This week:

  • I describe one university’s strategy to better support faculty members this fall.
  • I share the results of a new study on student belonging and classroom success.
  • I point you to some resources on creating a strong syllabus.

Pedagogical Wellness

Andrea Aebersold had been worried about faculty well-being for quite some time. Instructors at the University of California at Irvine, like their colleagues across the country, were exhausted after months of pandemic teaching. For the most part, though, administrators’ messages about stress focused on supporting students, says Aebersold, who is director of faculty instructional development in the university’s division of teaching excellence and innovation.

“Faculty were completely burned out and experiencing compassion fatigue, but we weren’t addressing it,” she recalls. “How can we expect faculty to go into the classroom and create this kind of environment when they’re not experiencing that themselves?”

So when funding for wellness initiatives opened up, she and a colleague advocated successfully for a new position: pedagogical wellness specialist, a title, and a job description, she helped create.

The position has two parts. One is to train faculty members and graduate students on classroom policies and practices that promote student well-being. The other is to support the well-being of those faculty members and graduate students.

On the teaching side, says Aebersold, the specialist will work with faculty members and graduate students to incorporate a range of strategies. That could include simple steps, like offering more flexible deadlines on assignments or incorporating mindfulness into class time, such as doing deep-breathing exercises before exams. But those strategies could also go deeper, such as training instructors on trauma-informed teaching practices. The larger point, she says, is to show faculty members how teaching approaches can influence students’ mental health.

On the support side, Aebersold says she hopes the specialist will become an advocate for instructors across departments and the campus, so that their well-being is not forgotten or ignored. That may include teaming up with the counseling center, for example. But it also means creating the time and space for faculty members to come together to talk about what they’ve gone through and what’s next. That’s what Aebersold has been doing in recent months herself: scrapping workshops and gathering people instead for open-ended conversations.

“We really lost a lot of those moments for faculty just to talk to each other, especially outside of their own department, during the pandemic. They just didn’t see each other anymore. So having these check-ins, like, ‘Hey, take a break for 30 minutes, come hang out and talk,’” are really valuable, she says. “You don’t always have to be coming to learn about teaching. You can also just de-stress about teaching.”

Aebersold is wrapping up candidate interviews and expects to have someone in place by early August. She says she wants someone with a Ph.D., teaching experience, and a familiarity with concepts such as mindfulness, contemplative pedagogy, and trauma-informed teaching. A background in counseling or social work would be a bonus, but not necessary.

For campuses that don’t have the option of hiring someone new, she says, there are still things they can do to better support faculty members. That includes programming that focuses more on support and reflection than, say, how to design a course. “I feel like no one has had an opportunity to really process what has happened over the last two years, so that’s going to be what needs to happen in the fall,” she says. “I’m going to focus on casual opportunities to reconnect and reflect — lunches, coffee hours, walks around campus.”

“I usually try to curb the venting,” she says, “but lately I’ve been like, ‘Go for it!’ It’s a good first step in getting reconnected.”

Does your college, or your department, have plans to address some of the problems with student disconnection this past year? Are you increasing training and support for instructors? Creating first-year courses that help rebuild academic and social skills? Modifying or developing new courses that connect to what’s happening in the world right now? Building stronger ties among academic departments and student-support services, including mental-health counseling?

Even if you’re just in the idea stage, I’d like to hear from you as I report on what college will look like this fall. You can fill out this Google form or write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Belonging Leads to Success

A new report by the Student Experience Project, a collaboration of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and a coalition of urban-serving universities, describes how increasing students’ sense of belonging can improve equity and enhance their engagement and academic performance. The study, which involved about 300 STEM instructors and 10,000 students across several campuses, focused on helping faculty members adopt evidence-based teaching practices, create communities of practice, and better understand how students perceive courses as they are being taught. The project’s focus was on increasing social belonging, institutional-growth mind-set, identity, safety, trust and fairness, and self-efficacy.

The study found that the students in redesigned courses in the 2020-21 academic year earned fewer D’s, F’s, and withdrawals compared with historical rates for the same instructors in earlier courses. Also the percentage of students earning A’s and B’s grew. (The report notes that this was a time when many colleges changed their withdrawal policies due to the pandemic, which may have also influenced outcomes.)

The study also showed that students’ sense of belonging increased, particularly among Black, Latina, and Native American women experiencing financial stress.

The project has created a resources hub that includes a first-day tool kit and a classroom-practices library.

Creating a Strong Syllabus

It’s that time of year when planning for the fall begins. Beckie and I thought it might be helpful over the coming weeks to point you to some of our advice guides and articles that can help with the process.

First up: creating a strong syllabus. You can read Kevin Gannon’s comprehensive “How to Create a Syllabus” to get you started. Beckie wrote last year about how the pandemic had prompted some instructors to create a “student-centered syllabus.” On a similar note, Matthew Johnson wrote last summer about “10 Course Policies to Rethink on Your Syllabus,” which may continue to be relevant this fall. And finally, Beckie wrote a couple of newsletters on creating a welcoming tone in your syllabus and why that matters.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beth

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