TL: DR This blog post is a 7 ½-minute read. If you only have two minutes, scroll to the end for the tips!
A grad school friend recently recounted a conversation she’d overheard:
Young Person 1: How old are you?
Young Person 2: I’m 25, but really I’m 22. You know, because of the pandemic.
Funny, not funny, but this conversation made me think of observations my colleagues have made during the last two academic years, and more so since the return to in-person classes last year: students don’t seem as engaged as they used to be, they are more anxious, and they’re not doing as well academically. And those observations weren’t just made about CI’s students. My teacher friends and colleagues from Maine to California, from middle school to college, expressed the same concerns.
The latter concern – that students might be coming to us not having learned what prior students would have – was understandably widespread, particularly when we think about the students CI serves. According to CI’s Academic Affairs Data Analytics, in Fall 2021, 61% of our students were first-generation students, 54.5% were Pell Eligible, and 58.7% were members of ethnic groups historically underrepresented in higher ed, with the majority of those students, 56.7%, Latinx. These students were more likely to be profoundly affected by the massive inequities in access to education. Like many, I was deeply concerned. I wanted to learn all I could so I’d be better prepared to help the college students who were going to be much less academically prepared than their peers had been in earlier years.
But what I discovered is that schools from TK to college were also understandably alarmed.
Seemingly everyone was worried about students falling behind, and that emphasis on getting students up to speed on the academic challenges they faced was front and center. CI, for example, ramped up its Summer Bridge program to include the Summer Success Academy.
Due to major surgery, I was on medical leave in Fall 2021, but I kept in touch and heard the stories of silence, or seeming lack of norms, in the classroom from colleagues that I knew to be empathetic teachers skilled at leading class discussions. And I wondered, as many of you did, what’s going on with our students? Not in terms of being underprepared academically, but rather their seeming lack of engagement, which we know looks different on different people but seemed widespread.
Then, a couple of things happened that clicked for me.
One: a young person I know slapped a peer at school for bullying her twin sister. Her mother was understandably horrified but said, “Well, her teacher keeps telling me they’re seven, but emotionally, they’re five because they missed out on almost two years of the social and emotional development they’d get at school.”
The second: A colleague at a nearby college asked her seemingly disengaged students why they weren’t participating in the discussion she’d asked them to have was met with silence for a few minutes before one brave soul raised their hand and said, “Professor, I don’t know how to talk like a college student.”
The stories I’d heard suddenly clicked. These students have lost two-three years of prime social and emotional learning, which the California Department of Education prioritizes for aligning with student engagement, student achievement, and school climate. I imagined myself a first year college student physically, while emotionally, I might be as young as a high school sophomore. And then I thought about how, when I was a first-year student, I suffered from imposter syndrome to such a degree that I wanted to quit many times. So, imagine what our students are going through. As President Yao said at Convocation, incoming students have lower expectations for themselves and for their experiences with us. Let’s meet them where they are, and help them get where they need to be to have the transformative educational experience we all want for them.
The basics of social and emotional learning for everyone are:
- set and achieve positive goals
- feel and show empathy for others
- establish and maintain positive relationships
- make responsible decisions
- understand and manage emotions
Here are five ways we can help our students that will take five minutes or less of class time:
- Show students that they belong here, as many, from first-year to transfer students, will be struggling with imposter syndrome. CI’s Academic Affairs Data Analytics show that most of our students are, as noted above, the ones most likely to suffer imposter syndrome. Show the students the data.
- Be explicit about what it means to be a college student in your discipline. Clearly state and model your expectations. For example, I usually teach seminar-style classes where I ask students to consider and respond to a lot of questions. Silence and halting starts indicated students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. So, I spelled it out for them. Explain EVERYTHING, from how you’d like them to enter the classroom if they’re late to how and when to email you. Students may not have internalized these norms yet. I’ve found that students appreciate this advice about emailing professors.
- Maintain high standards for your courses, but again, be more explicit about how students can meet them. Ask them what their goal grade is in your course, and clearly explain what that looks like, for every assignment. Even if you have a rubric, students may not understand what you mean unless you show and tell them. For more on this approach, you could read a previous post. “Tools for Being a Warm Demander.”
- Care about them, and show it. If a student misses class without notifying you or hasn’t logged into Canvas in a few days, email them and ask if they’re okay. In the first week, you could ask students to submit a Learner Information Survey in which you can ask questions about them. A question I always include: Is there anything else you’d like me to know about you, like challenges in your life or things that might impede your success? For example, are you responsible for the care of others, such as children, younger siblings, or grandparents? Is someone in your family sick? Are you working full time? Have you struggled with staying motivated for school?
- Show them yourself. We’ve all been traumatized by the pandemic. While we should acknowledge that most students have spent a larger percentage of their lives under the pandemic than most faculty have; nonetheless, we’ve all suffered. Let them talk about their experiences and share yours. We could all use some empathy.
If you have ten minutes, you could:
- Create a weekly check-in: four- five questions pulled from the learner’s survey to see how students are doing.
- Implement a “ticket out” at the end of class to ask students about key concepts you covered to know, in real-time, what students understood.
- Require students to come to your office hours as part of the course work. That might mean you have to make appointments for students with conflicts, but that ten minutes might matter a lot to the student.
- Walk the class to the Learning Resource Center, or the Writing and Multiliteracy Center, so they know where to go for tutoring, and then require them to visit one on their own.
- Walk the class to the Multicultural Dream Center and let them see how welcoming it is.
What are your favorite tips to empower students to succeed?