How can you best support students during the COVID-19 pandemic? During these unprecedented past few weeks, I have seen this question posed in multiple places, including research meetings, online literature discussions, and social media. The crisis has prompted conversations about teaching and learning among chemistry educators at all levels of expertise, and individuals have jumped at the opportunity to bring resources and recommendations to the table.
As a student in chemistry education, I feel that I can offer a unique perspective to these conversations. Being in a field at the forefront of chemistry teaching and learning, it has been incredible to see our relatively niche field become a valuable source of guidance during these times. But as a student, I worry that we are being generally excluded from conversations and decisions that will have direct consequences for our educations and careers.
Andrew Calderon is a first-year science student at the University of Ottawa. Like so many students, his first year of university was disrupted abruptly by the pandemic.
“I’m not from Ottawa, so as soon as we got the order to move out of residence, it made me upset,” he says. “It felt like I wasn’t able to get the full experience of ‘living on residence’, and it was also tough saying goodbye to all my new friends. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to everyone, considering how fast things happened.”
Weighing mental as well as physical health
Alongside the acute stress of having to move on a moment’s notice, the sudden shift in routine and environment can also exacerbate students’ mental health issues, as they suddenly find themselves stripped of their regular support networks and familiar patterns. Calderon is also fearful about how the shift to online instruction will impact his education in the long-term.
“Honestly, I’m kind of worried for next year,” he says. “It feels like I’m being set up for failure right now. I’m not sure if I’m prepared to take on second-year courses.”
These concerns are aggravated by the lack of clear expectations from faculty during the move to online instruction.
“Some of my professors have really empathized with the change and made their goals more realistic,” says Calderon. “But one of my professors hasn’t changed his expectations. I have trouble reading his notes, and I feel like I have to learn completely on my own from a Word document. I’m not sure if I’m going to pass or not.”
Understandably, instructors and administrators are focused on creating immediate resources for online instruction. But with online platforms being the new normal for at least the coming summer semester, how will institutions set and enforce expectations for online instruction?
Even seemingly simple recommendations for instructors, like “communicate regularly with your students”, can have side-effects in practice. Marina Capris, another first-year science student at the University of Ottawa, says regular communication is great, but professors should try their best to be clear and straightforward when communicating with their students.
“The influx of emails can be overwhelming,” she says. “I am constantly receiving emails regarding new deadlines, information about exams and lectures, and so it gets to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all these changes.”
Not just a freshman problem
Upper-year undergraduates are also dealing with unique pressures and challenges. University of British Columbia honours chemistry student Taylor Gray recalls the difficult decisions she had to make when her lab started closing down in mid-March.
“When UBC announced the closure of labs, most supervisors required their students to come in every day up until the closure”, she says. “Living with an immunocompromised person, I felt in this moment as though I was being forced to choose between my grades and my health and the health of others around me.”
Graduate students’ lives have likewise been significantly disrupted, as they find themselves suddenly having to shift their focus from running experiments and collecting data in the lab to writing and reading at home.
“I am concerned that a prolonged closure would likely have a large effect on the length of my program”, says Brent Lashuk, a graduate student in chemical engineering at McGill University. “My project is dependent on being able to perform experiments in the lab and the next couple months will largely affect the direction of my research. If the labs stay closed for months, I don’t think it will be possible to complete my research objectives in the time period I originally planned.”
As well, students are not exempt from the economic implications of the pandemic. As services across Canada close down, students may not have access to the summer jobs they expected to return home to. Some graduate students, like Riley Petillion at the University of British Columbia, have had to absorb significant financial losses due to cancelled conferences.
“I lost $300 because I couldn’t get a refund for my Airbnb,” he says. “It might not seem like a lot of money to most people, but as a student, it’s tough.”
What can you do?
Your specific context may include a majority of students that have had to move suddenly or are working through mental health challenges. Your specific context may include a majority of students who live in areas with poor Internet connection or live with disabilities. Students do not expect you to fix such challenges, but we do expect you to be empathetic to these facts and work with us to decide on the most equitable learning options for everyone.
“Things have changed, and courses cannot just carry on as normal. Professors need to change their courses to reduce workload and stress, as many students are not simply just getting out of bed and opening their laptops instead of heading to school,” says Taylor Gray. “People are moving, people are worried about their family, people are in situations a professor could not know about.”
How you choose to modify your courses, including your choices of assessment and learning objectives, can help; these are things you can control, and there are resources to support you:
Online Teaching: Do This, Not That by Alison Yang
Getting Courses Online by Alison Flynn
Five tips for moving teaching online as COVID-19 takes hold by Virginia Gewin
One way to work directly with students as you navigate the shift to online instruction is to ask us through online polls or surveys. For example, Dr. Stephen McNeil at the University of British Columbia sent a survey to students in his second-year chemistry course, allowing them to articulate their concerns and suggestions directly to him, which he then used to inform how he would administer the course’s final exam. When the students unanimously stated that they found the idea of an online exam invigilation system stressful and that many would not have access to a space where they knew they could work without interruption for three hours, McNeil decided that an untimed, take-home, open-book exam would be the best option for students.
It is also important to consider how students should be included in decisions outside of the classroom. Each of us is enrolled at an institution for different goals, motivations, and careers, and we are ultimately the experts of living in and experiencing the system. Administrators are holding meetings about policy decisions and resources in the coming months that will directly impact students, and if they want to ensure that we each get through this with the best possible outcomes, it is essential that students are invited to these conversations.
We understand that figuring out ways to support everyone during this pandemic is a complex challenge and one without precedent. We are all learning, and my hope is that these perspectives provide insight into the diversity of challenges and fears being experienced by myself and my fellow students right now, and that they highlight the importance of including us in your conversations and decisions.
So, how can you best support students during this pandemic? Start by asking us.