Working and taking classes remotely is imposing new stresses on everyone in the University of Oregon community. To name just a few, we may be having difficulty dividing “work” from “home” time, we miss in-person interactions with our co-workers and students, and the overall uncertainty of the situation is unsettling. Our students may be experiencing these and a variety of other challenges that make it difficult to focus on classes the way they normally would.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take in your course design that can work to reassure and encourage students and foster resilience in the face of challenges.
Four Core Priorities from Trauma-Informed Teaching[i]
Trauma stemming from distressing events can make students especially vulnerable to getting off track with school. But by working to build trusting relationships and attending to four core priorities, faculty can do a lot to help students succeed.
- Predictability. Provide a reliable structure for your class. Try to establish consistency in due dates, the structure of your Canvas site, and perhaps even types of assignments. TEP recommends using transparent design when creating assignments – explicitly state the purpose, detail the tasks involved, and list the criteria for success – so students can spend their cognitive energy on doing the assignment rather than trying to figure out what to do and why. Putting all assignments and other class work into Canvas as early as possible (and publishing them) will put them on students’ calendars, allowing them to plan their time well in advance.
- Flexibility. Which class content and policies are really crucial, and which ones could bend or be changed? Predictable structure is helpful, but knowledge that a faculty member will understand and be flexible in extenuating circumstances can go a long way to relieving student anxiety. As trauma-informed teaching expert Alex Shevrin Venet put it,i “There are different paths up the mountain.”
- Connection: It’s more important than ever to work to build and maintain student connections, both faculty-student and student-student.
- Faculty-student: Make a point of expressing care when communicating. Many students, especially ones experiencing trauma, interpret neutrally-worded messages in a negative light, so it’s helpful to infuse communications and feedback with understanding and encouragement. Let them know that you miss getting the chance of seeing and talking to them in person but encourage and, crucially, invite them to visit you in your virtual office hours.
- Student-student: Your students may not know anyone else in the class, and our current situation makes it difficult to use casual interactions to develop relationships, so it’s important for faculty to provide structured opportunities for building connections. Try creating long-term groups for breakout rooms and facilitating formation of study groups who then submit evidence of their “meetings.”
- Empowerment: It is helpful, when possible, to provide students with choices and include them in making decisions about the class. What do they think about the planned structure of a project? Which of two optional topics would they prefer to learn about? The latter choice could mean that the class votes on which topic everyone does together. Or, if you have the capacity, you could make both units available in Canvas and students choose which one to work through. For required topics, could students vote on the context or lens you use to discuss the material? If you have a project planned, students will benefit from being able to choose their own topics and even the form of the product- does it need to be a paper, or could students make a movie or create a Wikipedia page instead?
Build resilience through academic self-efficacy[ii]
- Establish specific, challenging short-term goals. For example, rather than just assigning a term project that’s due in Week 10, consider breaking the process into pieces (like choosing a topic, finding sources, outline, rough draft, final draft) that each has its own due date.
- Foster development of effective learning strategies. Clearly, students are more likely to succeed if they use effective learning strategies and if they regularly make plans, reflect on how the plans are serving them, and readjust as needed. TEP has developed some assignments you could adapt and use in your course; they are available as a package you can upload to your Canvas course. Instructions for uploading to Canvas can be found here. The assignments included in the package are:
- Activity log. This assignment asks students to record all their activities in an Excel spreadsheet (provided) for at least three days. Then they reflect on how they are spending their time and make plans for changes they might want to make. Ideally, faculty would make some class time available for a facilitated discussion of the activity.
- Studying Effectively. This assignment asks students to watch a video and read an article about evidence-based study strategies. Students then think about their own study strategies and how they are working, and incorporate what they have learned into a new study plan.
- Examining Returned Tests. Students review a test they have taken, identifying question-by-question the reasons they lost points. The Excel spreadsheet that accompanies the assignment helps students to see problem areas that need to be addressed, such as insufficient content knowledge, test anxiety, lack of test savvy, and careless errors. They use what they have learned to make a plan for the next exam.
- Reflection. This assignment provides several prompts for students to choose from. One asks them to consider the strategies they used to study for an exam and to think about what worked well and what they might want to do differently next time. Another prompt asks them to provide advice for a hypothetical “friend” who did poorly on the exam and is very discouraged. This prompt is designed to work on normalizing struggle and failure, as discussed below.
- Give frequent, supportive feedback. Be clear that you are offering critical feedback because you are confident the student can succeed and you want to show them the path to doing that. Compare student work to the learning objectives rather than work of others in the class. And when possible, compare to the student’s past work to note improvements or areas that still need attention.
- Encourage growth mindset. Help students realize that they can succeed if they keep trying, and when they fail it’s not because they are “not smart enough,” but rather that they, perhaps, didn’t follow instructions, spend enough time on the task, or use effective learning strategies.
- Normalize struggle. It is common for students to think they are the only ones struggling with course material or even school as a whole, and it’s easy to take this feeling as a signal that they should give up. Consider incorporating stories of your own struggles or those of other students into the course. Also try emphasizing that initial failures can be useful if we use correcting them as an opportunity to engage more deeply with material.
Encourage students to make use of UO resources
A variety of organizations on campus are offering student-facing resources dedicated to supporting students’ wellbeing. We highlight some here; if you know of others we’ve missed, please add them in the comments section!
- UO Counseling Center. The Counseling Center offers advice for self-care useful for students and instructors alike.
- Tutoring and Academic Engagement Center. In addition to drop-in academic support and small-group tutoring, TAEC offers workshops on topics like time management, staying focused while learning from home, and motivation and academic resilience.
- Accessible Education Center. AEC’s spring workshop series includes sessions on maximizing remote learning from home and self-compassion in times of uncertainty, among others.
- The Graduate School. Graduate students are invited to participate in upcoming webinars on topics such as time management and organizational skills.
- Duck Nest. The Duck Nest’s mission is to promote self-care and life-balance. Spring programming includes a pre-recorded video on supporting friends and a virtual meditation session, among others.
Additional Resources for Faculty and GEs
Looking for the words to say to students in the face of stress and uncertainty? These mini scripts from the Stanford-based College Transitions Collaborative each exemplify principled responses.
Interested a a deeper dive? UO’s now offers a 45-minute Kognito training to help instructors practice simulated conversations that can “lead to positive changes in social, emotional, and physical health.”
Looking for ways to talk with your class about their goals and experiences, and even to make changes to support their learning and overall wellbeing? Here are a few ideas.
[i] Newhouse, K. (2020, April 6). Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning – MindShift. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning
[ii] Kirk, K. (2020, April 19). Self-Efficacy. Retrieved from https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/affective/efficacy.html