What Does It Mean to Support Vulnerable Students During the Pandemic?

What Does It Mean to Support Vulnerable Students During the Pandemic? 

By Beckie SupianoJUNE 25, 2020 

You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. This week: 

  • I share some thoughts on supporting vulnerable students during the pandemic. 

  • I describe a new paper on participation gaps in an active-learning course. 

  • I pass along a couple of additional resources on inclusive teaching. 

  • I point you toward a new student survey about emergency online teaching. 

Different Pandemic Experiences 

Sharing computers and bandwidth with multiple people. Caring for younger siblings home from school. Working in grocery stores, an Amazon warehouse, and a nursing home. Those were among the challenges faced by Laura Tilghman’s students this spring. 

I followed along — virtually — as Tilghman, an assistant professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University, navigated emergency online instruction. For Tilghman, the semester deepened a commitment to being compassionate with her students. You can read my story about her experience here. 

One way she and other professors looked out for students this spring was by streamlining their courses. This example didn’t make it into the story, but early on, Tilghman had students post in a discussion board and respond to one another’s comments. Some of them found that overwhelming, though. So she changed gears, having students instead submit their reflections directly to her, even though that meant losing the discussion component of class. 

Before I covered teaching, my beat was financial aid. As anyone working in that corner of a campus can tell you, the families that appeal colleges’ scholarship offers are usually not the ones who most need more support. I’ve thought of that dynamic as I’ve heard students and parents express their frustration about emergency online teaching. One common complaint: Classes were neither held live nor designed with a lot of interaction. 

Sure, no one got the academic experience this spring they had expected, for a host of reasons. But maybe some of the instructional choices families have complained about were made with vulnerable students in mind. I’ve wondered if well-off parents working from home during the pandemic have thought about what remote instruction was like for their kid’s classmate who was sharing a laptop, or working in a warehouse. 

Instructors would presumably make different choices depending on what kind of pandemic experience they imagined their students were having. But a bunch of them didn’t have to rely on their imaginations — because, as Tilghman did, they asked. 

I wonder how many of the accommodations that colleges offered this spring — pass/fail grading comes to mind — will be extended to a fall semester still under the shadow of Covid-19. Regardless, teaching experts have been vocal about the challenges that students will continue to face, and the actions that individual professors might take to support them. 

Here’s how Flower Darby, an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, put it in an advice column (first in a new series) about why professors should improve their online teaching: “College students taking classes this fall are likely to be unusually vulnerable and will need lots of support as they navigate financial, health, and safety concerns. The most important support you can offer, as a faculty member, is your very best teaching.” 

How will you gauge your students’ academic experience — and all of the outside forces that shape it — this fall? What are you planning to do to support them? Tell me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your example may be featured in a future newsletter. 

Participation Gaps 

Active-learning techniques, on their own, aren’t enough to reduce participation gaps among students in a STEM course. That’s the main finding of a recent paper, “Gender Differences in Student Participation in an Active-Learning Classroom,” published in CBE-Life Sciences Education. The study, led by Stepfanie Aguillon and Gregor-Fausto Siegmund, doctoral students at Cornell University, examined an introductory biology course. It found that men participated more than their numbers would suggest in nearly every manner in which students could contribute during class, and especially in voluntary responses after small-group discussions. 

Participation, the authors explain, “is the product of actions by students and instructors.” The way a professor runs a class session, in other words, can make a big difference. 

“Our results,” the authors write, “suggest that active learning in itself is not a panacea for STEM equity; rather, to maximize the benefits of active-learning pedagogy, instructors should make a concerted effort to use teaching strategies that are inclusive and encourage equitable participation by all students.” 

Further Reading on Inclusive Teaching: 

The idea that active learning, on its own, is not enough to close gaps in participation and achievement is not new. Learn more about efforts to reach every student: 

  • An advice guide by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Students’ Experiences in the Spring 

What was the spring semester really like for students? A new survey of 15,677 students from 21 colleges, conducted by the consultancy Ithaka S+R, sheds some light on the question. Among the findings: When it came to course assignments, students had the hardest time with group and lab work, and the easiest with short written reading responses, essays, and online quizzes and tests — assignments, the report notes, that were among the most frequently used. 

Read the full report, which also covers student well-being and plans for the fall semester, here. 

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