A few months back, I wrote a post about changes I’ve made in my teaching practice to be more empathetic and compassionate to my students. I was pleased and surprised by how well-received these thoughts were by other educators. Now that the semester is over, I’ve had some time to reflect on how these changes worked out in the classroom.
Setting a new tone
One of my aims was to explicitly set a course tone that student well-being was a high priority. I did this primarily with a statement in the syllabus (see original post) and a related question on the syllabus quiz (to incentivize actually reading it). I backed this up with occasional mentions in lecture. For example, after a particularly rough night’s sleep, I showed a picture of our toddler and said that I was sleep-deprived and off my game. “I’m not at my best today, but you wouldn’t know why unless I told you. Likewise, I realize some of you have circumstances outside of class that affect your performance, so if you need help, let me know.” I also mentioned that I remember how intimidating it can feel to go to office hours, but that I enjoy when students stop by with questions or just to chat.
I taught a similarly-sized course the year before, prior to implementing these changes, and only one or two students reached out to me to let me know they were struggling with issues outside of class. This semester I had at least a dozen students check in with me at least once. These ranged from minor, one-off events to serious, ongoing issues. I think in the previous course, students had the same challenges; they just didn’t feel comfortable (or see the point) in letting me know.
I mentioned in my original post that I had carefully reached out to a few students who fared poorly on the first midterm. The majority responded favorably and said they appreciated the contact. I encouraged them to check in with me regarding course material and reviewed effective learning strategies they could use to improve their studying. This didn’t result in dramatic improvements, but most of those students did improve their performance.
Helping students in need
On a few occasions where I had more serious concerns about a student’s emotional or physical well-being, I made use of UBC’s Early Alert. With Early Alert, I convey my concerns, and the students are contacted by a staff member who can refer them to specific services (e.g., counseling) and they are also connected with an academic advisor to facilitate necessary accommodations in a student’s other courses. I also referred to UBC’s Green Folder, a document for faculty that gives tips, steps to take, and resources for assisting a student in distress. These resources (Early Alert in particular) are incredibly important, and I’m thankful that I can rely on staff whom are better able to help students in these circumstances than I am.
As for accommodations, it was easy to give assignment extensions and makeup exams for one-off issues like illness. Other circumstances were more challenging. I met with one student who, due to circumstances outside of class, was unable to focus enough to appropriately prepare for an exam. They asked about skipping the midterm and adding that additional grade-weighting to the other midterm and final. I was willing to do that if necessary, but I was conscious that this would increase the pressure on subsequent exams and the student would miss out on the learning that comes from taking an exam (from both studying and the testing effect). After thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that my priorities are:
- Physical and mental well-being
- Grades (summative)
I told the student that if they felt that taking the exam (even at a delayed date) would put their physical or mental well-being at risk, then we would definitely skip it. However, I also pointed out that the student’s learning would benefit from taking the exam, even if their ability to prepare was not 100%. I proposed that the student wait a week or two and take the exam, even if they didn’t feel fully prepared. At the end of the semester, I would include that score if it helped their grade, and I’d drop it (and more heavily weight the other exams) if it didn’t. In essence, the exam became a low-stakes learning exercise. The student did reasonably well on that exam. When the next midterm came around, they were still facing their outside-of-class challenges, so they appreciated that the weight of the first midterm had not been shifted to the new exam (and we agreed on the same arrangement again).
Feedback from students
I was very interested to see what students said in the comments on end-of-semester course evaluations. Only a few directly commented about well-being, but they were all favorable.
“Patrick made it wildly clear that the well being of his students is always the first priority and that is greatly appreciated, especially seeing as though many other professors do not discuss this in the slightest.”
“He made it clear that he cared for the students’ wellbeing…”
“I really appreciate Dr Culbert’s genuine interest in student welfare…”
“…the course instructor did a good job placing an emphasis on student mental health…”
“Patrick really cared about the well–being of his students”
These comments tells me that I succeeded in setting a tone where students’ knew their well-being was valued. One student with whom I’d had a few interactions over the semester told me in an e-mail (quoted with permission):
“Thank you so much for being understanding towards mental health. I don’t think I have met another Professor who encourages other students to be open and honest about their struggles. I was raised in a “tough it out” family so reaching out was really hard to be frank.”
That note alone made all the extra effort worth it. In case it hasn’t been conveyed thus far, I care tremendously about all off of my students and I want them to have the ability to achieve success in my course and their academic career. I’m glad that, through my actions, I can push students in that direction.
This approach did create additional work. Mostly, it was the logistical load of managing e-mail conversations and make-up arrangements and keeping track of late exams and labs that needed to be graded. With the support of some stellar TAs, this wasn’t too bad. One thing I found a bit funny is that students were still offering me doctor’s notes when they were ill, even though I made no mention of requiring them in the syllabus. Next semester I will make it explicit in the syllabus that I think doctor’s notes are a waste of everyone’s time.
As I made accommodations for an individual student, I tried to remain cognizant of fairness to the other students. My primary focus is fairness in learning (so all students have the same opportunity to learn the material), but I recognize that students are (rightly) very concerned about fairness in grading.
When discussing classroom policies, invariably the discussion turns to a dichotomy of draconian polices to prevent students from “gaming the system” vs. a laissez-faire approach where students may take advantage of the rules. As I said before, I err on the side of trusting students. I’d rather let a few students get away with something undeserved than approach earnest and honest students (who may be having a very tough time) with skepticism and suspicion. It is very possible that some students were taking advantage of me this semester, but I think that was minimal if at all. Either way, I am sure the number of students who were accommodated due to legitimate challenges was significantly higher. Perhaps this will be a greater challenge in the future if it ‘gets around’ that I am accommodating and students begin to take advantage of this.
Emotional labor is something I didn’t think much about beforehand. I am not a therapist, and my main concern is giving students fair accommodations to support their learning. However, students invariably also need emotional support during tough times. As a white, cis, hetero male, I am not often called upon to perform emotional labor. Women, and especially racialized faculty, are frequently put in this position and given little recognition for it (see Zak Vescera’s great article in the Ubyssey). One particular instance this semester left me quite emotionally shaken, but I am willing to take that on for the safety of my students. (That was one of the cases where I used UBC’s Early Alert, so all the follow-up support was provided by other professionals).
I’m really happy with how this semester went. I thank all the folks mentioned in the original post whose comments and observations led me to more carefully evaluate my practice. As always I’ll make a few tweaks before the next round of teaching, but on the whole, this new approach really worked for me.