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Ways to Support All Students

Amidst a global pandemic, a surge in movements for racial justice, and a critical election cycle, students are returning to campus and/or logging onto virtual courses this fall with a lot on their minds. This confluence of major events has brought into sharp relief a need to consider how to support effective learning this semester. In fact, the interpersonal and structural factors that limit student engagement and performance are long-standing; they will continue to affect students differently, particularly those who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) long after elections and crises are over. For this reason, we have compiled this guide for instructors and mentors to help them meet students where they are, keeping in mind that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has fallen on BIPOC students. These suggestions reflect best practices for teaching under any circumstances. Adopting them now will, thus, pay dividends moving forward.

Reduce cognitive load

Students will be juggling a new mix of class types (face-to-face, hybrid, fully remote) and new rules governing how they can and cannot interact with you and their peers. Some will be navigating their own or loved ones' illness; some have jobs, caretaking responsibilities, financial concerns, or all three. All of this will tax working memory capacity, making it tougher for students to keep track of all commitments in and beyond their classes. Accordingly, we propose that instructors:

  • Communicate information using simple language.
  • Make syllabi and assignments accessible
  • Consider removing or modifying penalties for late work but, no matter what, make policies about late work and extensions explicit in syllabi.
  • Give frequent reminders of upcoming deadlines; invite students to contact you if they need help or wish to discuss a new timeline for the work. (Remembering to remind students might increase your cognitive load; Canvas makes it possible to program announcements to be released later so you don't have to remember.).
  • Highlight the deadlines for selecting a pass/fail option or withdrawing from the course.
  • Be transparent and up-to-date with grading, ideally using the Canvas gradebook, such that students can make a reasonably accurate estimate of their current course grade at any point during the semester. This is always good practice, but especially so during a semester with altered P/F/W deadlines and the possibility of campus closures.
  • When presenting course content, minimize "extraneous cognitive load." Remove superfluous information and provide worked examples to help students learn new tasks. Read up on Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory.
  • Present information in multiple ways, where appropriate. For example, list deadlines on the syllabus and on the course’s Canvas calendar, and announce them along the way during the semester too. Similarly, provide the syllabus for download and also provide a video of you discussing the various elements (for asynchronous perusal in the future).
  • Consider asking students to come up with a course technology plan as a no- or low-stakes assignment. Having a plan about what they will do if their internet goes down or their computer stops working (and the support they need from Tufts) will help maintain instructional continuity.

Promote anti-racist values

The consequences of COVID-19 are distributed unevenly among racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Black and Brown people are dying at a higher rate than their representation in the population; White people are dying at a lower rate than their representation in the population (source). Why is this happening? Racism. Our society is organized according to social, economic, and legal systems that systematically privilege White people and that oppress Black, Brown, and other people of color. Indeed, White supremacy shaped the very inception of this country, and we have been experiencing a racial pandemic ever since.

White supremacy persists everywhere, including in our classes. However, we can work to create the equitable, safe spaces that our students of color deserve. Here we propose some initial steps you can take in your classes toward this goal.

  • Use your syllabus as a tool for inclusion! Taking an inclusive approach means everyone in the class will feel that they belong in that space. One way to be inclusive is to tell students the pronouns you use. As this resource notes, "appearance does not reveal gender." Gender identity varies and is not the same as gender expression.
  • Include in your syllabus a statement supporting the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Know that this statement is a social contract between you and your students; by including this statement you are committing to certain actions (e.g., confronting racism) that you must be willing to take when the need arises. Review one source for inspiration.
  • Audit your syllabus; reflect on whose work you are including and amplifying, and whose work you are excluding. Look for opportunities to include scholars of color in your readings. Review a whole database of scholars of color, and a database of papers authored by BIPOC scientists (indexed by subfield of psychology).
  • Educate yourself. Like any topic, it is impossible to become an expert in racism and interracial relations overnight. However, with each reading you will gain a fuller understanding of the work needed to practice anti-racism in the classroom. Review a list of anti-racism resources.

Promote mental health

We are all coping with a lot right now. According to the 2020 Household Pulse Survey, symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (combined) are rising among all age groups. These trends are particularly worrisome in people ages 18-29 years old, the demographic of most of our undergraduate and graduate students. In late April/early May, 46.8% reported having such symptoms; this rate rose to 53.4% by mid-July.

  • Include in your syllabus a section pointing students to the Student Accessibility and Academic Resource (StAAR) Center and Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services.
  • Make yourself accessible to your students. Make it clear when you are available to meet with them and how. If you'll host weekly "office hours," consider calling them "student hours" or "drop-in hours" to emphasize implicitly that this is time you have set aside for them. Regardless of what you call this time, explain in your syllabus that you invite students to drop in to ask questions, chat/check in, strategize study techniques and that dropping in to see you is not a sign of weakness or failure. Review an NPR piece about student perceptions.
  • Students who are struggling with mental health or other pressures or concerns don't always know to whom they can turn. Tell students explicitly that you are a resource and their ally. This does not mean you are committing to being their therapist; that would not be appropriate. Rather, you are signaling the understanding that things may be hard and you want to help them connect with the resources they need to flourish in your class and beyond.
  • Foster opportunities for social interaction, virtual or otherwise. Make developing a sense of belonging and togetherness a goal (explicit or not) of your classes. If you’re running synchronous events via Zoom, consider giving students control over whether they make themselves visible via video. Although you might prefer everyone to be visible to facilitate social connection, students won't necessarily feel comfortable doing so for many reasons. Also, this is an easy way to give students control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
  • Make use of Kognito, an online educational program designed to educate faculty, staff, and students about mental health, student retention, and important campus resources. Kognito provides role-play and simulation training so users can practice important and challenging conversations with students who need our support. Faculty, staff, and students can create an account with Kognito and use the platform at any time.
  • As you develop your course plan, keep in mind the general election taking place on Tues, Nov 3. The outcome is uncertain and many of the issues at stake are fraught, especially for people our society continues to marginalize based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, class, citizenship, physical and cognitive ability, and religion.
    • Consider planning in a way that allows students the opportunity to cope regardless of outcome. For example, avoid scheduling exams or big deadlines that week.
    • Consider dedicating class time to address election issues as they bear on the content of your courses.

Additional Resources (categorized by topic)

Content warning: resources include discussion of trauma, acts of racial violence, and mental health