College Student Mental Health: What Instructors Should Know

Article by Kris Vespia

As a counseling psychologist who is an active teacher and a scholar in the area of college student mental health, I pay particular attention when I hear my teaching colleagues express concern about seeing more students in emotional distress. I am also keenly aware that these student issues do not only present in university counseling centers. They also reach into classrooms and instructor offices. Instructors, though, typically have no formal training in how to respond. How are we as educators to best react when a student self-discloses a trauma during class and begins to cry while other students stare awkwardly at their desks? Or when an advisee softly admits in an individual meeting that they have been thinking about suicide? Or when a student emails to ask for an extension because they are struggling to adjust to their new medication for Bipolar Disorder?

I have had many more conversations about these topics since the pandemic began. I hear from faculty who say they are seriously concerned about student mental health and feel both an obligation to act and tremendous uncertainty about what to do. Layered on top of that uncertainty undoubtedly is the additional strain instructors have also been under, leaving them less able to expend the emotional labor involved in such situations. I am hoping this blog will serve three purposes: a) to provide some context for the mental health issues instructors are seeing, b) to give some preliminary tips for working with students in distress or with mental illness diagnoses, and c) to offer a repository of the mental health resources available to UW-Green Bay students so you can make referrals and consult, as needed.

First, let’s talk context. You should know that you are likely seeing an increase in student distress, but that is not a new phenomenon. College student mental health needs were critical long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A few statistics may help. Almost 20% of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, and the most common time of initial onset for many of those conditions is traditional college age (National Institute of Mental Health/NIMH, 2021). In fact, the highest prevalence rates of mental illness overall and of serious mental illness specifically are between the ages of 18 and 25 (NIMH, 2021), and that distress appears to have increased over the last decade or more. For example, CDC data show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, and suicide rates among those aged 10-24 increased over 57% from 2007 through 2018 (Curtin, 2020). Looking at college students specifically, results from two large, national datasets show moderate to severe anxiety and suicidal ideation almost doubled between 2012 and 2017-18 (Duffy, Twenge, & Joiner, 2019). Perhaps not surprisingly then, even though national statistics suggest the majority of people with mental illness (including college students) do not seek treatment, across 150 universities throughout the U.S., counseling center use still went up an average of 30-40% during a 5-year period in which overall student enrollment increased by only 5% (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2018).

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made a challenging situation worse. The American Psychological Association (2021) has worked to document emotional and behavioral responses with their Stress in America survey, and they found adults between 18 and 23 (“Gen Z” adults) were the most likely age group to report decreased mental health as a result of the pandemic. On another national survey of 32,754 college students conducted in Fall 2020, substantial numbers reported some degree of depression (39%) and/or anxiety (34%) on answers to a mental health screening questionnaire (Eisenberg, Lipson, Heinze, & Zhou, 2021). And, you are not alone in your perceptions: surveyed faculty from 12 institutions across 10 states also said (87% of them) that students’ mental health had either “worsened” or “significantly worsened” in the pandemic (Lipson, 2021).

I also want to stress that statistics do not tell the whole story. What likely matters more to instructors is that mental illnesses have substantial deleterious consequences for individual human beings – human beings they know and care about. Those effects might include significant pain and distress, negative impacts on relationships, and reduced ability or even inability to function effectively in school or at work. These conditions are not something a person can “snap out of” or a sign of personal weakness or failure. Too many sufferers, however, believe those myths (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017). Mental illnesses are instead legitimate, sometimes very serious medical conditions; most are quite treatable, but those treatments can take significant time to bring relief. Consider this example. We use the word “depression” casually in everyday conversation as though it is simply a passing mood state. True diagnosed depressive disorders, though, are ranked by the World Health Organization (2017) as the leading cause of disability globally. Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018) has published data that also suggest people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) have health care costs that average more than twice that of other consumers (i.e., more than $10,000 annually compared to over $4000) due to the costs of treating depression itself and its associated co-morbidities. More importantly, people with MDD and other mental illness diagnoses are more likely to die by suicide, which is the ultimate reason to take these conditions seriously.

