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.

Setting the Tone for a Welcoming Classroom with a Liquid Syllabus

At times, the syllabus can feel like a relic from a different age of academia: a formal, lengthy document that reads like a legal contract and lacks personality. In an attempt to make syllabi more engaging and student-friendly, some instructors have come up with clever ways of reimagining their syllabi. One example of this is the liquid syllabus.

What is a liquid syllabus?

Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus from her Fall 2020 photography class.

As a part of her effort to humanize her teaching methods, Michelle Pacanksy-Brock—author, instructor, and faculty mentor for California Community Colleges—decided to redo her syllabi. She saw her syllabi as an opportunity to set the stage for an inclusive and positive learning environment, both in terms of language and format. Applying these concepts, she developed a new online syllabus for her photography class using Google Sites. Pacansky-Brock has branded this style of syllabus as a “liquid syllabus”, in which the word “liquid” refers to the fact that these syllabi are easy to access online and interact with, even on mobile devices.

As defined by Pacansky-Brock, a liquid syllabus is usually:

  • Public (accessible online without needing to log into a university account and often available to students before class starts)
  • Mobile-friendly (resizes responsively based on a user’s device)
  • Engaging (includes an instructor video and possibly other forms of media)
  • Student-centered (uses approachable, welcoming language)
  • Visually pleasing (clearly organized with stylistic touches)

The purpose of a liquid syllabus is to serve as a welcoming and encouraging introductory resource for students, while still fulfilling the requirements of a traditional syllabus.

Is creating a liquid syllabus worth the time and effort?

A liquid syllabus is no doubt a bit of extra work, but the research seems to support that creating a liquid syllabus is a great investment in terms of equitable teaching. Here are a few features of a liquid syllabus that you might consider implementing in your own syllabi.

Close equity gaps among your students.

A student checking her smartphone as she walks around campus.

By building your syllabus with a mobile-friendly, web-based tool, you are increasing access for your students. It’s no secret that students in higher education are more likely to have access to a smartphone than a personal computer. A mobile-friendly syllabus is easy to interact with on a smaller screen because it resizes automatically, unlike a PDF or Word doc, which are difficult to read on mobile devices due to sizing constraints.

Liquid syllabi also put a heavy emphasis on inclusive language. When writing a syllabus, it is best to avoid making assumptions about your students’ background knowledge. Transfer students, non-traditional students, international students, and first-generation college students may not be familiar with institution-specific terminology or higher education lingo in general. Try to avoid using abbreviations for your content area, your department, buildings on campus, etc., unless they are clearly defined in the syllabus. Also consider providing some student-centered contextual language before syllabus resources and policies.

Make a good first impression.

Students’ perceptions of their instructors can rely heavily on their first impressions (often more so than an instructor’s reputation and credentials) and studies show that syllabus tone can make a huge difference in these first impressions. Students perceive their instructor as more welcoming, friendly, and inclusive when the instructor’s syllabus uses such language.

As you rework your syllabus, think about ways you can make your language more encouraging. When it comes to classroom expectations, you might reframe your statements to focus on what students should do for success, rather than what they shouldn’t (e.g., instead of saying “academic dishonesty will be punished”, you could say “I encourage academic integrity”). By turning commands into invitations, the overall tone of your syllabus shifts from contractual to welcoming.

Welcoming Language: Examples of Commands vs. Invitations
Commands Invitations
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.” “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
“You are allowed to…” “You are welcome to…”
“I only accept…” “I encourage you to…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.” “Late work is eligible for up to 60% of original points.”

Show students who you are.

An example of an instructor welcome video that has been captioned and embedded with a transcript player on the Syllabus page.

Most liquid syllabi also include an introductory video made by the instructor. In an online environment, instructor presence is particularly crucial for student feelings of connectedness, and a welcome video can be a great way to help meet that need. Cheer on your students and let them know that you are there to help them succeed. You can also use this as an opportunity for your students to get to know you a little bit—for example, you could introduce your pet on camera or briefly share about one of your hobbies.

