The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted my students this spring. I taught an upper-division required course (Principles of Auditing) to 22 students, of whom seven graduated. In the shift to a virtual platform for learning, I wondered how they were reacting. What was it like on the ‘other side of the monitor’?
One of the changes I made was to replace my class participation grade with Canvas discussion boards. Three of the discussions related to course topics. However, for one discussion I decided to get a sense of where my students were. I posed the following questions and asked each student to provide their answers and respond to the posts of two other students:
Discuss what has impacted you the most over the past month. Why do you say that? If you could go back in time to March 1, what advice would you give yourself?
How They Were Impacted
Student responses congregated around several main topics:
- Loss of their spring sport season (two athletes were in the class)
- Loss or lack of motivation
- Unknown timeline making it difficult to plan
- Realization that they would never attend an undergraduate class again; missing all of the ‘lasts’ that graduating seniors experience
- Having to move back in with their parents
The response from the athletes was expected, as was the response from the graduating seniors. The other responses challenged me to approach my students differently.
Lack of motivation. The motivation issue quickly became the top response. Students observed that they did not enjoy working on the computer all day and got distracted easier. They also noted the distractions from other individuals who they were living with, particularly if multiple people had virtual lessons/job responsibilities simultaneously. One point struck home hard: a student observed that she felt unproductive even when she had been busy on the computer the majority of the day. She indicated that when she had places to go with a more structured schedule, she felt productive. Many students lamented the uncertainty of when the crisis would end. Beyond the obvious struggle to plan in a period of uncertainty, a few noted the absence of specific deadlines that also led to a lack of motivation.
Moving back home. Several students mentioned the fact that they had unexpectedly moved back home. A few noted that they had moved out of apartments to return home to save money. Each student making this point commented that they relished the ‘extra’ time with their families and knew they were receiving an unexpected bonus. Personally, my oldest son, a college freshman, moved back home at the commencement of spring break and never returned to his dorm room except to pick up the remaining items he had left behind. We’ve enjoyed having him home and enjoy the additional conversations we would otherwise have missed.
Their Response to Another Student’s Post
Beyond expressing agreement with a peer’s comments, several students expanded on the original post. Many expressed appreciation for the precious time that they had not expected to get with their families. Separately, one encouraged her peers to take advantage of the opportunity and try things not normally pursued.
Two comments seemed to resonate the most. One focused on the uncertainty of the situation. Students encouraged each other to “take a deep breath and focus on what you have control over.”
The other comment focused on the absence of community. One student observed: “God did not create us to be isolated homebodies.” Another stated that she looked forward to the day when she could be in a full classroom building and run up to friends without apprehension.
Student’s Advice to Self, If They Were Able to Go Back in Time to March 1
Less variability was observed in their advice to self. Virtually all centered on the benefit of hindsight and the encouragement to appreciate every moment, to be present, and to spend quality time with others. Several said to ‘go out and do more’ or to ‘get out of the dorm’ and take advantage of being with others. Students clearly missed being around their friends and classmates in person. Many expressed the thought that virtual meetings just were not the same.
This discussion forum ran in mid-April, while students were completing a six-week group project, a role play of potential, fraudulent activity that students solve via email. The project had been introduced immediately prior to classes being moved online. Thus, while they were able to complete the introductory aspect in person, the bulk of the actual work was completed after every student had returned home, and they were working virtually.
I found that two of the five groups appeared to be highly motivated initially. Two other groups exhibited no motivation at all. One of the groups with high motivation did hit a rough spot about halfway through the project. All students and groups appeared to be dealing with issues related to getting to the finish line. They appeared uncertain in how to move past the rough spots. They struggled to identify what their next steps needed to be.
I began to reach out to individual students via email and groups via email and Zoom meetings. We walked through where they were and what they thought they knew. In several instances, they did not realize what they already knew, which can lead to confusion over next steps. I asked them where they thought they could go next. Sometimes, I even used leading questions. I then encouraged them to submit those questions via email while everyone was on the Zoom conference. I quickly responded during the conference, and that brainstorming led to more engagement, better questions, and ultimately a better final product.
I became deliberate in my interactions with the students and would not allow them to ‘duck out’ on me. Frankly, I hounded them to get each group back on track. Several student evaluation comments support my methods of engagement:
“Dr. Moore always checks in with us and makes sure everything is going okay, keeps amazing office hours, and is incredibly helpful if you just ask for it. He encourages discussion in class.”
“Dr. Moore did a tremendous job keeping the class engaged and interested.”
“Dr. Moore really knows his stuff. He is passionate about the topic and that brings enthusiasm to the class. Dr. Moore has worked hard to perfect the class structure and schedule, and that shows.”
“Dr. Moore is a professor that cares.”
I am somewhat used to comments about my passionate teaching and active class engagement. However, while I obviously do care about them and their success, I rarely get evaluation responses about being a teacher who cares. That suggests to me that my changes were not only effective but appreciated.
The events of the past semester have been gut wrenching and dramatic to our students. My simple discussion board question, initially designed to see where they were and how they were coping, certainly opened up my eyes to their perceived reality and led to changes that enabled me to meet them where they were.
Certainly I have learned different teaching approaches that will be useful going forward. Their observations are still relevant, particularly if fall classes still involve some virtual aspect. The more I can do to communicate with them to foster increased motivation in a structured environment will demonstrate a faculty member who wants them to succeed.
In looking at that other side of the monitor, I discovered that my students were more resilient, yet perhaps more fragile, than I had expected.