Our experience teaching a first-year transition course has highlighted the challenges that students have faced during the pandemic. The course presents peer-reviewed scholarship on the science of learning and explores recent research on the most effective ways to develop and practice foundational academic skills (e.g., academic writing, critical reading, time management). It is typically taught in an active learning classroom so that students can do hands-on activities in small groups practicing the skills they read about. It also has an experiential learning component, where students set up tables on campus to share research on academic skills development with the broader university community.
Like many of our colleagues, we invested considerable time and effort in the summer of 2020 shifting this course to an online format for the fall. To support students during the pandemic, instructors were encouraged to be more flexible with deadlines and adopt course policies that explicitly accommodated students in different time zones and whose home environment may present challenges for online learning. In many ways, the key takeaway from all of these events was the importance of considering our students’ mental health when redesigning our courses for online delivery.
As it turned out, these concerns regarding our students’ mental health were entirely justified. They needed and benefitted from this kind of support. The first indication that they were finding online learning difficult was the number of conversations we had in the first few weeks of term with students who felt they needed to drop the course. For the first time in the short history of the course, initial enrollment was less than 100 per cent and final enrolment was less than 30 per cent of the cap. Never before had we had so many students tell us that they wanted to stay in the course but couldn’t because they weren’t able to manage a full course load. Many sent emails apologizing for dropping the course and admitting to feeling overwhelmed and stressed by the experience of starting university online during a pandemic. Even more cited the challenges of attending lectures and meeting deadlines that were set in a different time zone.
With this smaller class size, it seemed more manageable and even more important to put our trauma-aware pedagogy into practice and work to support our students’ mental health. For example, we implemented an “exception” to the standard late policy for major assignments in the course. In an acknowledgement of the extraordinary circumstances within which we were teaching and learning, we offered every student one 48-hour extension with “no questions asked” for any major writing assignment in the course. Over half the class used this extension. Other new course policies we implemented to help support students’ mental health included: enhanced email communication (on average twice-weekly check-ins and updates); online colouring to start classes; music to start and end all classes (students were encouraged to make recommendations); recommending but not requiring the use of cameras during lectures (about one third of the students kept their cameras on); and take-home assessments with no e-proctoring.
Students’ responses to the course and to our efforts to support them demonstrated how preoccupied they were with their own mental health. Indeed, many managed to write about mental health regardless of the topic they were assigned. For example, the central assignment in the course is a term-long scaffolded research paper that includes a policy brief and presentation on how to improve students’ foundational academic skills. In previous years, we might have had a couple of our students attempt to establish a causal link between mental health issues such as anxiety and university students’ inability to excel at a particular academic skill. However, during the pandemic about half of the students attempted (often unsuccessfully) to establish a causal link between a variety of mental health issues and poor academic skills. Right away, we could see what appeared to be a call for help.
As the term progressed, we saw a similar focus on mental health in other aspects of the course. Students were including discussions of mental health in their weekly reading responses and reflections, and some even suggested or directly stated that they were suffering from mental health issues. Perhaps the clearest evidence we had in regard to the effects of the pandemic on student well-being was the quality of the work being submitted. It was considerably lower than in previous iterations of the course. In many cases, the quality of work was negatively impacted precisely because they tried to focus on both the assigned topic and mental health, or because they tried to change the assigned topic into a question about mental health. In other cases, they simply didn’t put the same effort into their writing.
One of the course tutorials, titled “Becoming an Engaged Learner,” has a component on health and wellness in relation to academic success. In preceding years, students would comment that they didn’t understand the relationship between this topic and the overall aims of the course. This definitely changed during the pandemic. Student feedback forms indicated overwhelmingly strong support for this tutorial, with some students commenting that they found it to be the most beneficial part of the course. Similar commentary was also found in the reflection portion of the final exam, in which some students wrote that the tutorial on health and wellness had been the most useful learning experience of the course overall. Tutorials also served a therapeutic function by providing a space for informal discussions about the pandemic and the effect it was having on their learning, and by offering some vitally needed time for social interaction. There were moments of levity, expression, and insight for both the students and the teaching assistant.
Our experience demonstrates that although training and preparation were helpful in providing us with ways to cushion the effects of the pandemic for our students, no amount of planning is enough. They have shown us that they are resilient, and if provided with the right tools and accommodations, have proven that they can at least survive if not always thrive in these challenging circumstances. We weren’t expecting our course on the science of learning to become a course about the importance of mental health in academic skills development, but this shift in focus proved to be enlightening for students and instructors alike. Our students took control of their learning and taught us that mental health is a necessary condition for all learning. And they reminded us that we all need to talk about our mental health if we want to be successful, especially in these unprecedented times in which we are living, teaching, and learning.
Emil Marmol holds a PhD from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Tyler Evans-Tokaryk is an associate professor and director of the academic skills centre at the University of Toronto.