Visual impact makes a difference too. In another study, students expressed more interest in taking a course when the syllabus was graphic-rich as opposed to purely textual. A syllabus doesn’t have to look cold and boring—it can be colorful, welcoming, and even playful, so get creative with your design. After you’re done, check things over to make sure your syllabus still meets accessibility guidelines. Add alt text to your images and captions to your videos as needed.

How can I create a liquid syllabus?

There are a variety of tools you can harness to develop a liquid syllabus. Like Pacansky-Brock, you could use a free website builder like Google Sites to get started. Or, if you feel comfortable using WordPress, you could also build your own site with UWGB domains. You can even use the Syllabus page right in Canvas. If you’d like to try making a liquid syllabus but aren’t quite sure where to start, CATL has developed a template in Canvas which is undergoing a pilot for Fall 2021. To learn more about the template or register to be a part of the pilot, please see this blog post. No matter which tool you choose, keep in mind accessibility and ease of access for students.

Do you have other ideas or suggestions for how to reinvent the syllabus? Share with us how you are transforming your syllabi by dropping a comment below or sending us an email at catl@uwgb.edu! We’d love to hear from you.

The Things We’ll Carry (May 14, 2021. 11 a.m– 12 noon)

The last year has changed the way we engage with students. A health crisis changed the means of classroom engagement while also putting a new onus on compassionate interactions with students. At the same time, social crises spurred many of us to engage students in conversations around how our disciplines could help them make sense of their world in new and more complicated ways. Many may have also helped students engage directly with bringing about a new and better world in response to the overlapping social/political/and health crises. CATL and the Center of Civic Engagement would like to engage with you in a discussion on what you will carry forward from this year and make a permanent part of your teaching. We will host a discussion on May 14 from 11am to noon (this link opens a Teams meeting). We hope to spend some time reflecting and engaging with you.

Article: Applying Flexible Teaching Practices in a Post-COVID World

Article by Sam Mahoney

It is no secret that COVID-19 profoundly changed the landscape of higher education. At this point, words like “pivot” and “flexibility” have become synonymous with the effects of the pandemic. Though the pandemic’s effects were widespread and hard-hitting, a given semester in any “normal” academic year still has its share of barriers that students may face. We can take some of the lessons we’ve learned about flexibility during COVID-19 and apply them to our pedagogy going forward, creating a more equitable landscape that gives student the support they need to succeed, no matter their unique circumstances.

Why is flexibility important?

Each student brings their own distinct background, experiences, and challenges with them to the classroom. The challenges that students face are wide and varied, and many students refrain from disclosing these barriers, leaving instructors to wonder why an otherwise “good student” may be missing class or have slipping grades.

While by no means a comprehensive list, some frequent barriers students in higher education face include:

  • Work. In a 2018 report by Georgetown University, almost 70% of all college students in the U.S. work while in school, and of those, 43% are considered low-income students. That same report also determined low-income students tend to work longer hours and have lower grades than their high-income peers who have the luxury of working more limited hours or not working at all. Black, Latino, female, and first-generation college students make up a disproportionally large part of this low-income working group.
  • Family. Many students, both traditional and non, are parents. In fact, a 2014 report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 26% of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the U.S. support dependent children. Female and non-White students once again make up a disproportionally large sector of this group. Add to this that those without children might still be expected to help care for younger siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives. For parents and non-parents alike, the responsibilities of caring for family can be physically, mentally, and financially taxing.
  • Health. Ongoing physical and mental health concerns as well as unexpected illness or injury can either prevent students from attending class or cause them to under-perform when they do. Mental health problems in particular impact a largely hidden portion of college students. In a 2019 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, almost 11% of college students reported having a medically diagnosed mental health condition and a staggering 45% self-reported having at least one severe depressive episode in a given year. On top of chronic mental health conditions, stress, anxiety, and grief brought on by the loss of a loved one or other traumatic events can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and succeed.

In order to offer all students the highest chance of success, it is important to maintain a degree of flexibility while still keeping expectations for achievement high. In the next section we’ll take a look at some flexible teaching practices you might have already implemented during COVID that may be worth continuing in future semesters.

