Teaching Through Trauma: Takeaways from a Year of Remote Teaching

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A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2021

Virtual Symposium

This session focused on the instructional and professional strategies used to inform and improve remote learning that were implemented from March 2020 through May 2021, across a year and a half of remote teaching. The faculty presenters are from four different disciplines, including history, psychology/business, sociology, and social work, yet implemented similar strategies to maintain student focus and engagement during the universally traumatic experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid switch to remote learning, faculty engaged in research related to student experiences in land-based, online, and remote learning. Lessons learned from this research ultimately proved helpful in assisting faculty in the transition to remote learning throughout the pandemic, and in more effectively reaching students who were experiencing high levels of stress as a result of the pandemic. The research identified several themes that were significant indicators of student satisfaction and successful outcomes prior to COVID-19 and the resultant shift to remote learning (Durovich, 2020). These themes included student perception of faculty presence and engagement, clarity of course expectations, presence of a welcoming class environment, a sense of connection and community with students and faculty, and an ability for classmates to collaborate with one another. This research ultimately helped to inform teaching modalities at the institution that were developed in response to the rapid shift to online learning. 

Nationwide, many college students reported lower levels of satisfaction immediately following the shift to remote learning at the onset of the pandemic (Means & Neisler, 2020). During this transition to remote learning, students reported increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression (Copeland et al., 2021; Lee et al., 2021). The CDC National House Pulse survey shows the prevalence of anxiety and depression by age, and those in the 18-29 year old age range report the highest levels of anxiety or depression over the past two years. These high levels of stress and anxiety among a traditional college age population became immediately apparent within each of the authors’ classrooms at the onset of the pandemic and throughout its duration.

While faculty themselves were managing numerous demands both personally and professionally as a result of the pandemic, many recognized and sought redress for the difficulties associated with teaching and learning during a traumatic period. Throughout the ensuing semesters of remote teaching, faculty developed new and innovative mechanisms to meet student needs during a traumatic time period and adapted their curriculum accordingly to integrate these pedagogies into coursework. Three major themes emerged across the disciplines: clarity and consistency, addressing fatigue, and focusing on engagement. 

Clarity and Consistency Are Critical

There is consensus from both student feedback as well as research that consistency helps students engage and increases awareness of what they need to do by setting clear expectations. Consistent timing of assignments, established due dates, routine in both synchronous meeting times as well as asynchronous expectations supported students in managing their workloads. They understood what to prepare for synchronous class meetings and what was expected of them. Faculty recognized that the more organized and clear ongoing demands and expectations were throughout the semester, the better students were able to manage their time and work and meet the expectations of the course. Several faculty noted the importance of consistency in terms of the pace of the work throughout the course, as well as the importance of models for communicating what was expected during Zoom meetings and online work (including breakout sessions, discussion boards, and assignments). 

Consistency in process and expectations are important, but once that is established, the most supportive and engaging faculty also showed support through flexibility. For example, faculty might not cover all of the expected material in a single class meeting. However, faculty suggested that class time was often supported by and supplemented with online assignments, homework, and discussion boards. This allowed the time spent together as a class to be focused on commenting on student work, explaining concepts or difficult topics, and providing feedback (Buskist et al., 2018; Chi & VanLehn, 2012). Faculty discussed the importance of flexibility in meeting times and of not keeping students in a meeting “just to keep them,” but rather showing a dynamic process of responding to the energy of the day. 

Fatigue: Recognizing and Creating Ways to Reduce Fatigue Through Connection

Recognizing and understanding that Zoom fatigue is a real impediment to active engagement (Bailenson, 2021), faculty planned for the use of breaks and different modalities in Zoom, including breakout rooms to enable small group discussions and interactive work. They also planned fewer Zoom meetings to allow for alternative assignments that facilitated active movement, such as library sessions.  

