Duke instructors are known for their concern for students. We encourage instructors to reflect on not only the stressors faced by their students now and how to mitigate their impact on student learning, but also how instructors can practice self-care to maintain their own well-being as they continue to support students via teaching, advising and mentoring.

Challenges students are facing

In Spring 2020, when Duke suddenly switched to online instruction, students faced several issues.  Some were stuck away from home, staying with friends or relatives, or with no social support. Others had living situations not conducive to study or academic work, such as lack of internet access, no private space to study, family care responsibilities, food insecurity or other factors. Students — particularly students of color — faced added stresses of protests and recent political turmoil, and international students dealt with uncertainties about travel restrictions, visas and how changing government policies would impact their ability to continue their college careers. There is a great deal of uncertainty from week-to-week or even day-to-day as conditions change not only at Duke, but in our national and local communities, and this uncertainty adds another layer of stress.

A survey of students at Duke mirrored national studies on experiences of college students around the country — they reported uncertainty about the future, difficult financial situations and depression and anxiety. Faculty at many institutions have heard from students who are approaching the fall term already stressed and exhausted (examples here and in this Twitter thread). As noted by Amanda Starling Gould, Senior Program Coordinator for Educational Programs & Digital Humanities at the Franklin Humanities Institute and Co-Director of Story+:

“Our students are…in a state of reduced mental health. They are coming to us tired,…lonely, scared, frustrated, angry and potentially grieving because of the pandemic and the recent protests and the state of the world (not simply because they are required to do courses online), and we need to keep this at the forefront of our minds when we are designing and teaching our courses. We aren’t necessarily teaching happy, excited, content and connected students. Learning theory tells us a great deal about how anxious, traumatized, grieving bodies learn and find motivation. As instructors, we must: 

  1. first and foremost, recognize that each student has a body, 
  2. understand that in this particular moment those bodies are incredibly stressed,
  3. understand that stressed bodies learn differently/less well/more slowly,
  4. take this into consideration [when] designing our classes, our assignments and our assessment….in this particular moment.

Not just to be kind, but to increase learning outcomes.”

> Handling Increased Stress and Anxiety During COVID Times In the (Virtual & Physical) Classroom (Learning Innovation)
> COVID-19 and Videoclassism: Implicit Bias, Videojudgment, and Why I’m Terrified to Have You Look Over My Shoulder (Taharee Jackson)
> Self Care and Healthy Work Habits for the Pandemic (Ada Palmer, U. Chicago)
> Educators need to employ radical compassion during covid-19 (Nicole Gonzalez van Cleve)
> College Students Have Been Stressed Out During the Pandemic. Here’s How It Has Affected Their Mental Health (Chronicle of Higher Education)
> U.S National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report (UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard study)

Ways to support students

Students reported this spring that their main connection to Duke and a sense of stability and routine were the instructors of their classes. As the people the students see and engage with every day, faculty and other instructional staff are at the heart of the Duke student experience.

Of course, as instructors you cannot be a counselor or therapist to your students, but you can lay a groundwork for open communication to demonstrate your concern, create a more equitable course community and use your position to get your students the help they may need in unusual circumstances.

Provide structure and routine. Students feel more engaged and motivated with openness and specifics about your plans for the course. Your syllabus and course site can provide a roadmap for student learning, and this is particularly important at a time when students might have to miss classes or step away from activities because of personal illness or a family situation — students need to see where they are in the course and what they will need to do to “catch up” if they get behind. (See What will my syllabus look like? and How can I create my course site? for more information.)

Since your students will likely be totally online or a mix of face-to-face and online, it’s very important to provide explicit, clear details on expectations for behaviors, class policies and even individual assignments. Online students or those distracted by changing conditions on campus may not have the time or mental energy to ask you for clarifying details on a point in your syllabus that may be unclear.

Think about simplifying your course by using a minimal number of tools and creating regular routines for assignments, class sessions and projects. Remember that your course and the other courses students will be taking at Duke during the semester may be the only sense of “normal” they have in a larger situation that is uncertain and changing.

Be flexible and understanding. Review your syllabus to consider how you can build flexibility into your course, such as in your attendance and participation policies, assignment options and due dates. Consider collecting information from students in a survey at the start of the class about their location/time zone and current learning situation (access to internet, private study space, necessary technology including printers, academic supports and services), as well as their expected learning situation if the University decides to close as in spring 2020. With this information, you can determine in advance if your course plans will accommodate student situations now and are likely to in the future and make adjustments proactively. 

Remind students often that they should contact you directly about events or situations that are impacting their ability to focus or complete tasks in your class. You can help your students by being flexible – plan options in advance for asynchronous study so students can reengage if they have to step away from the course for a period due to personal circumstances.

Be aware of larger events that may impact the class as a whole – students might need time to just “talk out” these situations in the context of a larger class discussion. Pre-plan for flexibility and lighter course loads during times in the semester that you anticipate to be fraught. 