What does flexible teaching look like?

Flexible teaching can be manifested in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this article we’ll be focusing on flexibility as it relates to offering multiple means of engagement (which just so happens to be one of the principles of universal design). Consider the ways in which students can interact with you (their instructor), with their peers, and with the course materials. Are you already offering multiple methods for each of those interactions? Are students given a choice in which methods they use? How might you supplement the existing means for engagement you already use in your course?

Let’s take a look at a few practical examples.

Content delivery through in-class lectures is a quintessential pieces of the higher education experience. However, if this is the only means by which students obtain the course’s content, some students may find themselves unintentionally isolated. If the classroom technology allows, you might consider recording segments during lectures for students to re-access later, recording your lecture audio to provide a transcription, posting annotated PowerPoint slides in Canvas, and/or providing a location for students to share their lecture notes and asking students to sign up to do so each week. Many instructors even choose to record shorter dedicated lectures of particular sticking points for students to (re)engage with the material online. The key is that these techniques provide alternative means of engagement to those students who were absent or unable to fully engage during class. They can also serve as a resource for all students to review if needed.

It’s also common for instructors to use in-class comments and questions to assess students’ participation. While in-class discussion is a very important form of participation, students that need to miss class or have barriers that prevent them from fully engaging in a class discussion may be unfairly penalized. Some instructors have sought to remedy this by creating alternate methods for earning participation points. For example, you could let students post to a Canvas discussion board or ask a question during an online review session via Teams or Canvas Chat as a way of earning participation points. Students then have the option to mix and match how they want to earn credit for their engagement and always have an alternative method of “making up” points if they are unable to meet the quota through traditional in-class participation.

Assessment can also have built-in flexibility if you are thoughtful when designing assignments, quizzes, and exams. One way is to emphasize the role of course outcomes in assessment; this can open you up to offer students choice in which assignments or quizzes they want to engage with if the same learning outcomes are assessed in multiple places across the semester. If you have a number of assignments tied to the same outcome, you might consider dropping the lowest grade among them giving students the option to choose to which they can devote the most attention. If a student is less confident in a particular area, they can also commit to doing all of them; knowing that the lowest will be dropped can reduce some of the pressure and allow them the flexibility to make and grow following mistakes on an early attempt. Our article on using Canvas to be more flexible expands on this idea further, as well as offering up some other tips and tricks in Canvas.

Do you have other ideas?

What pandemic-created strategies would you like to apply or reinterpret for future semesters? Do you have other ideas for applying what you’ve learned about teaching during the pandemic to make your classes more accommodating for students facing barriers? Let us know in the comments below!

Designing with Equity in Mind: Reflections and Assessment of an Online Chemistry Class

Article by Bree Lybbert

With the abrupt transition to online learning in Spring 2020, followed by a summer of reflection guided by CATL’s Pivotal Pedagogies online course, I found myself feeling inspired to design my new online class for the fall with equity in mind. CHEM 108 is an introductory chemistry class that is primarily designed for pre-nursing students. Fall 2020 was the first time the course was designed to be online for the BSN@Home nursing program. It is a very content-heavy course that moves quickly with one or two chapters of content per week. To help students keep up with the class, I needed to give them the proper supports to succeed yet keep the logistics of the course as simple as possible. To this end I focused on four main elements in the design of the course that tend to decrease equity gaps: 1) an organized and consistent course design, 2) multiple methods for students to engage with the course material, 3) scaffolded assessments and 4) timely communication and feedback.

Organization and Consistency in Design

Utilizing a highly organized and consistent course design in Canvas was quite easy thanks to CATL’s Foundations of Teaching with Canvas course, which provided a template for instructors to use and adapt. The course lends itself very well to a repetitive weekly schedule where students engage with the content during the week and then complete a homework assignment and quiz at the end of the week. Wash, rinse, repeat… for 14 weeks. Each weekly module was organized in the same way: Overview page, Learning Materials page, Homework Instructions page, Homework Assignment (as a “quiz”), and finally the Weekly Quiz. Within a week or two, students knew exactly what to expect from week to week, as everything was laid out in a repeating pattern on the course home page.

