The teacher recognizes students’ lives impact their role as learners.

Students attend Youngstown State University with a wide range of life experiences and backgrounds. It is important to recognize the impact students' lives have on their experiences and learning in your classroom. You can do several things as faculty to recognize the way life outside the classroom impacts learning: support overall wellness for your students, build flexibility in your course design, teach with your students' strengths in mind, and connect your students to support.

  • Support Overall Wellness for your Students 

    In 2021, the CDC reported that the percentage of American high schoolers feeling “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” increased from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021. Depression is rising for teenagers and young adults across demographics (Thompson, 2022). The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the “pandemic has intensified the crisis” with “dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies.” COVID-19 resulted in “more than 140,000 children in the United States [loosing] a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted” (AAP, 2022). In Fall of 2021, 73% of college students participating in the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment self-reported experiencing “moderate or serious psychological distress” (Pappano, 2022).  

    The dramatic increases in mental health challenges for college students is evident (Lipson et al., 2022), but what does that mean for you as faculty? The Counseling Center is a critical resource for students, but students have varying levels of comfort with seeking out services. As faculty, you are the first point of contact for students in need.  

    Drawing on research, best practices, and guidance from mental health experts, Coleman (2022) curated a list of best practices for instructors in supporting mental health in the college classroom: 

    1. Define an Open Culture from the Beginning – The Syllabus 
      • Include the contact information and hours of the Counseling Center 
      • Highlight that the Counseling Center is free 
      • Include a statement encouraging your students to reach out to you if physical or mental health is preventing them from completing their coursework 
    2. Design your Course with Student Well-being in Mind 
      • Reflect on your due dates and space out assignments throughout the semester to avoid “crunch times”  
      • If you collect assignments via Blackboard, consider avoiding late at night assignment deadlines (e.g., midnight). This may encourage late night procrastination and poor sleep habits.  
      • With grades as a major potential stressor, consider giving opportunities to improve on grades, such as resubmitting an assignment or retaking an exam. See the next section for more information on building flexibility in your course.  
    3. Regularly Signal your Support in the Classroom 
      • Make verbal statements at known stressful times of the semester – first week, midterms, and finals. Coleman (2022) recommends a simple statement such as, “I know this is a stressful time for a lot of students. Please reach out to me if you feel like you are falling behind, or if you just want to talk. I also want to remind you about the free services available at the Student Counseling Center and academic support services, like the Academic Success Center or The Writing Center.” 
      • Consider having brief in-class discussions when major events happen locally or globally that may be on students’ minds 
  • Build Flexibility in your Course Design 

    In a recent Trends Report, the Higher Learning Commission notes that “this is the time to embrace new models of learning, those which are best for the future audiences served, not merely the historical foundations of the past” (HLC, 2022). Having flexible courses policies is a best practice for supporting students’ mental health (Coleman, 2022), as well as supporting students from marginalized backgrounds (Fuentes et al., 2020). Practices such as “requiring a medical note to deem an absence as excused… may reinforce classism and assume that all students have access and transportation to health care” (Fuentes et al., 2020).  

    One of the keys to flexible course design is to start with the end in mind and think about your course learning outcomes. Any time you weigh a potential new policy or practice in your class, consider it under the umbrella of your learning outcomes and ask, “Will this help or hinder student learning?” Schedule a consult with an ITL (Institute for Teaching and Learning) staff member to review your syllabus, course design, and brainstorm ideas to support your students’ learning. 

    • Allow students to drop their lowest grade on a quiz or exam 
    • Use class time to have students co-create the rubric for a big assignment 
    • Give students the opportunity to pick their own assignment due dates 
    • Allow students to resubmit work for a higher grade 
    • If awarding participation points, allow students to earn them through in-class discussion or through posting on a Blackboard discussion board 
    • Consider alternative grading methods – Labor Based Grading Contracts, Ungrading, Specifications Grading 
  • Teach With your Students’ Strengths in Mind 

    Students come to our classrooms at YSU (Youngstown State University) with a wide range of prior experiences and backgrounds, including incredibly different levels of educational preparation and perceptions of schooling based on their K-12 education. Students entering college with less preparation are commonly thought of as at risk, deficient, or disadvantaged, with students frequently “blamed” for their performance, rather than the “imperfect educational systems that produced them” (Ormand, 2019). Additionally, the “burden of the fix usually falls entirely on the individual by suggesting that they try harder and ultimately conform to the practices of the dominant culture” (Kennedy, 2021).  

    It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what students lack, rather than the strengths they bring from their prior experiences. So, what are a few teaching strategies could you employ to teach from an asset-based mindset (Lopez & Louis, 2009)? 

    • Create opportunities for individualization. Allow students choice in how they demonstrate knowledge or in what form. This does not need to be complete freedom but could be as simple as letting students choose between a written, recorded, or artistic expression for a final project. Or create an assignment that asks students to relate course knowledge with their prior experiences.  
    • Incorporate group-based projects. Group projects can be a terrific opportunity for students to use their individual strengths to contribute to a larger goal. You can utilize in-class time to have students create a Group Contract that specifically asks about students' strengths and what they will contribute to the project. The University of Waterloo has curated an impressive list of resources for Making Group Contracts.  
    • Encourage students to identify their own strengths. Through the Office of Career Exploration and Development, your students have access to self-assessments that will help them identify their strengths, interests, and values and how those connect to their major and career choice. 
    • Encourage out-of-classroom learning. Help students connect to co-curricular activities on campus that will highlight their strengths. Students can find a list of Student Organizations related to majors, interests, or hobbies.  
  • Connect your Students to Support 

    A survey of 75,000+ college graduates "found that alumni who strongly agree that a professor 'cared about them as a person' are more engaged in their work, more emotionally attached to their alma mater, and experience higher levels of wellbeing" (Matson & Clark, 2020). As faculty, you have regular interaction with your students over the course of a semester and can play a critical role in helping connect students to support on campus. An easy first step in making students aware of campus support is linking to the Common Syllabus Student Resources Page in your syllabus. This page is maintained so that students have up-to-date information about what is available to them.  

    Beyond linking to the Student Resources Page in your syllabus, ITL recommends you have knowledge of the following two “hubs” for information on campus: 

    • Penguin Service Center: The Penguin Service Center is a single place to receive essential information, find guidance, and resolve enrollment-related concerns in the areas of financial aid, records and registration, and student billing. Students can call the Penguin Service Center at 330-941-6000 or visit the website to Ask a Question
    • Office of the Dean of Students: The Office of the Dean of Students exists to serve students by acting as a centralized point of contact to discuss extenuating situations and concerns they may have, particularly those related to mental and physical health, hospitalization, food, and housing insecurities, challenging family situations, issues with faculty or staff, and any other barriers that may be impeding success. Students can contact a case manager to find support, or faculty can refer a student through the Penguin of Concern Form.  

    When students are struggling in your course (whether because of chronic absences, lack of engagement, or poor performance), faculty should be utilizing the Faculty Academic Alert System to alert student support staff (advisors, tutoring centers, etc.) to reach out to students. The Faculty Academic Alert System is accessed through your Penguin Portal; step-by-step instructions and videos can be found here.