> Designing a Syllabus in a Global Mental Health Epidemic (Ada Palmer, U. Chicago)
> What Does Trauma Informed Teaching Look Like? (Chronicle of Higher Education)
> Remote Mental Health Resources for Students, Faculty and Staff During COVID-19 (Created by Duke Student Government)
> Creating a Culture of Caring: Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health (Association of College and University Educators)
> Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies (authors of the West Virginia University Press Teaching & Learning Series)
> How Am I Doing? Collect Mid-Term Feedback to Measure Teaching Effectiveness

Maintain open communication with your students. Duke students in the spring highly valued the availability of faculty for individual and small group consultations in office hours or small breakout groups.  As their connection to the Duke community, your class is a means for students to focus and have a sense of continuity and community.

When planning your classes, create opportunities for more of these individualized interactions. For example, you might consider reducing the “live” whole-class meeting time in your course to provide time for more individual online work and availability for office hours to mentor, guide and motivate students as they work through the semester.

One best practice is to send a “welcome email” to pre-registered students 5-6 days before the course is scheduled to start. You could include a bit about yourself and your teaching/working situation (as you feel appropriate), explain a little about how the class will work and how to get started on the first class day, and if you choose to do a student survey as mentioned above you can link to that. You may want to provide this welcome as a short, two-min video, or as an email, or both.

Overall, create and maintain consistent communication avenues for your course, and over- rather than under-communicate. Make sure your students know where (in your course site) they can find important information, and plan for more frequent group check-ins by email, messaging or other routes that students check often. Use Announcements consistently to make clear to students what is happening for your class at any given time, and be sure all info is archived for reference in your course site. Use a welcoming, compassionate tone in all communications. 

Create a safe atmosphere. While a safe, inclusive classroom is important during “normal” times, it is much more critical when students are stressed by outside factors. Minority and low-income students will be more likely to be impacted by economic problems due to the pandemic. International students may be facing problems with discrimination, visa and travel restrictions. LGBTQIA students that have to work at a distance may not be in a living situation where they can be “out” as they would if they were located on campus. Students with disabilities will need accommodations, which may be complicated by the conditions of the pandemic. 

The current political atmosphere is also creating fears and tensions among students that can impact the ability of some students to speak openly or be able to focus on your class, even if the course deals with a topic seemingly unconnected with contemporary events or culture.

If concurrently teaching in-person and remote students (from a Duke classroom with some students “tuning in” synchronously from alternate locations, for example), be scrupulous about engaging and including the remote students equally. Design activities to include the remote students and connect them with the in-person students, use sufficient wait-time to allow remote students to ask questions and call them by name when talking with them. Be sure your classroom technology and the technology used by the remote students allows the remote students to see, hear and participate in classroom activities fully. 

Practice inclusive teaching. In your syllabus and overall course design, look for ways to be inclusive and to build an online community. Set a tone in your class for inclusion and mutual respect. Create opportunities for students to introduce themselves and get to know each other in small group activities.  Use discussion guidelines to create a common understanding of expectations of civil debate, respect and privacy in your class.  Even something as simple as allowing some time at the beginning of your in-person or “live” online session for students to chat and settle into the class time can be beneficial and help students focus on the task at hand.

With assessment, use best practices for frequent student feedback and opportunities for improvement — scaffolded assignments, assessments that directly connect with the content and learning goals of your course and different options for student participation to accommodate differing student comfort levels and preferences. Use criterion-referenced rather than norm-referenced grading schemes; i.e., base your grading and student final grades on how well they have met the assignment and course learning objectives, rather than on how they compare with peers (curving). Create objective and equitable rubrics for each assignment, share rubrics and sample assignments with students at the beginning and use the rubrics for grading.  

> Designing for Care: Inclusive Pedagogies for Online Learning (Jesse Stomel, University of Mary Washington)
> Six Quick Ways to Be More Inclusive in a Virtual Classroom (Chronicle of Higher Education)
> How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive (Chronicle of Higher Education)
> Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19 (Aimi Hamraie)
> Duke Accessible Syllabus Project

When to seek help

You may identify students that are experiencing issues that are negatively impacting their ability to continue in your course. As a faculty member, you cannot solve those problems, but you can connect the student with the help they need. Discuss the situation with your Chair or Dean and don’t hesitate to contact Duke Reach, which can talk with the student and recommend counseling, health or economic services that can assist them. Consider including direct links to some of these resources in your syllabus for easy access by students and instructional staff. 

Resources for Duke student support:
> DukeReach directs students, faculty, staff, parents and others to the resources available to help a student in need (DukeReach’s longer list of available resources).
> Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS)
> DuWell for student wellness support
> Student Disability Access Office (SDAO)
> Academic Resource Center’s Student Guide to Learning Online, and Study Connect to form course study groups.
> Writing Studio for writing support
> Remote Mental Health Resources for Students, Faculty, and Staff During COVID-19 (Duke Student Government)
> Make the Connection: Resources and Opportunities for Students This Fall (Duke Today)

Take time for self-care

The demands of teaching and other academic work, combined with the uncertainty of our situation in the fall, can seem overwhelming. Take time for self-care, to decompress and maintain your own wellness, and focus on healthy work habits. Support and engage with your entire instructional team, including your TAs, and encourage them to do the same. Continue a regular dialogue with colleagues in your school and department to share ideas as you teach and support students through the semester.

Resources for Duke employees:
> Duke Personal Assistance Service (PAS)
> Duke Faculty Advancement
> How to Maintain Your Emotional Well-Being Using Virtual Resources (Duke Today)
> Remote Mental Health Resources for Students, Faculty, and Staff During COVID-19 (Duke Student Government)