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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people who identify as
- The anti-racism research center at BU has a COVID tracker, which
was one of the resources used to identify racial disparities in
discussing anti-Asian racism
Article about how anti-racism is increasing given the pandemic
- Mental health and trauma
Resource about mental health,
as well for those who are experiencing mental health
Article about acknowledging symptoms of trauma (and mental
- Inclusive policies and anti-racist teaching