Students want compassionate flexibility

Surveys gauge remote learning experience during pandemic

The School of Social Ecology surveyed undergraduate and graduate students to gauge their remote learning experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, overall, they want “compassionate flexibility.”

The Remote Instruction Resource Team, which is made up of faculty and staff members, administrators and doctoral students – including Susan Bibler Coutin, Heidi Beezley-Thibodeau, Terry Dalton, Valerie JennessRichard Matthew, Walter Nicholls, Greg Reinhard, Jenny Rinehart, Angela Robinson, Lyric Russo, Shauna Simon, and Joanne Zinger – conducted a short survey of undergraduates to get a sense of how they are doing this quarter as they and faculty settle into remote teaching and learning. 

Coutin, Jenness and Russo authored a report on the undergraduate survey. In it, they write:

The survey was open from April 20 – April 27 and 169 students, from different majors, class standings, and degrees of familiarity with learning online, responded. Their responses reveal appreciation for the faculty’s efforts to transition to remote teaching without much notice, as well as practices that are working well and practices that are not working so well. They also point to changes that might be useful in the future.

Students mentioned that they appreciate the effort faculty have made — and continue to make — to provide remote instruction. They are aware remote teaching is not easy on the faculty and teaching assistants, and they express appreciation for the efforts being made on their behalf. Even more, many students report things are going well. When asked “All things considered, how is remote learning going for you so far this quarter,” 30.8% indicated “very good” or “good.” Unfortunately, roughly the same percentage indicated “bad” or “very bad” (29.6%). Almost 40% indicated “neutral.” Perhaps not surprisingly, our diverse student body is having diverse experiences in these historic times. 

Summarizing the respondents’ open-ended responses to these back-to-back question reveals some best practices from the point of view of students (in order of most frequently mentioned): 

Be Flexible and Lenient: take into consideration that students have less time/freedom/availability at home; reduce workload (students report that instructional workload has increased); provide additional time for assignments; eliminate “filler assignments” or unnecessary busy work; provide flexible due dates to take into account students’ various schedules; allow work that is graded as credit/no credit or grade more leniently; be mindful of students’ time and availability to attend live classes (especially with students in different time zones); request and accept feedback from students, then adjust; provide breaks during synchronous lecture. 

Engage with Students: provide feedback to students; use Zoom for discussions and live lecture; include more participation components; keep chats open; interact and teach as you would live—provide examples; provide additional ways for students to interact with and learn course material other than through lecture and readings; have students interact with one another. 

Be Accessible and Accommodate: caption lectures; record lectures for students to watch when they are able to/have WIFI/quiet space to work; host online office hours; post online readings (to reduce cost of book purchases); post PowerPoints; record and post lectures so students can return to material; provide resources that can be downloaded and that do not rely on internet connection. 

Communicate Expectations: have clear requirements and grading guidelines in the syllabus; post a weekly schedule; have a detailed syllabus with all deadlines; communicate with students and be willing to make changes; send reminders about assignments and deadlines; respond to emails swiftly. 

Practice Compassion: communicate support; listen to students; empathize; acknowledge we’re in a time of crisis and it’s okay to not be okay; check in with students; try to remain calm--seeing instructor upset/frustrated made a student “feel even worse”. 

Be Organized: it is helpful when Canvas is organized with modules, accurately named files, and a section for each week, etc.; post lectures on the days that class would have been; organize lectures to not run over allotted class time; have a uniform exam policy within the same course; organize class time into lecture and then discussion time. 

The bottom line is this: Many students are struggling in their educational pursuits and beyond as they try to adapt to remote learning in particular and the larger contexts in which their lives are unfolding. Inequalities have been laid bare in remote teaching and learning. Some of our students are doing well and even prospering. Others are struggling in ways that are heartbreaking and call on us to double down and do even more. As one student explained: 

“My loneliness and sadness have skyrocketed. Because the gyms are shut down, I have no healthy way to cope with my day-to-day stress. I can't interact with any friends, nor is there a way to make new ones with online instruction. I'm doing my best every day, but I feel like a failure. I don't think I can earn my typical grades this quarter and swallowing that pill is very difficult.”

This student and other students have communicated the plethora of ways in which the severe disruption to their lives has presented many challenges that have consequences for their mental and physical health, their ability to earn a living, their motivation and faith in the future, their stress levels, and their school work in general. Hearing their voices and responding to their needs, as we have long been committed to doing in Social Ecology, is a necessary step toward meeting the challenges presented to us as educators in these historic times. 

Nicholls, Robinson, and Coutin wrote the report on the graduate student survey results. In it, they write:

The graduate student survey was open from April 27 to May 8, 2020. There were 52 respondents across four Ph.D. programs, and our two in-person Master’s programs. Students were asked questions about their expectations of remote instruction, and experiences with remote instruction in Spring 2020, as well as about things that were working well, and suggestions for improvements in how to deliver instruction remotely. 

Students appreciate that most faculty have been flexible, compassionate, and communicative. And, they recognize that faculty have been impacted by COVID-19 and are struggling to find a healthy balance between work and home life. 

