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Many students believe their professors have some responsibility to help ease their stress and improve their mental health, according to a spring 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse. Nearly half of students with mental health conditions say their professors have a responsibility to help students who are struggling.
Survey respondents believe there are several ways professors can and should help with stress, including dropping the lowest assignment grade, avoiding high-stakes assignments and providing flexibility for students struggling with their mental health when appropriate.
One professor at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Miami learned firsthand how meeting a struggling student where they are can create an impact on overall academic success and provide a new lens to identify success.
The snapshot: Caprice Quinones, an assistant professor of physical therapy, teaches a neuromuscular course for upper-level doctoral students at USAHS and delivers a competency practical exam.
On one testing day, Quinones explains, she walked into the testing room and found a student on the verge of panic, who immediately burst into tears when Quinones checked in on her.
The student was experiencing a crisis at home and doubting her academic ability, having failed a different practical the same week and struggling in other coursework. “She felt like a failure,” Quinones says. “She hadn’t even taken the practical yet, and she already felt like a failure.”
Quinones related to the student’s experiences, with mounting pressures to be a good sister and daughter on top of academic stressors, so she began to share her own story, an approach many professors have taken, especially since the pandemic.
“At that moment, I realized I was no longer her professor, but rather one human being listening to … another,” Quinones says. “It was a silver lining moment between us as I expressed that I too was not perfect.”
Quinones also provided the student with empathetic advice and referred her to seek other services on campus to support her mental and academic health.
Weeks later, the student returned to Quinones and shared that the conversation had transformed her life, and she was now equipped with newfound confidence and another perspective on life, simply from being heard and seen by an encouraging professor. The student’s academic performance improved, as did an interest in future mentorship of students like herself who needed a listening ear.
Lessons learned: As a professor, investing in the next generation of learners is one of Quinones’s driving motivations. “Looking back on this interaction I had with my student only showed me why I continue to do what I do every day,” she says.
Inspiring, instilling drive and inciting excitement among students remains a primary challenge for instructors, and Quinones believes it’s due to a fear of failure and a lack of confidence in overcoming failures.
“However, all studies on highly successful individuals agree that it is the way you cope with failure that shapes you, not the failure itself, which is why I advocate to my students that ‘If we learn from experience, there can be no such thing as failure,’” Quinones says.
Share your own “All in a Day’s Work” story about a memorable moment or conversation with a student facing a challenge.