Supporting and Motivating Students by Reframing the Learning Experience During Covid-19
A goal of many educational institutions is to graduate well-rounded lifelong learners capable of thriving in conditions of uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic offers educators an opportunity to assess whether or not this aspiration lives and dies in marketing materials or animates our daily interactions with students.
Throughout the pandemic I start each syllabus with a Covid statement that begins, “We claim that a liberal education prepares graduates for uncertainty. This semester we are called to live up to this ideal. To make the most of this semester, we are going to have to practice: Flexibility, Effective Communication, and Agency.” I describe these terms and what they mean for the course, and I return to them during the semester as we face new challenges, reminding students that though they are often in what feels like impossible situations, they are also building strengths that they can carry with them well after graduation.
We are in the middle of another tremendously challenging semester, and our students need motivation right now. I would suggest you take a moment and think about the skills, habits and virtues that you’ve seen your students developing during the pandemic, and then work with students to name them. Doing this will help them appreciate that they are cultivating strengths even when it feels like they are lost and struggling.
I offer the list I share on my syllabus, with the caveat that they barely begin to account for the range of what our students are learning this semester.
Flexibility. Even the best designed lessons can fail, the most stable internet connection can drop, and schools can announce a rise is Covid-19 cases that necessitates a move from in-person instruction to distance learning. Each of these moments can be extraordinarily stressful. But after naming what we experienced as a challenging situation, we can express gratitude that we are working together on a solution and then use our feedback on student work to acknowledge their flexibility and resilience in getting their work done.
Effective Communication. This is directly related to flexibility. Problems are inevitable, but they are often made worse through ineffective communication. Students who’ve managed to thrive these semesters are generally the ones who find ways to communicate with their teachers in order to get the support they need. Of course, communication goes both ways. As teachers we can make it easier and harder for students to express what they need. It is easy to hear a student’s concerns as a complaint or a judgment on our teaching, but often they are just asking for ways to make the most of the semester. They are asking us to exercise flexibility and practice effective communication.
Agency. Even when students and faculty practice flexibility and effective communication, students may still struggle. In these cases, faculty have to learn how to encourage, promote and reward help-seeking behavior. Though many students, especially students at selective colleges, may feel shame at needing extra support, faculty can do their best to reframe the conversation in terms of agency. Especially when students feel like they are failing by asking for additional support, we can reframe help-seeking behaviors as exercising agency.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it does help ground my own teaching practice. When I give students feedback, I set aside time to acknowledge the challenges of our current situation while naming the things that they are doing well just to complete the assignment. Of course, I give honest and accurate feedback on their work, but I also communicate my appreciation for their resilience and agency as a learner.
These values also inform my teaching and curriculum design. I do my best to create assignments that students enjoy doing and that are directly tied to my course goals. Instead of seeing the semester in terms of covering material, I do my best to really think through my learning goals and ways to most effectively engage students on their way to meeting these goals.
When we plan assessments and assignments with engagement and learning goals in mind, we may cover less content, but we are freed to focus on other skills and habits that we may not normally emphasize. Instead of leaving ideals like successfully managing uncertainty to marketing materials and mission statements, we can reclaim these for ourselves through the types of learning opportunities we create in our classrooms.
This is all the more important during these incredibly stressful times, when stepping back and focusing on non-academic skills and overall well-being can prove motivational to students. As well, remembering all of the good we can do for students by thinking about their long-term well-being can also prove motivational to us. And in these times, any bit of motivation helps.
Jeff Frank is an Associate Professor of Education at St. Lawrence University where he also teaches in the First-Year Program and the Sophomore Journeys Program. His recent publications include the books Being a Presence for Students: Teaching as a Lived Defense of Liberal Education and Teaching in the Now: John Dewey and the Educational Present.