By Cynthia Rutz, Director, Valparaiso Institute for Teaching and Learning (VITAL)

As we know all too well, both faculty and students have been worn down by the pandemic. In particular, the mental health of our students has suffered. Even before COVID, the teen suicide rate had increased so much in the last decade that it is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents. In the first year of the pandemic, when Mental Health America surveyed teens, more than half said that a mental health day from school or work would be helpful.  (Why Teens Are Advocating for Mental Health Days Off School – The New York Times). Here are some very simple steps that could have a big impact on your students’ mental health as well as your own. Consider implementing one or two of these ideas in your syllabus this semester.

  • Excused Absence for Mental Health. Consider allowing students one mental health day as an excused absence. You could tell them that they must email you by some stated time before class to let you know they are taking their one allocated mental health day. To preserve their privacy, it is important that you not ask them why.
  • Give An Extension for One Assignment: State in your syllabus that students can ask for an extension on one assignment. Or you could give them the option of either a 2-day extension on a major assignment or two 1-day extensions on other assignments. Again, ask them no questions about why they need the extension.  Lissa Yogan does this by providing a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in her syllabus. Each student can use the card once, when they are unable to complete an assignment by the due date. The card allows them up to a one-week extension on that one assignment. If they turn in the assignment later than one week past the extension, then the usual penalties apply.
  • Divide longer assignments into smaller parts. Students have high anxiety about turning in a major paper that is worth a lot of points. You can alleviate some of this anxiety by dividing a major assignment into more manageable parts. For example, for a long paper, require that they turn in an annotated bibliography early on, later on, an outline, and later still, their introduction. Each small piece could receive a “process” grade, then the final paper gets the big grade. You need not spend much time grading or commenting on every one of these smaller pieces: for example you could just give 4 points if everything is present, 3 if one part is missing, etc.
    The Core Program uses this approach for its three major papers. So for paper #3 students might get a process grade (5% of their total course grade) for the collective work of a zero draft, first draft, second draft, peer review, and writing center visit. Only when they turn in the final paper do they get the final grade (15% of their total course grade).
    Another option, used by Stephanie Wong, is to allow students to develop a short essay assignment topic into a longer final research paper. That way they are expanding on work they have already done.
  • Provide some choices for major assignments. This allows students a chance to pick a track or a project that they really care about. Students feel more ownership of their topic when they have had a choice. They will also write better and longer papers about a topic that they care about. A bonus for instructors is that you will also find it more enjoyable to read and grade essays on different topics rather than 20-40 essays on the same topic.
  • Add 1 or 2 flex days to the course schedule. I got this tip from a VU veteran teacher and it has been a real stress reliever for me and my students. In my syllabus I give as the assignment for the day: “Catch-up, review, or expansion day for Unit 2.” Then, as the date nears, I can let students know how we are going to use that day. If a certain topic needs more time, then we go back to it here. Or I may use this day to do a check-in with students by holding 1-2 minute one-on-one meetings with them to see how they are doing with the material or with class assignments.
  • Weekly Check-In: Once a week, schedule a 5-minute check in with students. Students often feel that they alone are struggling to keep up with their coursework. They are relieved to learn that other students are also struggling. Jen Gregory gave me a technique for this called Rose/Bud/Thorn: I ask students to tell me this week’s Rose, Bud, or Thorn for them. A Rose is something good in their life right now. A Bud is a good thing coming their way. A Thorn is what is bothering them right now about school.
    It often turns out that the “thorns” they bring up resonate with others as well. This can be a chance to let them know that stressful intervals sometimes arise because of the rhythm of the semester, but that this too shall pass. You can also offer some gentle suggestions. When a student talks about dreading the need to pull an all-nighter before an exam, you could mention that research shows that a good night’s sleep before an exam is actually much more effective for retaining information after studying.
  • Schedule a Class De-Stressing Day: Consider scheduling an official “de-stressing day” near midterms or finals for the entire class. Give students specific options on what to do, such as: coffee with a friend, meditation, journaling, spending time in nature, practicing gratitude, sitting in the chapel, an hour without technology, or making use of VU’s Stress Relief & Relaxation Room – Counseling Services. (NOTE: This room is not available this semester.)
    You could make this an extra credit assignment. Assign them to try one of these techniques, then write a brief report (1-2 paragraphs) on why it worked or did not work. If you spend a few minutes in class debriefing these activities, students can learn from each other about stress-relieving techniques that might work for them. Also, consider doing the assignment yourself and reporting back to the class on what stress-relieving techniques work for you.

 

For other ideas on making your syllabus more humane (for both you and your students) see this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: 10 Course Policies to Rethink on Your Fall Syllabus.

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VU Counseling Center Resources: provided by Amber Mosley, Assistant Director for Clinical Services Administration