Prioritizing Well-Being as We Return to the Classroom

Crystal Carlson (Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Crystal is an educational psychologist, dedicated to the scholarship of teaching and learning. She is particularly sensitive to the interplay of student well-being and student success. Her research examines how to support the diverse needs of students, and her instructional approach applies best practices to create learning environments in which all students have the opportunity to thrive.

Image credits: Crystal Carlson

Students faced significant challenges during the spring 2020 transition to remote learning. Many were returning to turbulent homes, many had never taken an online course (let alone multiple online courses concurrently), and some lacked resources to support their learning. The list goes on. And as teachers, we felt our students’ stress in addition to our own. 

I struggled with the transition. But my training as an educational psychologist taught me that when well-being is a priority, we enhance learning. So as I brought my courses online, I decided to anchor my decisions in well-being. Without getting into the many ways in which well-being is defined, for brevity’s sake I’ll simply say my goal was to reduce students’ stress and maintain or improve their physical and mental health.

Well-being has always been part of my teaching philosophy and pedagogy. But the remote learning transition showed how far I had strayed. For example, my absence and late work policies had become more constrained over the years. And in some areas, I was still sacrificing deep engagement because I “had to get in the content.” After conversations with other teachers, I know I’m not alone. Issues arise, policies get added, we have lists of things we want to change—but increasingly limited time and resources. And soon we’re thinking, “Why do I have this policy?” or “Are all these assessments really addressing my learning goals?”

So I’ll share some commitments I’m making as I return to the classroom.  As I make adjustments to my courses, I also have my own well-being in mind. It definitely took a hit this year. For each of these items, I will briefly share insights about how to maintain your well-being.

1. Rethinking Assessments and Cheating

As our students experience more stress and mental health challenges, they may experience more test anxiety, be tempted to cheat, or simply give up. Many teachers I’ve talked to are particularly concerned about cheating in an online environment. You can use tools such as LockDown Browser if you are worried about students’ consulting other resources during high-stakes online assessments.

But preventing cheating is not my priority. In my 10 years of teaching, I haven’t encountered many students who cheat because they don’t want to learn. They are often overwhelmed, are intimidated by the content, and lack skills and knowledge to navigate the college environment. So instead of focusing on cheating prevention, let’s revisit our assessment strategies.

For example,

Adjusting quantity and quality of assessments: One thing I’m doing is requiring fewer assessments overall. I’m also enhancing assessments, particularly those that are high-stakes. For example, I’m targeting higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy—encouraging students to consult other sources or look back to their text so they can process the material and develop an informed response. I don’t mean to imply that every exam I give will be open book or that I don’t use time limits. But I want to encourage a shift from “How do I prevent my students from cheating?” to “What do I want to know from this assessment, and how can students show me?”

Making low-stakes . . . low-stakes: Students never feel good when they see a failing grade. But this year, I’m concerned students will be more likely to shut down. So making sure our low-stakes assessments are truly low-stakes is important to build student knowledge and confidence. For example, I provide unlimited attempts on quizzes until the deadline.

Varying assessments: Allowing students to show what they know in various ways is not only an inclusive best practice, but it may also enhance student well-being. An engaging assessment that builds on students’ strengths and interests (e.g., developing an infographic or recording a podcast) can help them experience competence and success. I’m consulting colleagues and other resources for ideas, because I find it’s so easy to get in an assessment rut.

Assessment and your well-being: Regardless of the amount or nature of my assessments, I’m rethinking grading procedures. Do I need to collect and grade every single in-class activity, or are sporadic check-ins appropriate? What feedback is most valuable for each assignment? Are there rubrics I can adapt to make grading easier for me and clearer for the student? I used to feel bad that every student wouldn’t be getting extensive, individualized feedback on every assessment. But taking weeks to grade low-stakes activities or overwhelming students with feedback isn’t going to serve anyone.

2. Prioritizing Social Support

With student activities limited or eliminated, class is one of the few opportunities students have for positive social connections. I invest a lot of energy building relationships with students. I am being even more intentional about doing so this year, because I think we will all find connecting to be more effortful.

For example,

Checking in and encouraging: Because of increased isolation, students won’t have as much of our presence on campus as reminders that they are supported. So my goal is to send emails to two students per week (ideally per class). One will be to a student who is experiencing challenges. Another will be to a student who has been doing well or shared an interesting insight in class.

