Socio-emotional learning will help students cope with the pandemic

With many students still obliged to learn from their bedrooms, focusing on their well-being and social development is vital, says Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan

October 22, 2020
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As the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic ebb and flow, it can be easy for university administrators to fixate on managing outbreaks on campus, training academics to use learning technologies and adjusting pedagogy and assessment for the online environment. But we must not neglect the impact that remote learning is having on students.

With many universities in Hong Kong likely to continue relying on online or hybrid modes of delivery for some time to come, I asked around about this at my own institution. One common phenomenon reported by lecturers is that students generally turn off their cameras when attending class online, which raises questions about their level of engagement; this tendency may be particularly detrimental to freshmen as no rapport has yet been established between the teacher and the student. At the same time, there is a widespread clamour among students, particularly continuing students, to resume physical classes.

Of course, some students may turn off their cameras to hide their home surroundings, but anecdotal accounts of students taking online classes in bed raises the issue of self-management. Indeed, a recent poll of students recently found that their top challenge when undertaking online learning is self-discipline. As educators, we should worry about this. Part of going to university is about learning to become independent and responsible; if remote learning is failing to instil these relationship skills that are crucial for adult life, then that is a problem.

University authorities are generally aware of the negative impact that prolonged studying in isolation can have on students, but their responses tend to focus on a catch-all mental health support system delivered through student services and counsellors. We need to have a better grasp of the nature and magnitude of the problem, and then explore how to integrate strategies for addressing it with the academic side of our engagement with students.

Research has found that one in four students in China suffered from anxiety at the height of the pandemic. Hong Kong’s annual mental health survey this year also found that those between 15 and 34 years of age have seen their mental health decline the furthest – although counselling services have not been overwhelmed, perhaps because, while studying at home, students have been getting support from their families.

Instead, what most experts would consider to be of immediate concern is loneliness – an issue that also touches on the topic of building the social and emotional capacities of students in an academic setting. Arguably, this is the least discussed and prioritised aspect of migrating the university experience online.

In our school, we deliberated over the summer about how to assist the new cohort to transition into tertiary study in the absence of face-to-face interactions. The outcome was the establishment of a year-long Student Engagement Plan, grounded in features such as attention, support and variety.

Giving attention is the first step to inviting learners to connect online with their teachers and programme leaders on a more personal basis. We managed to migrate a number of support services online, such as a language-enhancement course, an academic skills workshop and support for using learning technologies. And a variety of online extra- and co-curricular activities were also scheduled to break down the monotony of learning only discipline-based contents.

However, as we try to understand how our students think, feel and behave while studying online, we recognise that such online substitutes may offer only partial relief at best.

The present moment calls for broader reflection on our historic tendency to overstress the teaching of subject knowledge and technical competencies to the detriment of teaching students the skills to be cognisant of their own emotions and to manage them – as well as to be aware of and empathise with other people’s perspectives to maintain relationships and make good decisions.

Such competencies can improve both academic achievement and job performance and have found their way into schools – and, to a lesser extent, universities – via the concept of socio-emotional learning (SEL). According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (Casel), the five key components of SEL are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness and relationship skills. It has the dual functions of teaching preventive emotional care and self-efficacy.

By design, SEL situates the building of social and emotional capacities within an academic setting (so it can’t be advanced effectively by a centralised, top-down approach). In universities, it is typically implemented via a dedicated course or series of integrated workshops for students to learn and practise the skills related to emotional and stress management, resilience development, interpersonal effectiveness, self-affirmation and mindfulness. This can form part of a tiered layer of support that escalates all the way to counselling.

Another useful approach is to incorporate SEL activities into class sessions of any chosen course to reduce anxieties about upcoming tests, visualise goals, keep learning on track and cultivate positive emotions that can impact on relations with others in class and beyond.

Importantly, advocates of SEL affirm that its delivery need not be interrupted by a switch to remote learning. Indeed, allowing students to express their feelings is exactly what they need for mutual support and personal growth online.

For teachers, guidance on helping students to build rapport in online courses is available. In our school, our students are undertaking self-learning courses on LinkedIn as part of a personal effectiveness programme prior to undertaking their internships. We will also repeat our offer of online mindfulness sessions, which was popular with students.

None of this can entirely compensate for the loss of direct social interaction that all young people crave, but it can go a long way to minimising the emotional damage caused by its loss. If ever there was a moment to demonstrate the importance of SEL in university learnings, it is now.

Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan is dean of the Li Ka Shing School of Professional and Continuing Education at the Open University of Hong Kong. He is also honorary associate professor in education at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Professional and Continuing Education.

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