In the midst of this sobering picture, there is good news. You can do quite a bit to help as a faculty member with some pretty simple actions. You are also never alone in these situations, and you and our students have wonderful campus and community resources at your disposal. You can view and print a full list here, and specific tips for instructors are included below.

Tips and Resources for Instructors

Click each tip to expand the accordion and read more.

Many students with mental health concerns have symptoms that impact their coursework. In fact, in the national survey of 30,000+ college students mentioned earlier, 83% of them indicated their academic performance had been adversely affected by their mental health in the previous month (Eisenberg et al., 2021). There are countless ways this can happen; let me highlight just a few possibilities. Major Depressive Disorder has a long list of symptoms, but beyond the potentially debilitating emotional impact, a few other common indicators include difficulty concentrating, insomnia or hypersomnia, substantial fatigue, and recurring thoughts of death. Imagine trying to read a textbook page when you are: exhausted from lack of sleep, feeling as though it takes every ounce of energy you have simply to put one foot in front of the other, reading the same words over and over without processing them, and focusing extensively on repeated thoughts of worthlessness or death. As another example, individuals with PTSD may deal with intrusive flashbacks or be so hypervigilant to small noises in the classroom as potential threats that they don’t process instructors’ words. Bipolar I Disorder can come with depressive lows, but we know it also involves manic episodes characterized by grandiosity, racing thoughts, and highly impulsive behavior. This student might start and finish a 15-page paper in one all-nighter and find in the morning that the words they thought were genius at 4 am are only pages of true gibberish. Finally, consider the student with an eating disorder who spends hours each day thinking obsessively about food, exercising compulsively, or hiding their binge and purge behaviors from others – or imagine the person suffering from schizophrenia who occasionally hallucinates and is completely preoccupied with voices in their own head during class time. You should know that of the UWGB students who have official disability accommodations, the greater numbers are for psychiatric, not physical, conditions. And the students with accommodations are likely only a very small fraction of those struggling with mental health concerns. That having been said, a student may be suffering substantially, and you will have no clue. We most frequently cannot “see” mental illness or know when it is happening, and stigma prevents many from self-disclosing. You have likely worked with, been friends with, or loved someone with a mental illness and never known it. People can be very skilled at hiding both physical and emotional pain.

We can help all students, including those who have a mental illness or who are experiencing acute emotional distress, by demonstrating that we: a) understand students’ multiple roles and responsibilities, b) welcome student communication, and c) have a willingness to be flexible. These three things will likely result in students feeling supported and seeking assistance when necessary. Empathy and flexibility can look like and be many things for different people, and it doesn’t have to mean being “warm and fuzzy” or granting every student’s request. If it helps, the greatest problem I tend to encounter is convincing students to accept extensions or an Incomplete because “it isn’t fair to others,” they “didn’t know they could ask,” or they “should be able to handle things on their own.” You may also be surprised by who the students in emotional pain are because they may be doing quite well in your class, but as the oft-quoted meme goes: “Just because someone carries it all so well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.” If we offer some flexibilities to all students, we don’t need to worry about challenges associated with identifying those most in need. Here are some small but specific examples.

  • Sleep hygiene is very important to mental wellness, and yet we inadvertently encourage late nights or “all-nighters” with default deadline times of 11:59 pm in Canvas or by using early morning times instead. Why not use 5 or even 7 pm?
  • I know instructors who give students one “mental health day” each semester that they can take for any reason and then make up the work another day.
  • Similar to the mental health day, instructors can provide students a “free pass” good for one penalty-free late assignment.
  • Reconsider asking for a “doctor’s note” to justify extensions or absences. Students without insurance may not be able to see a doctor, and not all insurance covers mental health care.
  • Course content can be extremely distressing to students for unpredictable reasons. I do not use so-called “trigger warnings.” Instead, I inform students that I can’t predict what might elicit distress, but all students are free to leave the classroom or stop watching a video in online courses if that happens. They can check in with me later about whether or how to make up the work.
  • Be willing to consult with the Dean of Students, Student Accessibility Services, or Counseling services in the Wellness Center about academic flexibilities for specific students, as needed. Flexibility and compassion are important, but there are times when the most compassionate thing we can do is to encourage a student to take time away to work on their health before returning to school.

