Helping students manage their anxieties is good pedagogy as it helps them learn. Alexandra Dufresne shares her tips for making students feel supported in the online learning environment
It has been a year since universities across the world transitioned to remote learning and in many ways working with students online is starting to feel “normal.”
However, my college and law students in Europe are displaying levels of anxiety that are decidedly not normal. The growing Covid-related anxiety in university students in the US has also been extensively documented.
I know student anxiety well. From 2005 to 2007, I served as the dean of one of the residential colleges at Yale, where my job was to promote the academic, social and psychological well-being of more than 400 undergraduates each year. My primary job, in both the US and in Europe, is to teach students to represent vulnerable clients and to craft public policy solutions to serious human rights abuses. The emotional impact of the cases we work on can lead to “secondary trauma”, which sometimes manifests as anxiety.
Helping students manage their anxiety is good pedagogy because students who feel relaxed, supported and healthy are much more likely than those who feel overwhelmed by anxiety to push themselves to do their best and to take academic and creative risks.
Thanks to my experience in both Europe and the US, I have learned strategies for handling student anxiety in an online learning environment that work well in both cultures.
In ordinary times, I would not mention student mental health in my first lecture of the semester. However, these times are anything but ordinary. Now when I describe my expectations for students, I mention the pandemic and its toll on people’s mental health and well-being. I tell students that if they need help, they should talk to me, as it is my job to help them perform their best. Most students never take me up on the offer. But students have told me that just knowing that it was an option – and the fact that I affirmatively brought the issue up – was a tremendous relief.
One of the most challenging aspects of online teaching is that it removes the opportunity for informal “hand on the doorknob” type of interactions. When I was the dean, our family got a puppy, in large part so I could justify spending hours in the courtyard, chatting with students passing by. These lighthearted, superficial interactions laid the groundwork for students to feel comfortable coming to me when they were in trouble.
There is no easy way to do this online. However, from the beginning, I make it clear that students can email me at any time, and if they have an emergency, they can email me at my personal account, which goes directly to my phone. I also offer virtual office hours. Particularly in Europe, where there is typically more “distance” and formality between faculty and students, these offers seem to make students feel relieved.
In some people, anxiety can manifest as anger. It can also “crowd out” the space we usually devote to applying our normal good judgement in social situations. It can make people behave more rudely than they otherwise would, including the classic “sending angry emails that one regrets the next morning” phenomenon. This is particularly the case for college-age students, who often suffer acutely under the social isolation from the pandemic.
What does this mean for professors? Easy: let it go. Ordinarily, if a student were rude to me, I would call them on it. Now when a student is out of line, I chalk it up to anxiety, and let it go. There is never an excuse to speak harshly or unkindly to a student, especially given the power differential, and in times like this, a gentle touch is best.
It is essential in a crisis to keep one’s academic expectations of students high. However, although I am known for expecting a lot of work from my students, I offer all students from the beginning of the course one “free pass” – one class period in which they do not need to speak, no questions asked. Although most students do not take me up on this offer, just having the option can relieve anxiety.
Some faculty in the US have taken on the role of counsellor or even social worker to students during this crisis. I gently submit that this is unwise for several reasons. Most faculty are not mental health or social work experts. Faculty serve their students best by focusing on their pedagogical role and on the research or clinical work that makes them excellent teachers and mentors. Too much “care” work can hurt faculty promotion and career opportunities, which are usually determined by research and clinical performance.
Students often give warning signs of emotional stress in their correspondence, in-class behaviour, class absences, essays and homework responses. Gently suggesting to a student that they seek counselling is much easier than one would think. Students are often relieved that someone with authority has raised the issue, as it gives them “permission” to take their mental health concerns seriously.
Never once has a student refused to “walk over to the counselling centre” with me; students often think faculty have more power than we do. In times of crisis, it is important to use that “soft power” to make sure we help our students stay healthy, so they have the mental space to learn as much as possible. In doing so, we also model for our students how we expect them to treat their colleagues when they become leaders in their respective fields.
Alexandra Dufresne is director of the International NGO Law and Policy Project and lecturer in the department of business law at ZHAW.