As curricular and co-curricular educators, we usually interact with our learners in a defined number of contexts, such as class interactions, advising appointments, office hours and check-ins, research mentoring, and workshops and other programming. Of course, our learners’ and our own lives extend far beyond these contexts. Current and ongoing events can impact learners’ performance in the learning environments that we create—and the ways in which we create these learning environments—positively as well as negatively. How can we support our learners in difficult times, and in ways that integrate with our own personal needs and pedagogical approaches?
What does the research say?
Learners bring not only their prior knowledge but also their emotional responses to current and ongoing events into our classrooms and other learning environments (Ambrose et al., 2010). These emotional responses can impact learning in many ways, from enhancing interest in a related course topic to feeling unable to engage in any course. Although events impact individuals in different ways, it is helpful to keep in mind the aspects of an event associated with likely distress. Among these aspects are the magnitude and scale of related media coverage and the presence of related university events, such as vigils and fundraising efforts (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).
In the literature on how learners respond to stressful current events, most learners report a desire for their educators to respond as well as gratitude when educators do so (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). This aligns with the broader literature on the importance of relationships for well-being—specifically, how much learners “believe there are specific individuals to whom they matter,” including both peers and educators (Schreiner, 2010, p. 4). In research on the educator perspective of how to respond after a tragic event, educators often express feeling uncertain about what to do or say (DiPietro, 2003; Hosek & Austin, 2016). Responding to emotional distress associated with the pandemic and systemic racism, Mays Imad (2020) observes that learners are simultaneously grappling with two issues—that “because we are social beings, our brains view social isolation as a threat” and that “our brains are interpreting unanswered questions as a source of danger.”
It is important to note that learners do not expect educator responses that require significant time and tailoring. Some educators may pursue more involved ways of responding to an event in their courses; however, simple acknowledgements that a tragic event has occurred and that additional support is available are appreciated by learners (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).
As you consider how you might engage with your learners during difficult times, we encourage you to first consider your own needs. Rockquemore (2015) suggests reflecting on what your body, mind, and spirit individually need. You may also find it helpful to explore these strategies on “Caring for Self and Others in Times of Trouble” from the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service. The ways in which we can best take care of ourselves vary from person to person—sometimes leading us to focus on ourselves, other people, or both. Take the time to consider what’s best and possible for you.
We also invite you to explore the following four approaches to supporting your learners, keeping in mind that you may want to focus on one or two rather than implementing all of them.
Tip #1: Acknowledge what is happening and its impact.
Consider incorporating a brief acknowledgement and activity at the beginning of a session together. For example, instructors may start class with a moment of silence or a brief period to freewrite. Providing space for independent contemplation acknowledges the stress that learners might be experiencing and gives them the opportunity to transition and refocus for the learning at hand.
Instructors may also ask students how they are doing, either as an unstructured discussion during class, or written as a “minute paper” response. This can indicate to students that instructors care and are there to support them. Additionally, encouraging discussions can build community in the classroom. However, it is important to consider the audience for these activities and determine whether responses and reflections should be private or shared.
Tip #2: Remind learners of the support available to them within your relationship.
Beyond acknowledgement in class, instructors can demonstrate their support in multiple ways. For instance, instructors may offer flexibility in the course, such as letting students request an extension on an upcoming assignment. Instructors may offer expanded office hours and review sessions, letting students know they are available to support students. Additionally, providing guidelines to learners about how to best communicate with you as the educator is essential for building a supportive relationship.
Acknowledge that events and actions, both in and out of the classroom, have the potential to result in widespread impact and systemic inequities. Be mindful that the same event can impact students differently. Likewise, what we do in the classroom can result in different student responses. Be transparent about activities and expectations, as well as any changes you make to the plans for your course or other context. Gather student input when making decisions, which can help identify difficulties to address (Jankowski, 2020).
Tip #3: Consider how what is happening might relate to your course or context.
If appropriate, it may be worth assessing whether what is happening can become a teaching tool that relates to other topics relevant to your course or context. You may see an important connection between the event and your desired learning outcomes, such that you can engage your learners in analyzing the event in terms of related concepts, theories, and frameworks. While not appropriate in every context, this can be a powerful means of integrating real-world events with your course content or learning domain.
Tip #4: Remind learners of the support available to them outside your relationship.
The learners you work with may be in need of resources beyond the scope of your particular context and expertise. Northeastern’s We Care and the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service provide a range of resources and support for Northeastern learners (as well as for faculty and staff). Other events may also be offered by colleges and other offices throughout the university, which you can also share. We encourage you to explore the full range of support available through university resources for teaching and learning.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
DiPietro, M. (2003). The day after: Faculty behavior in post-September 11, 2001, classes. To Improve the Academy, 21, 21-39.
Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring pedagogical and emotional response in higher education classrooms during the Boston Marathon Bombing crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17(1), 68-76.
Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25, 207-224.
Imad, Mays. (2020, June). Leveraging the neuroscience of now. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma
Jankowski, N. A. (2020, August). Assessment during a crisis: Responding to a global pandemic. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
Rockquemore, K. A. (2015). Radical self-care. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/05/06/essay-how-faculty-members-can-keep-focused-amid-so-much-disturbing-news
Schreiner, L. A. (2010). Thriving in community. About Campus, 15(4), 2-11.