Asking for frequent feedback: Many of us use “muddy points” or other strategies to quickly elicit student feedback at the end of each class or week. I usually use notecards, asking for anything that’s on students’ minds (either content related or not), but I haven’t done this as often as I would like. I will be doing this more often, because it’s a great way to send the message that we are a source of social support. To avoid passing notecards, I’m going to administer these electronically (e.g., private posts on discussion boards, private Flipgrid videos, or quick-write assignments).

Supporting connections in class: My courses involve a lot of group work and discussion. I’m committed to maintaining this approach, because of its positive impact on learning and well-being. But in online environments, students need more structure. For example, I’m using breakout rooms to allow students to frequently connect in small groups.

I’ve also reflected on camera use in the online environment. Before meeting virtually, I am going to instruct students on how to change their backgrounds (e.g., Zoom backgrounds). Many students don’t want to be on camera because they don’t want the class to see their environment. So backgrounds are a great way to address that concern and make students more comfortable. Modeling by changing our own backgrounds may also be encouraging.

But what if students still don’t want to be on camera? I want my students to be visible to increase engagement and provide social cues. But this is another example of how I’ve been rethinking some of my approaches. I understand many legitimate reasons a student may choose to be off camera occasionally or the whole time—and I’m okay with it. I will always offer to have conversations with students to better understand their choices and how I can support individuals, but I will not require them to turn on their cameras.

Social support and your well-being: Building relationships among and with students is incredibly rewarding. But it’s also a time-intensive aspect of teaching. I’m particularly sensitive to this as we return to classes, because I think students will need more support. So we all need to determine our own limits. I communicate these limits to students and provide resources if they are unable to reach their peers or me. Being more isolated, we may also be less likely to reach out to colleagues for support and unable to have those brief hallway conversations. So I am trying to incorporate those opportunities as part of my weekly routine.

3. Teaching Time Management and Rethinking Deadlines

How are students going to meet deadlines, learn content, and maintain well-being when they can’t manage their time? I want to provide students with skills to help them be successful. Part of that is teaching time management and how to communicate about late work.

For example,

Teaching time management: I used to think teaching time management was impossible, given my already loaded curriculum. But I quickly realized my students weren’t reading or weren’t completing some assignments because they didn’t know how to manage their commitments. This semester, I am recommitting to teaching time management. This can be as simple as asking a student success specialist to provide handouts or do a 5-minute presentation. I’ve also relied on students to share strategies, and I share my own.

Adjusting late work policies: Practically speaking, we need deadlines so work doesn’t pile up on students, and so feedback remains relevant. But I’ve made my late work policies more constructive and less punitive. If it takes some students longer to complete an assignment than others, I’m okay with that. So I’m expanding my grace periods and reducing the instances of point reductions.  

Deadlines and your well-being: At first I thought my more concrete late policies would positively influence my well-being, because it would be easier to grade and I wouldn’t have to compare “excuses” to determine penalties. But it actually made things more difficult, because I found myself struggling with why I was taking points off at all. So I’m hoping that teaching students time management, and developing more flexible policies, will also make my experience more positive. To further reduce stress and avoid having to chase down students for work, I do establish and communicate the length of grace periods (mine are just more generous now). I also ask students to tell me if they plan to turn something in late, so I know who is choosing not to complete a particular assessment.     

4. Providing Resources Early and Often

Some of our students, if not all, are continuing their education online. They still may not have reliable internet or a comfortable place to work.  And anxieties are high. So I want to make sure I am providing resources in multiple places and offering frequent reminders. Although we need to teach our content, I remind myself that I may be the only person with whom a student has connected or who has explained how to access the counseling center, for example. Connecting students with what they need is a shared responsibility to which I’m happy to dedicate time.     

Embedding wellness strategies and resources into courses: As a psychology teacher I find it easy to incorporate well-being into my courses. For example, I can talk about the value of meditation and how to avoid overthinking. Although offering this kind of advice can be challenging in other courses, small but powerful changes might include incorporating resources in announcements or sharing what you do to cope.

Providing campus and national resources: I always direct students to campus resources and often walk them to various locations, but recently there have been many changes in such services. I’m educating myself so I can tell my students exactly how to access what they need. For those who don’t have easy access to campus, I am connecting them with other resources (e.g., Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s National Helpline, teletherapy options when appropriate).

Resources and your well-being: Like our students, I am experiencing significant stress and reduced well-being. So another commitment I’ve made is to identify my coping strategies and incorporate them in my schedule. We all know the importance of carving out this time—but I personally need frequent reminders and “permission.” If you feel similarly, I encourage you to prioritize your well-being as you make decisions about your courses.

I look forward to reading your insights as we navigate this challenging academic year.