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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: Tips for Helping Students Through Another Tough Semester

This week:

  • I share some simple ways professors can help stressed-out students navigate their courses.
  • I pass along some other resources for supporting students during the pandemic.
  • I share some recent articles you may have missed.
  • I ask for your perspective on how the fall semester is unfolding.

Reducing Students’ Stress

As courses moved online last spring, some professors significantly lowered their expectations and offered a great deal of flexibility in recognition of the upheaval that students were experiencing. What does that response look like now, as pandemic teaching stretches on far longer than most instructors expected?

Students face just as much stress and uncertainty as they did in March. That has serious implications for their academic work, since “anxiety of any kind reduces levels of student curiosity,” as Josh Eyler put it in How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching.

Professors have limited control over the life challenges their students face. Still, they can avoid adding to students' anxiety. And that doesn’t have to mean making a class easy. A lot of it comes down to providing good communication.

What might that look like? I asked Holly Derry, associate director of behavioral science at the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation, to share some ideas:

  • Emphasize deadlines and expectations. “Be really clear with students so that they know what needs to get done, and when,” Derry says. Students, after all, could be balancing a mix of in-person and online courses. Their professors might be taking very different approaches to teaching online, requiring them to navigate a bunch of different platforms and tools. Plus, there’s the chance that the whole plan could change once again. Directions and due dates are sometimes buried in syllabi, Derry notes. Right now, students need all the reminders they can get.
  • Tell students how they’re doing. Professors can help students by giving feedback — and putting it in context. Scores alone don’t communicate much, says Derry, whose background is in health behavior. When patients get test results, she says, they need context to understand if those results are good or bad. The same is true for students. One way to communicate that, she says, is letting them know how their performance stacks up relative to the class.
  • Intervene early. When she works with instructors, Derry asks: “What’s the earliest point in your term when you can see that someone is struggling?” The answer varies by course, but every instructor has one. Whatever the moment, “if you as an instructor can start to reach out at that point,” she says, “that could have a huge impact.” There are automated ways to do this in learning-management systems like Canvas, Derry adds, which lets instructors send a message to students who meet particular parameters, like those who scored below a certain level on a quiz.

What strategies are you using to communicate key information to your students? Have you found an effective way to ease their worries about your course? Share your examples with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and they may be included in a future newsletter.

More Resources for Supporting Students


  • Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation has put together a collection of resources to help both professors and students during the pandemic. There’s a set of tips for students looking to adjust their study habits during disruption; a blog post on how students can stay motivated; and a handout on how professors can support students.
  • California State University-Channel Islands has created a short “Learning Online 101” course that students can complete in an hour or two. Professors at the university can add it to their courses, and it’s available as well for other colleges to adapt.

ICYMI


  • While the majority of colleges mapped out plans for an in-person fall, a smaller number quickly committed to holding their classes online. Beth examines how that approach has enabled professors to prepare. You can read her story here.
  • The move to emergency online instruction forced professors to rethink their teaching. Some have found the adjustments they made on the fly improved their courses and plan to carry them forward, as I explore in this new story.
  • In this Twitter thread, Sarah Ross, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Johns Hopkins University, describes the benefits she saw from letting students annotate a draft of her syllabus with questions, an idea she adapted from Ambereen Dadabhoy, an assistant professor of literature at Harvey Mudd College.

A Reminder

As chaotic as the move to emergency online instruction was, just about every college was moving in the same direction, and professors were dealing with many common challenges.

Things are still plenty chaotic on many campuses, but there’s a lot more variation in what teaching looks like this fall. Some professors are fully online, and others are teaching hybrid or in-person classes — which could end up online, of course, depending on how things unfold. And while all students are living through the pandemic, some student populations are more vulnerable than others.

As Beth and I report on how this semester plays out, we would love to hear from you. What aspect of pandemic teaching have we left unexplored? What have you noticed in your own courses? What questions would you like other instructors to weigh in on? Please be in touch: beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and beckie.supiano@chronicle.com

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us:

beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.