Amy Henniges and I worked to create a list of resources for all four campuses, as well as the local crisis lines for each community. They are now located on The Wellness Center website. Review and then bookmark or print this list for future reference. Share the ones for your campus in your syllabus or on the course Canvas site with a note encouraging their use.

Remember that you are not alone when dealing with student mental health concerns. Here is some information, along with some tips, you may find helpful.

Facts to keep in mind…

  • You do not have a confidential relationship with students in the way counselors do. If a student talks to you about suicide, that is something you can and should share with a professional. You also have state mandates to follow related to reporting child abuse and sexual assault.
  • You will not “put the idea in their head” if you ask someone whether they are having thoughts about suicide. A common reaction to that question is the person feeling relieved to share with you.

Strategies for Helping and Consulting

These strategies cover everything from emergencies and urgent situations to proactive strategies to reach all students in your classes.

  • Emergencies: As noted on the resource list provided, in a true mental or physical health emergency, you should call 911.
  • It is possible to call the Wellness Center’s Counseling services and/or Dean of Students Office to ask if someone is available to physically see or virtually meet with a student and explain the situation (if it’s not a 911 emergency, but you still feel the student needs to talk with someone urgently or at least that day). On the Green Bay campus, I’ve even occasionally just walked a student from my classroom to one of those offices. On the Manitowoc and Sheboygan campuses, you can also call the Agnesian number and ask about an appointment that day or for a counselor who can talk by phone.
  • If I’m in a situation where the student is with me (e.g., in my office), and I want to consult about the best resources for them or see if a counselor is available to talk with them, I typically call in front of the student. I want to be transparent and have them know I’m not “talking about them behind their back.” Of course, there can be times when that would not be appropriate.
  • In non-urgent, non-emergency situations, you can complete a “Students of Concern” Report on the Phoenix Cares website. The Behavioral Intervention Team or CARE Team will follow up on the situation. If you are unsure about whether to file a report, call the Wellness Center’s Counseling services or Dean of Students Office, explain the situation, and ask.
  • If something happens after business hours (e.g., a night class) where you feel the student needs to talk to someone, but it’s not a 911 emergency, you can use the community 24/7 crisis line or, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, you can speak to a counselor at Agnesian 24/7 by calling that number. You can consult with these services for suggestions about what to do, and you can also call and hand the phone to the student.
  • If you are anxious about what to do or afraid you will make a situation worse, even if it seems like it’s a minor issue, find a colleague you trust. Better yet, ask the student about an employee on campus they trust. There’s nothing wrong with telling a student you are concerned about them and want to help, but you want to call someone or bring someone else into your office so that you can all figure out a good plan together.
  • Feel free to raise the issue of counseling or support (e.g., SilverCloud) if a student isn’t asking for your help but mentions stress or personal difficulties in passing. If you encourage and normalize counseling (e.g., “we all need support from time to time”; “people see counselors for everyday problems, not simply for mental illness treatment”), that may make a real difference.
  • Consider professional development in mental health issues. We will have a new opportunity on campus in fall 2021: Kognito trainings. Kognito uses simulated experiential role-plays specific to universities so students, faculty, and staff can encounter and practice in different scenarios. The initial At-Risk Simulation modules are designed to help us: a) recognize and identify signs of distress in self, peers, and students; b) communicate effectively to support someone in distress; c) understand support options; d) effectively refer people to resources; and e) self-reflect and apply strategies for resilience.
Knowing these few tips and resources may help you if you ever encounter an instance when you need to act, whether as an instructor or in the context of your personal life.

