Spring 2023: University Policies and Academic Regulations

Dear colleagues, 

As we prepare for the Spring 2023 semester, I am writing to provide some guidance, information, and important reminders regarding operational and regulatory policies and practices related to instruction. The material provided here is intended to provide resources at a time when higher education is called to respond to a landscape that is shifting at a rapid pace. I hope that you will find this information useful as you finalize your courses and syllabi. Topics covered:

  1. Supporting Student Success:
    • Academic Rigor vs. Logistical Rigor
    • Alternative grading practices
    • Faculty workshops and working groups
  2. Preparing for wide accessibility of powerful AI tools such as ChatGPT
  3. Calendar considerations, including religious observances
  4. Public health guidelines

Regarding item 2, please note that this section contains a request for all instructors to make a statement about the use of AI text generating tools in their Spring ’23 syllabi.

1. Supporting Student Success

My Fall 2022 start of semester message discussed leveraging and managing flexibility to promote student engagement. During the height of the pandemic, the type of flexibility that was provided to students via university policy and enacted through the judgment and dedication of individual faculty and staff members, was necessary at the time and appropriate. That extended period has had a profound impact on everyone, especially our students. The dilemma many faculty members now face is how to ensure standards of academic rigor at a time when students exhibit habits of mind formed during an acute period of isolation and subversion of ordinary in-person interactions. We know that student attitudes, predispositions, and needs have evolved in some significant ways and are not likely to return anytime soon to what they were a decade ago, if ever. The majority of students today experience various levels of psychological distress; addressing anxiety and depression among today’s student population is not exceptional but normative. 

a. Distinguishing Logistical Rigor from Academic Rigor

The evolution of the profile of today’s students accelerated rapidly over a 2-year period during the pandemic, but significant changes had already been developing for some time. Many of the standard practices that have been commonly used for decades for ensuring our courses are academically rigorous may now be losing their practicality as well as their effectiveness. It’s tempting to conflate the logistical practices that were originally designed to promote academic rigor with academic rigor itself, so it’s important to examine the distinction between ‘intellectual rigor’ and ‘logistical rigor’ as in this article . Modifying, or in some cases abandoning, past logistical practices does not mean that we need to dilute our academic standards; rather, we need to think more carefully about our course design and assessment strategies to focus on those that maintain intellectual rigor without logistical burdens that unnecessarily add to our workload. Intellectual rigor is the core tenet of our educational mission – as educators, we are always engaged with the cycle of starting with an evaluation of students’ initial knowledge of and relationship to a subject, designing paths that move them from that state to a more advanced one, and finally evaluating the outcomes. Logistical rigor is a mechanism to serve rather than substitute for that core tenet; give yourself license to reassess and redesign the logistics of your course to meet your needs and those of our students today. 

Recognizing that faculty members have been working hard to react to the changing circumstances for a number of years, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and Instructional Design, Engagement, and Support (IDEAS) offer a variety of resources for supporting faculty in the process of adaptation. Providing explicit guidance to students on syllabi on a range of topics is, of course, a great way to orient students to practices that will help guide them toward success in your class. Being explicit, clear, and explaining the rationale for course policies on the syllabus are more important than ever before. Knowing that many students don’t read syllabi as carefully as they should, CTL and IDEAS provide strategies for helping students engage with the syllabus throughout the course. For example, automated reminders can be queued up at the start of the semester to be pushed out to students on a regular basis through the learning management system; this is one way in which we can harness technology to engage students and reduce work for faculty. Faculty may also find it helpful to share with students the many resources available through Student Success that students can use to support their own learning. For instance, this Student Success page has advice for making learning meaningful, mastering content, good time management, among others.

b. Alternative Grading Practices

As a response to the developments described above, many faculty members across the country have been engaged in conversations surrounding alternative grading practices (see for example this article). Two examples of such engagement by our own faculty were recently highlighted in the CTL Faculty Success Series: Using Ungrading to Get Students to Think about Their Work (Jason Hooper), and Using Contract Grading to Ease Student Anxiety about Grades (Jennifer Fronc) . Elkie Burnside (Writing Program) and Caralyn Zehnder (Biology) are two other faculty members who have successfully implemented alternative grading practices in their courses. I encourage you to speak with colleagues about new approaches to grading and engage with CTL and IDEAS as you think about these ideas in the context of your particular courses and disciplines. 

c. Faculty Workshops, Working Groups

I encourage you to explore a large number of working groups, workshops, lectures and drop-in consulting that are provided by or coordinated through IDEAS and CTL throughout the semester. Using their services in these fast-changing times is a highly effective way to propagate the lessons learned and new methodologies being developed by faculty, librarians, and staff across the campus. Please share your ideas and your experiences through CTL and IDEAS so that we may all learn from them, for example as in the model in place for the Contemplative Pedagogy Group.