Multiple Methods of Engagement

The biggest concern I had in designing the course was how to deliver all the content that students needed and how to do so equitably. Rather than expecting students to learn directly from the textbook(s), I incorporated my existing lectures and notes into the course. Similar to a face-to-face class lecture, I recorded myself using a webcam and a document camera talking through and writing out the notes for each week. Students were provided with blank skeletal outline notes as well as the completed lecture notes so they could follow along with the videos. These recordings were then uploaded to Canvas where students could view and download them to learn the material. I did not limit the length of the videos (though I tried to keep them to 15-20 minutes each), but I was cognizant of the total length of the videos for each week. I tried to keep the total amount of “lecture time” close to three hours each week, like a face-to-face class.

In thinking about equity, I also had to realize that not all my students were going to be able to engage with the lecture videos. As such, I made sure that the students had a choice in how they would prefer to learn the material—either by watching videos and filling out the notes or by reviewing the completed lecture notes. Although I preferred and saw value in students learning the material by watching the lecture videos, I could not deny a student the ability to learn the material in other ways, and therefore provided them with multiple methods to learn the content.

Scaffolded Assessments

Assessing my student’s knowledge of the material was going to be challenging in an online class. Unlike my face-to-face classes, students would have access to their notes and other resources for quizzes and exams. To address equity, I chose to make all quizzes and exams open-book and open-notes without the use of proctoring software. The assessment of the students’ knowledge was scaffolded such that homework assignments (set up as an auto-graded quiz in Canvas) were lower stakes with fewer points and had unlimited attempts. The weekly quizzes (also set up to be auto graded) were a bit higher stakes than homework (worth more points and two attempts, rather than unlimited). Exams, which were mostly auto graded, had the highest stakes, and therefore were worth the most points and had only one attempt.

Although I feel students had sufficient practice via the homework and weekly quizzes to know what to expect on the exams and to do well on them, I do wonder how well the quizzes and exams gauged student’s learning versus their ability to look things up quickly. Additionally, without the use of proctoring software (which has raised some equity concerns), I am depending on each student’s own sense of honor to only use the approved materials and complete the assessments themselves.

Timely Communication and Feedback

The simplest (in principle) way to promote equity in the class was to encourage communication and ask for feedback from the students. As an online class without synchronous class meetings, I strived to set the tone in the “Week 0 – Course Orientation” module that I was open to frequent communication with each student. This invitation was reiterated each week in announcements and videos. As the semester progressed and especially when the content got tough, many students took my invitation to heart and reached out for help.

Additionally, rather than only rely on written text for communication, I became adept at recording a quick announcement video or an additional content explanation video so the students could see the instructor behind the course and know that I was keeping track of their progress from week to week. After the first exam, I solicited feedback from each student in the form of a discussion post. I was happy to see that students were very open to sharing what was going well for them, how they were effectively studying, and that they were just as open to sharing what they were struggling with and aspects of the course they didn’t like (such as one question at a time exams!).

Another important part to soliciting student feedback was acting on the feedback. I recorded a short video responding to the class’s feedback, making sure to address their concerns and provide context for certain aspects of the course but also to let them know I would make changes to future quizzes or exams based on their feedback. These videos also allowed to me give encouragement and praise as well.

In Conclusion

Having designed and taught this online class exactly once under stressful, pandemic times, I can’t say for certain that my design choices allowed for full equity for all students in the course, but I hope to at least be able to say that I did address some equity concerns in the course. I will no doubt continue to learn and adapt to my students’ needs and be mindful of equity concerns for the next session of this class as well as all my other classes.


About Bree Lybbert

Bree LybertBreeyawn (Bree) is an Associate Professor of Chemistry with research interests in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Her SoTL projects have included the use of the Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) program as a writing-to-learn tool to help students develop and assess their critical thinking skills and she is also interested in helping students develop the math skills necessary for their pre-nursing chemistry coursework.