It’s Compassion, Not Capitulation, to Ask Less of Students Amid Disruption

As was true last spring, the college learning environment this fall is likely to challenge students. Professors should be flexible and empathetic, William Ellis writes.

August 19, 2020
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The nearly universal shift of traditional, on-ground courses to online instruction in the spring of 2020 was an unprecedented disruption in the American education system. Looking to the next academic year, an immediate return to normalcy is far from certain, as a variety of reopening strategies and contingency plans are being adopted by colleges and universities around the country. It is more important than ever that we reflect on the experiences of the last semester as we prepare to once again teach under unusual circumstances.

Despite our best intentions and efforts, a majority (75 percent) of American students reported dissatisfaction in their overall education experience after the COVID-19 pandemic drove us online. My own anecdotal evidence supports this finding. Before and after each Zoomed class meeting, I would ask my students how they were doing. Once we got past the obligatory “Fine,” my students, surrounded by the paraphernalia of their youth or domesticity, would express, to varying degrees, discontentment with remote learning and isolation.

Cabin fever, conflict with relatives, internet outages, difficulty self-motivating, insufficient feedback, excessive course work, poor teacher-student communication and more were sources of real angst. The signs of strain were there. At times there were tears. I even discovered one young man drinking a beer during my lecture to “cope with this new ‘normal.’”

A real eye-opener was discovering that my son, a high school senior, was struggling mightily with many of the very same issues (sans substance abuse). A troublingly common lament of students and son alike was that many faculty members seemed indifferent to the challenges facing their students.

It is certainly not uncommon for students to mistakenly view their relationship with teachers as adversarial, but I found myself moved to introspection. What did we do or not do in the last several months that so disappointed our charges?

I believe that I found a clue in a faculty survey by Bay View Analytics, discussed by Inside Higher Ed. Less than half of faculty respondents made what Inside Higher Ed described as the “possibly controversial” decision to change “their requirements for, or expectations of, students” for the remainder of the semester. Among the findings, 46 percent of the teachers eliminated some assessments and assignments. Just 32 percent lowered their expectation of the quality of work.

So our students, involuntarily reassigned midsemester to a learning medium that they expressly avoided by enrolling in on-campus courses, were asked to adapt under less-than-ideal conditions but were more often than not held to standards that ignored the realities of the situation. It’s no wonder that anxiety and dissatisfaction were so common.

Why weren’t we collectively more flexible? The answers to that question are as likely diverse as the people who teach. As implied by the modifier “possibly controversial,” some perceived compromise as antithetical to academic quality and rigor (itself not clearly defined).

For these purists, their approach was like whistling past the graveyard; because they maintained normal expectations of their students, their pupils might somehow rise to the challenge in defiance of extraordinarily unfavorable circumstances. For other teachers, I suspect that rigidity was a means of dealing with the uncertainty and strain of developing and teaching online courses for the first time.

It is not unusual for faculty to cope with uncertainty of one form in the classroom by eliminating others; in this instance the challenge of the new was countered by preservation of familiar course content and/or by the imposition of rigid classroom management.

Whatever drove us to our teaching decisions in the spring, I suggest that if/when we must once again confront such a disruption to an academic year, we should heed the prime concern of American students confronted with the coronavirus shutdowns: that “leniency, flexibility and accommodations” be there for them.

When facing a crisis, aligning expectations with the conditions our learners face should not be controversial, just realistic. And if we relinquish some degree of rigid control at the expense of ego, so be it.

I second the call by others (here, here and here) for empathy and flexibility to have a greater place in our pedagogy at a time when all should acknowledge students and faculty alike are not working under the best conditions. Even if your college manages to reinstate face-to-face instruction in the fall, the new “normal” on campuses will include face masks, nasal swabs, Plexiglas, social distancing and many other necessary and constant disruptions to life as we knew it.

So whatever the mode of instruction, consider being more lenient with deadlines. When possible, try a “less is more” approach and reduce the quantity of material to better ensure mastery of essentials. Communicate openly with your students about the challenges they are facing and be willing to adapt your courses in ways to help them succeed in the face of those challenges.

In the words of the Serenity Prayer, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

Although we cannot prevent a pandemic from disrupting a semester, teachers can limit in some way the harm that it causes to those we are called upon to teach.

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William Ellis is an associate professor of biology at Saint Leo University.

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