About Kris Vespia

Headshot of Kris VespiaKris Vespia is a Professor of Psychology and the Interim Director of CATL for 2021-22. She has published in the areas of mental health services on college campuses, cultural diversity and mental health, and career development. She is also interested in the mental health literacy of college students and the general public.

Call for CATL Facilitators (Due Aug. 17, 2021)

CATL is searching for three CATL Facilitators to facilitate programming on the Marinette, Manitowoc, and Sheboygan campuses in 2021–22. CATL Facilitators work closely with other members of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning to ensure that all faculty & instructional staff have access to CATL programming regardless of their location. Depending on the event or programming, the facilitator’s tasks may range from organizing a meeting space and setting up a video conference connection to facilitating a discussion of key questions or issues that we wish to engage in collectively across our four-campus institution.

If you are a member of any of these campuses and are interested in applying, please complete the brief application form linked below by Tuesday, Aug. 17. We hope to have consultants in place by the beginning of the contract period (Aug. 23, 2021).

Apply Here

What will you carry forward?

Article by Todd Dresser.

Last spring, we all talked about how the pandemic would re-shape higher education. Now, a year from the beginning of the pandemic, we want to look at how those discussions have evolved. What questions did we ask? How did instructors answer them? What new questions emerged? And what will we carry forward from teaching in the age of COVID as well as the overlapping crises of the past year? Since all politics are local, I spoke with three instructors at UW-Green Bay to get their perspectives.

I spoke with Jillian Jacklin, a lecturer in Democracy and Justice Studies who had the serendipitous experience of starting her journey at UW-Green Bay in the Spring 2020 semester. I spoke with Kiel Nikolakakis, a lecturer in Natural and Applied Sciences who has a broad array of teaching experiences in lab courses, Gateways to Phoenix Success (GPS), as well as in UW Collaborative Programs. And I spoke with Heidi Sherman, Associate Professor of History and Humanities, who has experience as a chair, advisor, and instructor.

The discussion below should provoke thought as to how the last year has changed our teaching practices. It’s not an exhaustive compendium of experiences by any means. In fact, we wish to hear your stories as well, so please see the opportunities to continue this discussion at the bottom of the post.

Blending online and face-to-face strategies

In 2020, “hyflex” was in the air. This term combining hybrid delivery and flexible participation has been around since 2006 but has been a niche format with much of the research on its effectiveness centered on graduate education. Yet, suddenly, higher-ed circulated podcasts and think pieces about its applicability to the pandemic context.

These offerings had two main themes. First, as Brian Beatty put it “a well-designed HyFlex class, with effective alternative participation modes that all lead to the same learning outcomes, can provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students.” Second: “resiliency.” Again, from Brian Beatty, “looking ahead, if it becomes necessary to close campuses again for almost any reason (natural disaster, smoke and fire threats…) students and faculty in HyFlex classes should be able to continue without interruption.” Hyflex held out hope of maintaining quality education resilient against future disasters.

Yet, even the textbook on how to create a hyflex course acknowledges that it takes multiple semesters to develop a truly hyflex course. So how did instructors blend online and face-to-face methods together? How did it go? And what will remain?

Online discussions give all students a voice

Dr. Jacklin teaches two sections of History 206, each capped at 65 students. Stimulating discussion in large classes is challenging face-to-face and often favors those more comfortable expressing their ideas publicly. She noted that in “lecture halls students don’t get to see each other’s ideas. A lot of people talk on Canvas who wouldn’t talk” in a lecture setting. Though she plans to return face-to-face in Fall, she intends to “spark discussions in Canvas” to allow “all students to continue to have a voice.”

Dr. Nikolakakis also found virtual discussions let students gather their thoughts. He had his first-year students prepare PowerPoint slides in response to discussion prompts and describe their ideas in VoiceThread. This exercise led to a “higher degree of engagement” than classroom discussions and “students did a better job” getting into depth on course materials.

Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis found online discussions alleviated some anxieties of in-class participation and allowed students to express their ideas in a more relaxed way leading to more complicated insights.

Digital spaces for digital faces

Discussions around “synchronous online” also evolved. Dr. Sherman described how the “virtual classroom” allowed students to discuss complex material more comfortably. She noted the virtual environment “alleviates the social anxiety that weighs on you” when trying to unpack primary historical sources in front of peers. She allows students to participate with webcams off, which turns their voices on.

Dr. Jacklin held online “venting” sessions where students decompressed, which were important given that much of the material she covered in her courses overlapped with news events about racial injustice.

Dr. Nikolakakis faced the challenge of preparing students to conduct labs. In a typical semester he would offer an overview lecture prior to the lab, but classroom restrictions meant he could not lecture to everyone at once. Instead, he created mini-lectures students could watch ahead of in-room labs. Many of these lectures will be available for future use.

These are all creative examples of how instructors have adapted and enhanced their synchronous teaching in ways that the prognostications from last summer did not anticipate.

Getting your digital feed beneath you

Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis developed a rhythm for teaching in distance environments. For Dr. Nikolakakis, Fall semester felt “more chaotic” than Spring 2021. While this feeling of relative ease comes from many sources—practice, for example—he noted creating modules in Canvas mimicking a calendar (so students know what to expect every week) works for him. He found that students use the Canvas calendar as their to do list and has made sure his assignments appear there.

Similarly, Dr. Jacklin noted she has gotten better at “scaffolding” assignments so smaller assignments help students build toward larger ones.

Technology and equity

We never signed up for distance education but found ourselves online, so questions arose about how to serve students ensuring equitable access and ability to complete course materials.

A map of public wi-fi locations helps document a scramble to assist those without robust internet access and conjures the feelings of dislocation and unease which made the map necessary. The ramifications of teaching across the web raised concerns. Bryan Alexander argued in a widely circulated blog post that “students would be better served by dialing back the Zoom and shifting instead to a greater emphasis on asynchronous tech” noting “live video means assuming students have access to infrastructure.” In a world where people were learning from parking lots over public wi-fi, that was not a safe assumption.

Nonetheless, virtual classroom emerged as the most common teaching mode at UW-Green Bay. How did we go from a reluctance to a reliance? And, how has equity fared?

Virtual classroom revealed accommodations I didn’t know I needed

Just ask Heidi Sherman. Dr. Sherman was initially reluctant to teach via virtual classroom out of a concern for student access. Her colleagues relayed they were able to have good conversations with students over web and her experience as an advisor showed many students preferred virtual classroom to other distance modes. So, she took the plunge this Spring.

She found virtual classroom enabled deeper connections with students and course material than even face-to-face allowed. As a historian, Dr. Sherman teaches through primary sources and these sources (in Islamic history and Medieval history) are complicated and difficult to parse. As a someone who is visually impaired, Dr. Sherman notes that she “needs to hold a book close to my face” while helping students unpack the readings.

Virtual classroom alleviated some of tensions felt while teaching face-to-face. The documents are still complicated, but she and the students can do so with webcams off, meaning students do not have to put their struggles on stage and that Dr. Sherman can read in relative comfort. She noted, “when the teacher is comfortable; the students are comfortable” which enables freer and deeper discussions than were possible face-to-face.

Teaching through web conference revealed other troublesome aspects of face-to-face, but she thought she would just “have to deal with.” For example, the “clock in a regular classroom is not easy to see,” which makes it hard to pace a lesson. Similarly, the computer monitors in physical classrooms are small and hard to work with. Also, students in virtual environments are not “distracted by all the social things” that “weigh on you” in a classroom where they struggle more publicly with difficult material.

