A Pandemic Pivot

By: Matthew Kliethermes, PhD.

If I have learned anything over the past year or so, it is that there is nothing like a pandemic to shake up your teaching routine!  I could spend time writing about the myriad ways it changed how I taught my class, the shift from an in-person format to an online synchronous/asynchronous mixed format being one of the most obvious examples.  However, I have instead decided to write about the impact of the pandemic on my students, particularly in the context of a simulation-based class covering child maltreatment. 

In the best of times, child maltreatment can be a challenging topic for many undergraduate students.  Many of the students at the university I teach at are nontraditional.  They come from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of lived experiences, both personal and professional, that touch upon the issue of child maltreatment.  Subsequently, students may have some emotional reactions to the content of the class, particularly in the more realistic context of simulations. 

However, over the course of the pandemic, students started to experience a variety of additional, real-life stressors.  I had students who lost their jobs, some who developed COVID-19 and became seriously ill, and others who lost friends and loved ones.  Many of them had children of their own who were no longer able to attend school, childcare options became limited, and they had to help their children navigate virtual schooling.  In the face of all of these stressors, students often found themselves cutoff from primary sources of support.  The pandemic diminished their contact with friends and family and disrupted their access to community supports (e.g., church, social groups).    

Not surprisingly, the pandemic affected the academic engagement of many students.  More so than any other time, I witnessed students struggle with the rigors of the semester.  Online lectures went unwatched, assignment completion was a challenge, cameras were off during synchronous online lectures, groups were struggling to collaborate on projects, and students (and the professor!) did not seem to be enjoying the class as much as usual. 

I also found that it was more difficult for me to keep an eye on how students were reacting to the content of my class.  If their cameras were off, I could not see their body language or facial expressions to gauge possible secondary traumatic stress impact.  I was not able to observe them immediately before and after class, I was not able to observe their interactions with peers, and there were significantly fewer natural opportunities for one-on-one interactions.  Clearly, students needed support, but in many ways, I felt blindfolded by my decreased connection with my students. 

However, I gradually realized that I was only blindfolded if I chose to be.  While many of us are dealing with Zoom fatigue, technology does provide many opportunities to reach out to our students.  I would like to spend the remainder of this post describing a few strategies I used to “remove the blindfold” through the wonders of technology.

  1. Make use of the private chat function during synchronous meetings.  Although this requires some juggling, it can be a good idea to check in with individual students using the private chat function.  In a class covering child maltreatment content, using this feature to touch base with students during particularly challenging content can be an effective way to assess for and address potential secondary traumatic stress reactions.  I made a special point to chat with students who evidenced any sign of distress (e.g., obvious facial expressions, suddenly turning off the camera).
  2. Consider scheduling mandatory one-on-one Zoom check-ins with students throughout the semester.  These may be particularly useful if scheduled following critical junctures in the class (e.g., following a particularly challenging simulation).  Students that might have talked to you before or after an in-person class may not reach out by other means.    
  3. Even in the best of times, students are often intimidated by the thought of group assignments even in the best of times.  This has only been made worse by the stress and disruption caused by the pandemic.  If your course involves any sort of group work, consider scheduling synchronous group meetings throughout the semester.  Using breakout rooms in Zoom, you can have multiple groups meeting simultaneously and spend time with each group.  This allows you to observe interactions between group members and assess how well they are working together on the assignment.  Early awareness of group discord can be essential to preventing late semester crises that threaten successful assignment completion.
  4. It can be very helpful to make online assignments as interactive as possible.  Instead of having students submit written assignments, consider having them submit video assignments and responding to those assignments with your own video comments.  Although not a synchronous interaction, it does give you an opportunity observe how students are engaging with the content and develop a sense of connection. 

The past year has been greatly challenging for all of us, including our students.  Nothing I have suggested in this post is likely to be considered groundbreaking, but in difficult times, groundbreaking may not always be the answer.  Instead, a renewed emphasis on connection with students is likely the best approach, even if it does mean more time on Zoom!

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Katelyn Anderson