How Are My Students These Days?

Thoughts at the End of 2022-23

The well-being of college students rightfully has been a widely discussed topic in higher education and among my colleagues for the last few years. For a few examples, see the Chronicle of Higher Education’s story, “A Stunning Level of Student Disconnection,” the National Education Association’s summary of the Healthy Minds survey, and American Psychological Association’s story “Student Mental Health is in Crisis.”

I found myself thinking a lot about this topic this past year. I worried about how students’ difficult educational experiences during the pandemic and increasing mental health struggles would manifest themselves in my courses. Now that the academic year is over, I’m reflecting.

I’ll add the caveat that my favorite baseball analysts always add: small sample size!

Fall 2022 – 66 students

In the fall, I was teaching two sections of a course exclusively for first-year students. Everything was face to face with my 66 students, masks optional (and rare). It was a pleasure to see my students’ faces and hear one another better.

Throughout the semester, I was pleased with the level of preparation and participation by most of the students. This was a relief – because many of my colleagues reported a lack of student engagement.

To what should I attribute my happy experience?

Maybe it was a grading system that rewarded daily reading and note-taking combined with the eagerness of first-year college students. Or maybe it was beginning the semester with engaging discussion and activities about interesting topics starting on the first day of class, which seemed to create positive momentum, and then structuring each class meeting with multiple times when students were expected to participate.

My main frustration was that some of my students seemed surprised that policies related to communication and absences applied to them. I have what I consider a lenient policy in which if they are ill or have another good reason to miss class, they simply must email me at least 40 minutes before class. If they do, then they are allowed to make up the assessment they missed.

There was an unusually high number who missed class without communicating with me beforehand and wanted to make up quizzes or other work with no penalty. That meant I had to have many of the conversations I dislike – the ones where I have to say “No,” and repeat the policy again and again, explaining my goal of consistency and fairness. After I told one (strong) student that he really did get a zero on a quiz he missed without explanation, he said something like, “It’s okay; I’m just surprised. I’m not used to that.”

To what should I attribute this less happy experience?

Parents of high school students have told me that their schools did not hold firm to expectations like due dates during the pandemic; teachers were apparently happy to get any work, at any point, even months late. As a result, some students didn’t expect their college professors to enforce policies, despite assurances on the first days of class that they understood them.

Although some of my first-year students didn’t make the adjustment to college as quickly as I’d have preferred, they eventually did, without serious harm. The grade distribution was typical of many years of teaching first-year students.

While some of my colleagues have continued to be more tolerant of late work than I am, my view is that students will have to face real deadlines in the post-college world of employment, so they might as well begin learning how to deal with them now.

So my approach is to enforce policies, but to do so compassionately – listening to their reasons and their disappointment with understanding and sympathy, while explaining that it’s only a small percentage of their course grade, that the grade is not a reflection of them as a human being, and that I don’t think any less of them. I believe in this approach, but it is emotionally taxing for me.

I know – I need to suck it up if I believe in the policy.

As for their mental health, I had many individual conversations with students, but surprisingly few who were struggling seriously psychologically. One student was struggling all semester and despite numerous interventions, couldn’t manage in my or other courses; another dropped out within two weeks due to high anxiety. Impressionistically, this rate did not seem different from pre-pandemic levels.

By the end of the fall, I was beginning to think the warnings of student vulnerability were a bit overblown.

Winter Term (January) 2023 – 33 students

The format of Elon’s Winter Term courses is 3-hour class meetings five days a week for 3 ½ weeks. My 33 students tended to be wonderful – they participated regularly and happily, enjoying primary source analyses, small and large group discussions, community-building activities, and group projects.

However, a few of the students took what I perceived as “personal days,” where they didn’t feel up to attending and didn’t provide an excuse other than “I think it would be better for me to take a day off.”

Some of my colleagues also have observed this new post-pandemic phenomenon. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. In general, working adults do get to take a quota of personal days (but not faculty I know!), and that’s wise for one’s mental health. However, during Winter Term, missing one 3-hour class means missing an awful lot of material (7% or more), which some of these same students didn’t seem to think they actually needed to learn later.