Betty Friedan famously described “the problem with no name” which arose from a “strange stirring” that many women felt in the 20th century when the world as it was did not match the world as they were told it should be. So too did Dr. Sherman note that virtual classroom revealed “accommodations I didn’t know I needed.” She thought the unease of teaching face-to-face was part of the job. Teaching virtually put a name on a set of accommodations which unlocked teaching as it should be for her and her students.

The conversation about synchronous online teaching began from a concern about equity related to infrastructure. While those issues undoubtedly remain, what emerged is a more complicated relationship between technology and equity. Dr. Sherman notes that the constellation of attributes for virtual classroom align well for her but that it has opened a deeper discussion about how to align “technology with equity” so all people have access to an education (and a workplace) to take advantage of their assets.

Further explorations into technology and equity

Dr. Sherman is not alone, Dr. Jacklin also explored the equity–technology relationship by deepening her relationship with Open Educational Resources (OER). While she uses an open textbook for her class “Who Built America?” because the publisher serendipitously decided to make it open, it has grown into a passion for how OER can alleviate important pressures for students.

Similarly, Dr. Nikolakakis has recorded many mini-lectures for his chemistry courses which extend and reinforce his instruction. He plans to continue to continue using this large outlay of labor for students in the future who need reinforcement or who have planned absences.

What about you?

The Center wants to hear your stories. How did you think last year would go? How did it? How did you manage? What will you carry forth?

Join us synchronously on May 14 at 11 a.m. via Microsoft Teams where CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement will host a discussion on “The Things We’ll Carry.” You’ll even get to talk with Jillian Jacklin herself!

Also, please respond to this survey where we will collect more stories about what people will carry forth from the year and use the responses to help inform future opportunities from CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement.

Finally, we encourage you to comment below and keep the conversation going!

CATL Needs Analysis

As we emerge from the pandemic together, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning would like to align its efforts with the needs of the instructors we serve.

In that spirit, we are asking instructors to fill out a needs analysis survey.

The survey focuses on two main areas: 1) equity, diversity, and inclusion and 2) pedagogy. Each area will present you with various items and ask you to rate each according to your perceived skill level and the priority you would place on it for professional development.

The survey will then ask about the formats you prefer to engage with the items you rate as having high priority.

There will then be some space for open-ended responses.

Your responses will be anonymous and the survey should take about ten minutes to complete.

CATL needs analysis survey

Thank you

Thank you for taking the time to fill out the survey and all you do to make UW-Green Bay a great place for students and colleagues.

A clock with books.

Pedagogies of Care: Rethinking Student and Professor Workload

Article by Jessica Van Slooten.

The phrase “pedagogy of care” started percolating in my brain late last summer as I crafted a full load of asynchronous online courses and wondered how to best care for the students in my classes—and myself. What would a pedagogy of care look like, and how best to put this care into action?

I found that other scholars of teaching and learning were using this language to frame a number of student-centered teaching practices. One fantastic resource is the Pedagogies of Care website https://sabresmonkey.wixsite.com/pedagogiesofcare created by the authors in the “Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” book series published by West Virginia University Press—folks like Kevin Gannon and UW System’s own Cyndi Kernahan, among others.

When I thought about where to start putting care into action, I decided that the first step was examining the workload in my courses for both students and myself. I wanted to acknowledge the real ways the pandemic shaped our individual and collective capacity for teaching and learning: increased competing demands outside of school/work, cognitive impact of ongoing stress and uncertainty, increased emotional labor that teaching during these times takes, among many other real impacts.

I mapped the most important values for me as a teacher. I decided to prioritize frequent communication with students to create presence and community in our asynchronous online courses. And, I wanted to prioritize timely feedback on student assignments. Given my course load and enrollment, this would only work if I had the space and time to do so.

To help figure out the issue of time, I consulted the course workload estimator 2.0, a valuable tool created by scholars at Wake Forest University. The creators of the calculator have figured out some estimations of how long it takes students to complete a variety of tasks. You enter information from your own course in the free, online tool, and it will estimate the time it takes students to complete these tasks. While the tool won’t work perfectly for all kinds of assignments, it does have some nuances that are especially useful for folks teaching reading and writing intensive classes; it recognizes different kinds of reading and writing and acknowledges that each kind takes a different amount of time.