Faculty discussed breaking up the monotony of the class lecture by using student-led discussions based on homework assignments, and then having those who led the work that week lead the Zoom class conversations. Several faculty discussed the success of allowing students choice within assignments (for example, the option to post and discuss a news story connected to the content covered in readings that week), which allowed variety in the day-to-day topics discussed and enabled the students to take the lead on driving the discussion. Since this work was grounded in the material learned that week or during prior weeks, it enabled the students to discuss and vent about issues that were most important and meaningful to them. This type of interactive, student-driven work enabled students to connect with material on a deeper level since they were examining current events in a way that could connect to a theory, model, or concept, and then critically discussing this material with peers as well as the faculty member. This process provided students with an active and responsive mechanism for dealing with stressful situations that they were concerned about. During other weeks, it allowed them to focus on lighter topics (sports or entertainment, for example) as well, while also allowing them to make their own connections to the material. These activities are aligned with well-established educational principles, including that choice enhances motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and that interacting with others on a topic promotes deeper understanding as well as transfer of learning (Chi & VanLehn, 2012). Prior research also shows that small group-work enhances various aspects of learning, including knowledge acquisition and comprehension, the ability to solve problems, meta-cognition, and motivation (O’Donnell, 2006; Pai et al., 2015). 

Other strategies to reduce the stress and burnout that students were experiencing included using low-stakes assignments to maintain connection to the content, offline work to support learning, and as much interaction and connection as possible. Students expressed positive feedback to instructors when instructors showed flexibility and allowed students to interact. Students appreciated the opportunity to work interactively with other students in Zoom meetings and off-line, which they said “allowed them to actually meet other students and get to know others beyond just faculty lecturing constantly.” 

Student Engagement

Consistent with Deci and Ryan’s (1985) self-determination theory, allowing students to have a choice (autonomy) in what they want to focus on in assignments and class work increases motivation. This proved true for the faculty who allowed students to choose group project topics, weekly discussion board topics, and other projects. Faculty can also increase students’ sense of autonomy through active listening and being willing to be flexible, either with deadlines or other components of the course. It should be noted that faculty pointed out the greater challenge of the fall semester, with limited time off, and that allowing students to do some work on their own and to report back to the class led to greater student engagement, especially in discussions. 

Students want to connect to the material. Allowing them some “freedom within a framework” can encourage this connection. Feedback from faculty helps shape and support the learning as it occurs and progresses through the semester (Schunk & Rice, 1993; Schunk & DiBenedetto, 2016). However, our faculty provided structure through deadlines, rubrics, and models of how to proceed in different aspects of assignments. Additionally, the faculty remained present and engaged with students, even when not together, through feedback on content and conceptual understanding, and by providing probing questions and fostering deeper connection.  

Finally, connection to the material can also be fostered through a shared passion for the topic. When faculty show how much they are interested in the topics and concepts of concern, this translates to greater student connection to the material (Buskist et al., 2018; Gilal et al., 2019). Researchers refer to a spillover effect whereby the faculty member’s passion can spread to students in a process of emotional contagion. Buskist suggests that a teacher’s enthusiasm reflects their own level of care and thoughtfulness on the topic, and serves as a means to gain students’ attention and stir engagement with the subject matter. As each of the discussants emphasized, this is not about lecturing but about having an active dialogue with students, answering questions, and allowing them time to reflect, correct, and process what they are learning. 

Key Takeaways

The key themes discussed by the presenters—instructor clarity and consistency in expectations, acknowledging and supporting student and instructor fatigue throughout prolonged remote teaching and learning, and fostering student engagement in creative ways—each arose out of necessity as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on. While many of these concepts have been established in prior educational research (Buskist et al., 2018; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Durovich, 2020; Schunk & DeBenedetto, 2016), the pandemic challenged faculty and students to adapt in new and unexpected ways with the immediate transition to remote learning, managing the stress of the health crisis, and often working through competing demands on time, attention, and cognitive capacity ( Copeland et al., 2020; Means & Neisler, 2020). An increased focus on connection with faculty and among students through small group work helped students maintain engagement and motivation for their work. By practicing flexibility in schedules, teaching methods, and course content, faculty further supported student engagement with the material. By creating additional off-line work, faculty made synchronous class time a place for students and faculty to pause, reflect, discuss, and work through some of the emotions they were experiencing outside of the classroom in relation to what they were learning.

These takeaways can serve to guide faculty in developing new and innovative ways to support students in the future. As of this writing, the enduring impact of the pandemic on higher education remains to be seen, yet the impact of innovative teaching modalities developed during this time can continue to benefit the academy well into the future.


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Spring 2022: Redesigning Higher Education After COVID-19