We are collaborating with a number of other offices, including the Office of Equity and Inclusion and Campus Life and Well-being, to develop more faculty resources in response to current trends. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) has been adding to its staff to expand its capacity for individual and group therapy (including the addition of two therapy dogs which have been hugely popular). It also provides Gatekeeper Training which teaches skills to recognize signs of psychological distress, including risk of self-harm.  


2. Preparing for wide accessibility of powerful AI tools such as ChatGPT

As discussed above, changes in student attitudes and behaviors form one set of motivations for us to examine our practices and policies. Another impetus derives from recent advances in Artificial Intelligence. In November 2022, OpenAI released ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer), a large language model chatbot with the ability to generate detailed answers to questions in a wide range of knowledge domains, with variable reliability. For one take on consequences for universities, see this article. I invite you to learn more about the capabilities of this new tool, how you might use it as a teaching tool, and how students might use it. It’s important to provide clear directions to your students about the use of AI tools in your courses, and I encourage you to do so in your syllabi. CTL and IDEAS have prepared a pair of resource pages with information on AI tools: ChatGPT Q&A for Learning Professionals answers basic questions about ChatGPT and how it can be used; How Do I Consider the Impact of AI Tools in My Courses provides suggestions on syllabus statements and possibly adapting assignments.

The Faculty Senate Rules Committee has made a determination that, absent any guidance from the instructor, the use of ChatGPT and similar AI text generators is prohibited according to the Academic Honesty Policy. Instructors do have the discretion to allow for the use of such tools, however, and must do so explicitly if they want to allow it. A message will be sent out to students to inform them of this explicit interpretation of the Academic Honesty policy prior to the start of the semester. Instructors who want to make use of ChatGPT in their classes should note that, in view of FERPA regulations, students must not be required to identify themselves to third party services (such as ChatGPT) which are not contracted by the university. For more guidance, please refer to the CTL and IDEAS pages linked above. Given the variability of course content and instructor viewpoints, it is crucially important for every instructor to provide clear directions to students about the use of AI tools for every course, and I request that you do so in your syllabi. Students will often mistakenly assume policies from one course apply to others as well; therefore, whether or not you intend to allow use of such tools in your classes, please make an explicit statement about it in each syllabus. The CTL and IDEAS resources pages mentioned above provide guidance for doing so. 


3. Calendar considerations, including religious observances

As you prepare your syllabi for Spring 2023 and the timing of major assessments, please note that spring break occurs before the mid-way point of the semester this year. 

During the Spring 2023 semester, members of our UMass Amherst community will be observing diverse religious holidays and traditions which include Holi, Ostara, Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, as well as many others. Please be sure that you are familiar with the University’s policy on Class Absence for Religious Observance so that you are best prepared to support our students in observing their religious and spiritual practices. In particular, please note that students who have informed their course instructors about such absences “have the right to make up examinations, study, or work requirements that they miss because of religious observance without any adverse or prejudicial effects.”

Furthermore, as our campus aspires to create a stronger sense of belonging among all students, faculty, and staff, we are guided by recent research which affirms that “students who report experiencing greater support for their own worldview also show increased appreciative attitudes toward others” (Rockenbach et al., 2017 ). As such, we encourage you to learn about and support the unique needs and observances of each student you work with. This is particularly important since individuals from the same broader religious/spiritual background may observe different practices, including praying, fasting, and attending services at different times or on different days. 

Please contact the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at orsl@umass.edu if you have additional questions regarding how to best support our students.


4. Public Health Guidelines

As students come back to campus, past experience tells us that we are likely to see an increase in respiratory illnesses in the first few weeks of the semester. We encourage all community members to take appropriate precautions, to make use of the vaccination clinic for COVID-19 boosters and other vaccines. Masks and antigen COVID-19 tests continue to be available in the Campus Center and at kiosks throughout campus. Please note that individual faculty members cannot deviate from university policy by enacting their own individual public health guidelines for their classes.

Thank you and have a wonderful Spring 2023 semester!

Farshid Hajir 
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education