In addition to the guidance below, you might also check our resource on What Student Affairs Wants Faculty to Know, about the ways our various student support offices on campus are continuing to support our students. In addition, the Office of Health Promotion has developed resources for students on transitioning to online learning and maintaining their physical and mental health during this crisis
ADDRESSING ANXIETY & FOSTERING MENTAL HEALTH
Teaching and learning environments are always impacted by the crises that occur in the wider world. As COVID-19 causes anxiety for many people, and as faculty and students experience upheaval to their usual routines, there are steps instructors can take to care for themselves and support students as they manage their anxiety and re-engage with their learning.
- Acknowledge the crisis: During crises or in the aftermath of tragedy, some data suggests that students appreciate a response from the instructor (Huston & DiPietro 2007). Acknowledgements of shared humanity and concerns can help students and instructors reclaim a sense of compassion and solidarity in a time of anxiety and isolation. Instructors who do want to explicitly acknowledge the crisis and the toll it might be taking on students have a number of options: it can be as brief as a sentence or two recognizing the anxiety that many are experiencing in light of the virus and outlining available support mechanisms, or a lesson plan devoted to looking at the crisis through the lens of your discipline. It is also worth remembering that many of our students have direct or indirect experience of COVID-19, and some of those students will be grieving the death of a loved one. Whether they know someone who has gotten sick or not, all of us are hearing about COVID-19 constantly. Some portion of your students might be relieved to go to a class and talk about something else. It is not necessary to engage in extended conversation about the pandemic in order to indicate to students that you care about their well-being.
If you do decide to hold a conversation with students about COVID-19, you might consider the following factors:
- Structure: Providing structure to a discussion can not only give students time to gather their thoughts, but it can also signal that you thought ahead about this discussion and genuinely want to hear from your students. You might start by being open – to whatever extent feels comfortable and appropriate to you – about your own experience of this current moment to model vulnerability to your students, or you might give students a chance to write briefly and/or talk with small groups before opening up discussion with the whole group.
- Value commitments: While it is important to give students the opportunity to voice their experience, it might be worthwhile to think about any value commitments you might want to make as you close out this discussion. While events such as this require instructors to offer concrete supports to students, they are also opportunities to model and share the convictions that motivate each person’s teaching, research, and life. In this instance, for example, you might feel it’s important to acknowledge and reject the xenophobic and orientalist rhetoric that has promulgated around this crisis, or stake a claim for media literacy and responsible engagement in the public sphere by encouraging students to seek out and share legitimate governmental and journalistic resources.
- Student agency: As you end the conversation, it can be useful for the group to work together to identify some steps everyone can proactively take to contribute to public health. Having a sense of agency in the midst of the crisis can help students – and instructors – recognize their resilience and agency at a time when they may not have a strong sense of either
- Reach out to students: Students who are living and learning off-campus may experience different challenges to their learning (a noisy house with quarantined siblings, limited access to technology, an increase in psychological distress, etc.). Creating an information-finding survey not dissimilar to what you might offer at the beginning of term might be appropriate at this juncture. Asking students to confidentially submit responses to an open-ended question like, “Given our new learning context, is there anything you would like me to know?,” gives you a chance to see your students in their context, and, if appropriate, to strategize with students around pedagogical solutions, or connect them with other offices on campus.
- Offer accommodations Stress makes it more difficult to focus, and more difficult to encode memories, making learning especially challenging during periods of acute stress. Offering some flexibility in due dates can be a way of acknowledging the effects of stress on learning, as can allowing students to choice the medium they want to use to demonstrate their learning (paper, podcast, research poster, etc.) You might also reconsider what materials you want to share with your students; you may find sharing slides, lecture notes, reading questions, etc. feels more appropriate under these conditions than it would in an undisrupted course.
- Provide clear structure: As students learn off campus, some will experience an increase in stress related to any number of things (food scarcity, caretaking responsibilities, an unsafe environment). Given that significant stress, students may find it more difficult to navigate bureaucracies and effectively advocate for themselves. Being as transparent as possible with students by providing easy, centralized access to all necessary materials, and by providing clear pathways for students to communicate with you will be a significant help to all of your students.
- Provide resources: Opening the door on a difficult, emotionally-laden topic without closing it with references to concrete resources that students can seek out for further support can cause more harm than good. You can always point students to BC resources that will continue to support students remotely. (For more information from colleagues in student affairs about resources available to students and faculty, see our page on Supporting Students: What Student Affairs Wants Faculty to Know.)
- Take care of yourself: As you are supporting your students through this crisis and associated transitions, it is critical that you also claim time to care for yourself: to take breaks when you are sick, to place boundaries around when you’ll respond to student missives, to connect with your own support systems. This isn’t only necessary for self-preservation, especially for faculty whose marginalized position in the academy often results in them taking on a disproportionate amount of student support work, but can also model healthy behaviors for students.
DESIGNING FOR STUDENT WELL-BEING
Besides acknowledging the contemporary crisis and its impact on mental health, instructors can also make course design decisions in response to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 that foster student well-being and learning. These recommendations are inspired by the New England Faculty Development Consortium’s special issue of Exchange on “Education in the Age of Anxiety.” Though written before the disruptions caused by COVID-19 many of the suggestions are even more pressing given the current context.
Promoting Healthy Habits and Mindsets
If your assignment structure is changing at all in light of the shift to emergency remote instruction, consider structuring assignments in ways that can promote healthy habits:
- Cultivate community: Loneliness and isolation can feed anxiety and depression. As we practice social distancing, instructors can use class time to reinforce a sense of connection between class members. That can take several different forms: sending out the occasional Canvas announcement or email that is just a general check-in rather than a logistical update, spending a few minutes during a Zoom session allowing students to talk about what they’re experiencing, sharing lightly about your own experience at the top of a recorded lecture, injecting light humor into discussion boards, etc.
- Provide predictability: As students experience an upheaval in their usual routines, providing structure and stability through a clear weekly schedule or pattern of engagement can help students focus on the task at hand.
- Provide flexibility and choice: Anxiety is often reduced when people are able to claim some power in the situation. Providing students with flexibility and choice over how they engage in the class and demonstrate their learning can reduce anxiety and improve the quality of submitted work. There are a number of ways you can provide flexibility and choice during this transition:
- Draw attention to student agency: Encourage students to thoughtfully consider the places where they have choice in your class or program. When possible, consider sharing authority with students (finalize course content in conversation with the class, provide multiple mediums for assignments, invite them to collaborate on course norms).
- Provide options for student participation: Posts to a discussion board, verbal comments in a Zoom meeting, contributing to the chat during a Zoom meeting, attending office hours, etc.
- Remove unnecessary constraints: Does the final exam need to be timed (is quick recall a central learning goal)? Is a long research paper the only way students can demonstrate the skills they are learning? Can students’ self-assessment be taken into account when grading?
- Reward revision: create opportunities for students to revise and resubmit their work to reward learning and recognize that individual learners will operate on different timelines. This can help alleviate stigma against “failing,” and reduce the pressure placed on performance. Gently encourage students who might be detrimentally pursuing perfection to “let go” of good work without dismissing their drive or goals.
- Promote sleep: sleep deficits are linked to higher rates of anxiety. While Canvas assignments default to being due at midnight, that deadline can encourage students to stay up late finishing an assignment. Pushing the deadline back to a reasonable time the following day can better position students to get the necessary sleep.