Here’s another student email that has become more common post-pandemic: “I’m not feeling 100% and think it would be better for others if I didn’t come to class.” During the height of COVID, this was a responsible approach. I’m a little less appreciative (and more cynical now, I’m abashed to admit), especially if I asked them the next class if they were feeling better and they seemed quite well and surprised, as if they didn’t remember their selfless excuse.

Others had legitimately been sick, of course. Some came to class when they were quite sick – and shouldn’t have. A few – not as many as I wished – came to class wearing a mask if they had the sniffles and weren’t sure if it was due to allergies or something else. Clearly, I shouldn’t overgeneralize.  

Spring 2023 – 32 students in an upper-level history course

Again, for most of the semester, almost all of my students were present, prepared, and participating – eagerly, intelligently (using the readings!), in large groups and small. This started on the first and second days of class, despite some long readings on brand new material they had to take extensive notes on.

By this point, I definitely was concluding that most students were fine, including most of those who had told me about mental health issues they’d struggled with in the past.

Then about 2/3 of the way through the semester things changed noticeably.

  • Absences increased significantly.
  • More students were obviously distracted during class – looking at a computer, sending a text, eyes unfocused even if they were acting attentive (the phenomenon Jay Howard called “civil attention.”) Yikes – this was not a problem I was used to dealing with.
  • I had a couple of intense conversations with students who were in a bad way psychologically and needed help immediately. (I listened and pointed them toward available resources, and Elon staff responded quickly and admirably.)

I was taken aback. I didn’t know whether my previous conclusion was premature and overly optimistic. Had it been wishful thinking? Had I just really wanted things to be back to whatever “normal” was pre-COVID?

Now that the semester is over, I’m pondering possible causes for the problems that popped up. I don’t want to leap to any new mistaken conclusions, or to overcorrect.

Re Distractions

  • Because we use laptops for various activities and accessing some materials, the temptation for misuse will always be present.
  • Therefore this is partly on me. I should have nipped this in the bud. I should have said something to the whole class or the individuals who were repeat offenders: Turn off texts. Your email should never be open. Only materials related to our class should be viewed. Although I don’t like doing this, it’s not that difficult, and I could do it quickly and in a non-nagging manner. I can also thank those students who already were resisting temptation.

Re Absences

  • The last part of the semester always brings more projects, more stress, more likelihood of getting sick or skipping class because students are staying up too late to finish things.
  • It was spring. The weather suddenly turned beautiful after months of cooler grey days. Who wouldn’t want to get outside? We’re all tempted and of course some decide to skip class. [My great alma mater Knox College even has a spring “Flunk Day” acknowledging the joy this brings students.]
  • A large number of absences seemed to be around the time of some famous campus celebrations (such as long weekend fraternity beach trips).
  • Didn’t this also happen pre-COVID? I think so, but my brain doesn’t remember as well as it used to.

Re conversations with individual students who were in a bad way

  • Those were related to some very difficult individual circumstances.
    • A good percentage of them were related to intense grief from a friend or family member dying.
    • A few appeared to be due to some unwise decisions and behaviors related to use of alcohol and drugs.
  • They were extremely difficult situations for any 20-year-old, and could have occurred any year, pre-, during, or after COVID.

After reflecting, where do I find myself now?

I think we won’t know the long-term effects of our collective educational hell of COVID-19 for a long time.

I think we won’t know for sure if we ever should stop some of the teaching adjustments we made during COVID, but it sure seems like many of these were useful in any circumstances.

For me, the adjustments included more community building; more discussion of what things get in the way of academic success; more explicit instruction about strategies for reading, note-taking, and breaking projects down into doable pieces so students learn project management; more pointing to resources available; even more inclusive strategies during class; and more chances for students to share tips with one another for healthy de-stressing.

I don’t think I need to make generalizations – either positive or negative ones – about the behavior of all students. Nor should I attribute their behavior – or their resilience – to any one source, be it the pandemic, generation Z, or something else.

While I should be observing trends and be aware of the legacies of struggle and marginalization on students, I can’t lose focus on individuals, whose actions may stem from a variety of causes. Knowing those individual students will help me figure out how to best assist them.

While my perception that students were doing pretty well this year wasn’t always true, I appreciate the generally high levels of engagement among my students. I’d be thrilled if they would say that they’re generally doing fine – and that they know some ways to cope (including asking for help) when they’re not okay.

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