engages in a behavior that isn’t addressed in the syllabus. A common reaction is to add a new policy or rewrite the existing one for the following term. The syllabus grows by a few lines. But the new policy assumes future students will behave the same way. Different students may behave in different ways, again, not covered in the policy. And the student whose negative learning behavior precipitated the new policy may not be in future courses. Has the new policy accomplished anything for that student?

Sometimes these behaviors are one-offs. No policy fix is necessary. Generally, a “new” negative learning behavior would be more effectively addressed if the teacher talked with the student individually or thought about what may have caused the behavior, and then identified strategies to prevent it. Adding or editing policies is a quick fix, but not one that advances student learning.

Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) The focus is on grades, lost points, and consequences, instead of on learning and the learner. Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse-making. Meanwhile, inflexible policies often have an implied message that’s probably unintentional: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the rule. Deal with it.”

Learning is personal. Harsh language and rigid rules diminish community and send a message of distrust, and generally suggest teachers don’t believe students will do work without the threat of penalties. Worse, these policies suggest faculty don’t believe the best about students. This leads to students believing teachers don’t like or care for them.

A focus on rules and policies shifts interest away from learning. One way to redirect attention is to share the learning and professional rationales that underpin deadlines and policies. Provide opportunities for students to have input about some assignment details or a few due dates. A policy students help to shape is one they own, and one they are more likely to live up to.

Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to become self-directed learners. Policies, especially those with harsh consequences, may reduce the number of times students arrive to class late or show up unprepared. But what happens when the policy stick (or carrot, for that matter) is removed? If students are only behaving in a certain way because of a penalty or reward, what have they learned about the value of the behavior (like reading) as part of learning?

Fortunately, there are teacher practices that help students mature as learners while promoting positive learning behaviors. Teachers can incorporate homework logs, assign learning reflections, facilitate student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading. Each of these strategies increases student ownership of learning and advances their development as independent learners.

Consider how a strict policy commands attendance. Instead, or in addition to policy, provide data that shows the negative correlation between the number of absences and exam scores. Or, provide the dates specific topics and concepts were covered and tell students the dates they were absent. If students see that they lost points on topics that were learned during their absence, they can see the consequence of skipping class. This kind of evidence teaches more about the value of attending class than does a policy requiring it.

Supplement course deadlines with a conversation about learning behaviors like procrastination and time management. Share your own strategies for juggling multiple responsibilities and meeting short- and long-term commitments. Could students share their successful and not-so-successful time management experiences? Have students been asked what would help them get the work done in a timely way? Discussions about punctuality, procrastination, and time management advance students’ understanding of how they work and learn.

Policies are necessary. It’s important for students to understand what is expected of them and the consequences when they fall short. But to develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences.


Ellis, Y., Daniels, B., and Jauregui, A. 2010. The effect of multitasking on grade performance of business students. Research in Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.aabri.com/rhej.html.

Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks and is chair of the 2016 Teaching Professor Conference. You can follow her on Twitter @1313lolita