COVID-19 and social distancing measures have deeply impacted graduate students’ lives. Graduate students are facing enormous challenges and many are struggling to stay engaged in coursework as well as other requirements in their graduate programs, including conducting original research. In response to the question “All things considered, how is remote learning going for you so far this quarter?” 21.82% reported good/very good, 29.09% reported badly/very badly, and 43.64% reported neutral (note that the percentages do not total 100 because some skipped this question). 

Graduate students are experiencing five main areas of pressure: 

Challenging Work Conditions at Home: Many of our graduate students attend classes in home environments with many inhabitants, poor internet connections, unreliable computers, and dilapidated equipment. Some students lack childcare and have family members who are ill or have lost their jobs. Some have recently relocated and are facing precarious housing. Students continue to strive to excel, but conditions make it difficult to prioritize their studies. One student explained, “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. It is hard to prioritize school when most of my family has lost their jobs.” 

Financial Hardship: Graduate students are experiencing financial hardship. Not only have family members lost their jobs, in addition, opportunities to earn income have been curtailed and expenses have increased, for instance, due to the need to move. Students who are graduating also face a potentially catastrophic labor market, heightening levels of financial anxiety. 

Disrupted Research and Degree Progress: The trajectory of many graduate students has been disrupted. Master’s students are struggling to find internships needed to complete their degrees. Some have dropped courses or feel they are getting less out of their coursework because of newfound competing demands, insufficient resources and COVID-19 related expenses, or reduced access to campus-based resources. Ph.D. students have  had to modify their research plans including most immediately their data collection strategies. Many have also had difficulty focusing on completing important tasks like field exams, the prospectus, field research, and dissertation writing. Ph.D. students anticipate that these delays will increase their time to degree completion. 

Zoom Fatigue: Long hours spent in front of the computer are giving rise to “Zoom fatigue.” This can result in attention loss, eye strain, migraines, and deteriorating mental health. 

TA Pressures: Teaching assistants are expected to assume responsibility over technology and manage interactions with undergraduate students. Teaching assistants express concern about the ability of undergraduate students to fully participate because of stress, disruptive home environments, slow internet, and Zoom fatigue. Contending with technology challenges and distressed undergraduate students can aggravate anxiety among graduate student teaching assistants. 

Most students are facing some or all of these pressures, but low-income students, students with disabilities, students who are underrepresented, and international students are especially impacted. The struggle to succeed under trying conditions has given rise to feelings of stress, anxiety, guilt, and depression among some. 

Students identify several ways that faculty can provide the best possible remote learning experience. Summarizing the respondents’ open-ended responses to these back-to-back questions reveals some best practices from the point of view of graduate students: 

Do Not Hold Three-Hour Synchronous Lectures: Three-hour synchronous courses reduce student attention and increase “Zoom fatigue,” especially when delivering a long lecture. Accessibility can be difficult for students with challenging home environments and unstable internet connections. These conditions further diminish attention and increase anxiety. 

Combine Synchronous and Asynchronous Instructional Delivery: For three-hour courses, combine synchronous and asynchronous methods. Pre-recorded and short lectures can be used to cover basic themes and concepts. Use Zoom for interactive parts of classes such as discussions and responses to questions. Short synchronous lectures can also be used for complex topics that elicit questions better answered in real time. 

Set Clear and Consistent Expectations: Setting clear expectations can help reduce uncertainty and anxiety. Use the syllabus to clearly outline assignments, communicate expectations, and set deadlines for assignments. Routinely remind students of deadlines and grading. And, ensure that you are consistent in course delivery method. 

Communicate and Stay Responsive: Many graduate students feel disconnected from faculty. Faculty can facilitate connectedness through regular communication. During class, dedicate time for questions and use the Zoom chat function to enable interactions. Provide guidance and encouragement through emails, Canvas postings, and announcements at the beginning and end of class. Extend office hours and encourage students to meet with faculty and teaching assistants. Use the Zoom poll function to assess students’ experience. And, respond promptly to emails. 

Stay Flexible: Graduate students are working in challenging environments and are experiencing high levels of stress. Faculty can reduce course workload, provide additional time to complete assignments, eliminate “busy work.” remind students of satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading options, and provide longer breaks. 

Increase Classroom Engagement: Graduate students enjoy active and engaging classes. In addition to facilitating discussion and providing ample time for questions, faculty can use Zoom breakout rooms, the Zoom chat function, guest speakers, and collaborative assignments. 

Make Materials Available on Canvas: Making course materials available on Canvas helps to fill in information gaps that may result from difficult home environments and poor internet connectivity. Post reading materials, lecture slides and outlines, and recordings of lecture to Canvas. 

Departments and Advisors Need to Communicate Regularly with Students: Some graduate students feel isolated and disconnected from their programs and advisors. Department leaders (e.g., Chairs, Vice Chairs, or Graduate Advisors) can help by providing clear and regular communication to graduate students. Communication can express appreciation for graduate students’ resilience and provide important information concerning updates on planning, opportunities, and useful resources (from technology to mental health). For Ph.D. students, advisors need to regularly check-in, assess progress, identify barriers, and provide concrete plans that can help their advisees continue making progress. Lastly, advisors need to respond to emails from their advisees in a timely manner. Delayed responses aggravate anxieties and stress. 

Faculty have done an extraordinary job responding to this crisis and students appreciate the efforts. Making additional small adjustments to courses contributes to improving the experience of students. It is important for us to act on our commitment to the well-being of our graduate students.