Pima Community College
Mays suggests ten practical ways educators can both teach and support their students effectively during this season of uncertainty.
On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you. - John O'Donohue
A few years ago, a student of mine lost his father to an unexpected illness. Two days later, my student came to class. Surprised, I informed him that he could take time off to be with his family if he needed to, and that I would work with him later to help him catch up on materials he missed. I was giving him permission to be absent from class; however, he turned it down. In fact, he told me that attending class helped him forget about his problems, which resonated with me. As a student, and even now as a teacher, being in class has always offered me a sanctuary where I could immerse myself in a community of knowledge-seekers, if only for a few hours each week.
As educational institutions across the world temporarily cancel their face-to-face classes to deal with the impact of COVID-19, the conversation on campuses and professional listservs have turned to the topic of teaching and learning continuity plans. As I look through materials compiled by various teaching and learning centres as well as instructional technology groups, I noticed that they focus almost exclusively on the how’s of technology (e.g. which tools to record lectures, create discussions, and proctor exams). While it is necessary to be equipped with the know-how to virtually connect with our students, that alone is not sufficient to continue the teaching and learning endeavour.
Beyond the electronic connection, we need to connect emotionally, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty. As a neuroscientist, I know that emotions are key to learning. In his book Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio asserts that: “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think” (Damasio, 2005). Recent literature also affirms the importance of the affective domains in teaching and learning (Shen, Wang, & Shen, 2009; Um, Plass, Hayward, & Homer, 2012; Jung, Wranke, Hamburger, & Knauff, 2014).
So I began to wonder about the emotional, psychological, and even physical impact of such transitions on students (and colleagues). I do not question any school’s decision to close campuses and move classes online. Rather, I am considering how we should teach in times of uncertainty, and what we can do to ensure our students continue to learn effectively.
More specifically, I am thinking about students who do not have a safe environment at home—for whom the classrooms and halls of residence are sanctuaries, students who have found a community within their college, or rely on college for sustenance and security. In other words, most students. So, how can we teachers be that dancing clay to balance our students’ mental and emotional loads, so that they stumble a little bit less?
Reflecting on my questions, I came up with a short list of what I would have liked my teachers to do had I been a student who might be sent home due to COVID-19:
1. Email your students to remind them that you are still there for them.
When I reached out to my students, I informed them that I initiated contact so they know that I am there for them and how they can reach me. Many students responded immediately, thanking me for thinking of them.
2. Offer students an opportunity to exchange phone numbers and create a WhatsApp chat group for those who are interested.
It can be difficult for a student to ask for a classmate’s phone number. When I suggested this to students, some thanked me while others told me that they had already exchanged numbers. Some even invited me to join their group chat. I declined to allow them their privacy.
3. Let your students know that they can reach out to you, and that you are (I hope) in touch with counselors that can offer needed help. I teamed up with a school counsellor to offer students short Zoom sessions on how to identify and work through anxiety. I used myself as an example, and talked about my struggles and how I’m working through them. Out of all the tips listed, this received the most feedback, with students thanking me for helping them see that what they are experiencing (fear, anxiety, and even depression) is a typical reaction to an abnormal event.
4. Use hopeful and optimistic language such as: “When you come back this fall …” which will help our students look forward to returning to campus.
I obviously had to modify this because of the possibility that we may not return to school this fall. Instead, I now talk about when “this is over,” and we are able to go back and learn socially.
5. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. If possible, talk candidly about fear and COVID-19.
I addressed the issue of fear in Point #3. However, I also created assignments related to COVID-19 to keep it relevant and contextualise learning.
6. Tell them how you are shifting your schedule to address the new situation, and that change is part of life.
Make it causal and lighthearted. For example, you might talk about how, in between reading their discussion posts, you decided to start your spring-cleaning which you have been putting off forever. I was surprised to see many students start to share how they were spending their time. Some even sent me daily notes of walks they had gone on, or the pictures they took on these walks.
7. Repeat some of the lessons you taught in class.
Especially for students who are missing the classroom environment, this will help jog their memory and hopefully remind them that they are still part of a learning community. For example, in your email you can say something like: “Remember when we talked about this and…” I do this often, and also encourage them to use the same language so they can remember that they are part of a learning community.
7. Reflect on the notion of rigour, and continue to challenge and support your students. There is a fine balance between rigour and support, and this situation might be one where students need more support than rigour. Establishing continuity does not mean you increase their assignment workload. I say this because I worry that some of us might be fixated on the rigour of the materials presented. Let’s face it: the rigour may suffer, and that is okay considering the situation.
I took this to heart upon seeing how this situation was taking an emotional toll on some of my students. I decided to drop high-stakes exams, replacing them with alternative assessment modes such as oral assessments. I’ve also asked students to document their own learning and make a case for why they think they learned something we were studying. The response from students to this move has been overwhelmingly positive, and some students remarked that my approach was “focused more on learning versus grades.”
9. Remember that students have been taken off of more than just their classes. Due to the pandemic, they can no longer convene at physical campus spaces (commuter and residential campuses) as well to socialise and talk about their non-academic lives—sports, upcoming concerts, recently discovered shows, and more. Consider creating a community discussion board as an alternative space for students to share their lives. For example, I created a Google Doc for students to share how they are coping with the current situation.
10. Most importantly, ask your students, individually, how you can help them. The Persian poet Rumi says that: “Beyond right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Likewise, in times of uncertainty and unknowing, we can create a space where our students’ voices and insights can illuminate the path we are carving out for them—and us.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, and I invite you all to add to it. Think about yourself as a vulnerable, or student who is trying to learn and complete a degree on an already thinly-spread set of obligations—what might help you during times of uncertainty such as what we are facing now?
Mays IMAD teaches pathophysiology and biomedical ethics at Pima Community College, and is also the Founding Coordinator of the College’s Teaching & Learning Center. She received her undergraduate training in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and her graduate training in Cellular & Clinical Neurobiology from Wayne State University-School of Medicine. Mays completed a National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona. Mays is a fellow at the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and as well as the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE). Mays’s current research focuses on stress, self-awareness, advocacy, and classroom community, and how these relate to cognition, metacognition, and, ultimately, student learning. Through her teaching and research, she seeks to provide her students with transformative opportunities which are grounded in the aesthetics of learning, truth-seeking, and self-realization.
Mays can be reached at email@example.com.
Damasio, A. R. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin.
Jung, N., Wranke, C., Hamburger, K., & Knauff, M. (2014). How emotions affect logical reasoning: evidence from experiments with mood-manipulated participants, spider phobics, and people with exam anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 570. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00570. PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar
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