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Teaching & Learning in Times of Crisis

These are unprecedented times. The tragic deaths of Xana Kernodle, Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, and Ethan Chapin have shaken our campus to the core, but they have also galvanized our commitment to supporting our students and one another.

Emblematic of this commitment, a group of faculty has developed this guide to teaching and learning in times of crisis. It captures insightful perspectives from our faculty, students, and research.

We are all experiencing this tragedy --and the trauma surrounding it-- in real time. We are operating as events unfold and as information becomes available. We are not teaching in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but literally while it occurs. This document is intended to help us all through this difficult time.

Ten Tips to Support Students

1. Think about your class and office hours as a way of being there for your students.
  • You may be someone’s sense of “normal” in a time when nothing else is.
    • Accommodate this need for normalcy with an open mind.
    • Consider virtual as well as in-person office hours.
    • Do not pretend this did not happen or is not unfolding in real time. Traumatic events have a direct and substantial impact on cognitive capacity. Remain mindful of that.
      • Focus on listening, not (just or immediately) lecturing.
      • Consider easing back into teaching by facilitating discussions and groupwork.
      • Consider pedagogies without penalties: teaching in a way that does not penalize students who cannot participate.
      • Read the room. When in doubt, ask.

2. Provide time and space to discuss student experiences, perceptions, and concerns.

  • You don’t have to be the expert on what to do next, but you may be able to point them in the right direction. This shows you care. It also provides another means of sharing resources to help students.
  • These directions include:
    • The Dean of Students Office and counseling services, 208-885-6716, are available to visit any student groups needing more focused support or assistance.

3. If you have work that is due or major projects on the horizon, consider alternative formats, flexible due dates, making (current) assignments optional, or removing them altogether.

  • Flexibility is essential.
  • Consider meeting students where they are, literally and figurative.
  • Note that in this particular moment (11/15/22), holding fast to imminent deadlines or requiring work does not respect the need many students presently have to pull back and grieve, process, and otherwise exist peacefully in a space where they know their best work is not possible.

4. Remember that this is just one or two weeks of content, but it is one or two weeks that every student will remember forever, and probably not because of the content of your class. Perspective is critical. This tragedy is what they will remember forever. How we support our students will be, too.

5. Re-weight grades, mindful that their best work may still be to come.

  • Avoid the temptation to re-weigh past work only.
  • Consistent with #3, above, the expectations we have of one another can be adjusted to reflect the reality of the human experience in this moment.
  • Explain your adjustment plans to your students and pay close attention to any deviations in performance between now and the end of the semester.

6. Reassure your students that their grades, tests, projects, and learning are not substantially at risk as we struggle with this tragedy.

  • Let them hear it from you, directly. Institutional messaging is important. So is yours.
  • Reassurances can be conveyed to the entire class as well as individual students.
  • Announcements in Canvas, via email, and verbally help.
  • Reassurances can be conversational –invite their input.
    • Discuss concerns
    • Consider collaborative solutions.

7. Be mindful of the cognitive load.

  • The best line on this is from a research article on the topic: “working memory capacity is reduced immediately following an acutely stressful experience” so:
    • Adjust expectations and due dates.
    • Upon return, hold review sessions.
    • And critically, note that we are not even at the “immediately following” stage; we are at the unfolding stage. Consider the exponential impact of this on student engagement and learning.

8. Focus on relevance.

  • This week and hereafter, ask yourself: “What really matters?”
    • Keep that central to your teaching, communications, and expectations.

9. Acknowledge what’s happening and discuss it.

  • Research indicates that students expect and respect faculty acknowledging the impact of traumatic events: “from the students’ perspective, it is best to do something”, meaning “don’t do nothing”.
    • Avoiding or ignoring reality is unadvisable.
    • Even small acts of compassion make a big difference.
    • Research indicates that students appreciate and value faculty acknowledging tragic events and their impact on student engagement.
      • It is also necessary to do something with this knowledge.
        • Be mindful, respectful, and realistic.

10. Remember that the stresses and anxieties students, faculty, and staff bring into the learning environment during and in response to a crisis can have a significant impact on student learning.

  • It is not just the event and an individual’s response to it, but what we bring into the classroom that matters.
  • As news unfolds, as new pieces of a tragic puzzle become revealed, the human response will vary.
  • Be the one who takes the initiative.
    • Be proactive with your empathy.
    • Be the one who starts the conversation.
    • Communicate ideas and expectations early, clearly, respectfully, and flexibly.
    • Convey your concern for your students with authenticity and compassion.
    • Think about what “space and grace” might look like in your classes.
    • Reframe and refocus the value of learning and your class: this knowledge is still important.

This list was composed by collaboratively by Dr. Brian Smentkowski, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning; Dr. Kelly Quinnett and Dr. Erin Chapman, Faculty Senate Chair and Vice Chair; Dr. Deborah Thorne, Professor of Sociology; Dr. Kristin Haltinner, Associate Professor of Culture, Society, and Justice; and Dr. Casey Johnson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

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Crisis Resource Materials

On discussing tragedies such as the death of students

On connecting with our students, ourselves, and one another during and after tragic events

  • Huston, Therese A., & DiPietro, Michele. (2007). “In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy”. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 25. (Also available as a PDF.)
  • A Post-9/11 Framework
  • Teaching after Charlottesville by Derek Bruff
    A review of best-practices for faculty-student interactions after a traumatic event and resources specific to teaching in the wake of violence at Charlottesville in 2017
  • Discussing Traumatic Events from UC Berkeley
    Guidelines on how to prepare for and structure a discussion, if you choose to do so
  • Brené Brown on Empathy (video)
    3-minute video on distinction between empathy and sympathy with strategies about how to listen to and connect with someone who is suffering

For on-campus student assistance

  • The Dean of Students Office and counseling services, 208-885-6716, are available to visit any student groups needing more focused support or assistance.


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Altering Instructional Formats to Include All Students

With many students choosing to remain off-campus after the holiday, we have assembled resources and a team to help you provide a successful and inclusive conclusion to your classes this semester.