When I first used the calculator, my courses were in the 12-14 hour/week range, and I wasn’t sure what to think. Was this acceptable? Too low? Too high? Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence includes an article “How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload,” which provides advice for how to use a course workload calculator and make changes to your course. The authors claim that “there seems to be general agreement that the Carnegie Unit recommendation of two hours out of class for every credit hour […] is a perfectly reasonable expectation.” For a three-credit course, this would mean 6 hours of out-of-class work each week; adding in the time we would be in class if we were face-to-face brought the total to somewhere between 8 and 9 hours of work each week. Clearly, I needed to make some cuts to more courses to reach this level.

As I worked through how I would approach my class differently, I thought back to my first Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research project in 2011. In that project, I hypothesized that weekly blog posts would help students in my Women’s and Gender Studies classes learn important disciplinary concepts like the social construction of gender and intersectionality. After analyzing the data, I discovered that it wasn’t the quantity or repetition of assignments that determined their learning, but rather the concepts themselves—some concepts were easier to learn than others. I swiftly cut the number of blog posts, retooled other assignments to highlight these tricky concepts, and everyone benefited with fewer blog posts to write, read, and grade.

With these two data points—the course workload estimator and my prior research—along with copious reading about the perils of having too many discussion posts in online classes, I set on another path, guided by my ethos of care.

To further determine what concepts and skills to prioritize, I turned to my prior SoTL research in threshold concepts. This framework was developed by Ray Land and Jan Meyer in the early-mid 2000s. Their research suggests that each discipline contains concepts that have a number of features: transformative, troublesome, integrative, irreversible, and liminal, among others. (This extensive introduction and bibliography includes a useful description of these features). Learning these concepts transforms student learning and understanding. I find this framework helpful in determining essential concepts that build the foundation of my classes. Threshold concepts can be incredibly useful when streamlining class content and assignments to align with a pedagogy of care.

Luckily, one of the textbooks I use is structured around the threshold concepts model, and I was able to use it as a map through that class. For my other classes, I prioritized a handful of concepts and skills and paired readings and assignments with those skills, including regular lower-stakes assignments, and longer projects with various checkpoints throughout the semester.

Admittedly, there are some challenges with this approach depending on your academic discipline. In the literature courses I teach, it can be difficult to choose readings that won’t surpass the ideal 8-9 hours of total student work/week range. I’m still learning how to make thoughtful adaptations to workload around reading—for example, we recently decided as a class to cut one novella from our reading list in the major authors class I’m currently teaching. There are only so many Jane Austen novels one can thoughtfully read and analyze in a 14-week semester.

Finally, the course workload estimator helped me in another way; cutting the number of assignments allowed me to provide more detailed and quicker feedback to students, one of the values I identified at the beginning of this process. Rather than simply filling out the online rubric and provided synthesis comments for the whole class, I now added several sentences of personalized feedback for each student. I used these comments to connect to their ideas, offer additional questions and possibilities, and steer them in the right direction, as needed. Students regularly shared that this personalized feedback was important to them, made them feel like I care about them and their learning, and helped them improve. My pedagogy of care has, for the most part, succeeded in allowing students and myself to continue to learn during challenging times. This framework will continue to be useful in the transformed post-pandemic world, as I anticipate teaching in a variety of modalities in upcoming semesters.


This blog post is based, in part, on materials presented during the UW-Green Bay 2021 Instructional Development Institute.


About Jessica Van Slooten

Jessica Van SlootenJessica is an Associate Professor of English, Writing Foundations, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Humanities as well as Co-Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She has been actively involved in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SotL) to inform her own classroom practices. Her SotL interests include scaffolding student learning, designing meaningful assignmentsand assessing student learning in Women’s and Gender Study courses and programs at two- and four-year institutions.