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As undergraduates, we see firsthand how the coronavirus pandemic has tested the emotional and educational limits of our peers and professors. For one of us, a senior and teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the health crisis has meant struggling through online learning as both a student and an instructor. For the other, a senior at Penn State, it means staring down the barrel of an uncertain job market.

But we’ve also come to understand a few steps professors can take to make online learning more manageable during this time. Most importantly, we’ve found it isn’t the professors with the fanciest presentations or the most sophisticated learning tools who make the biggest difference for students and their emotional well-being. Rather, it’s the professors who’ve found ways to show deep care for their students. Here’s what that care looks like.

Care through consistency

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which Jaida attends, history professor Carol Higham embodies how clarity, consistency and reliability add up to care. She outlines in bold in her syllabus everything her students need to know: how and when to reach her, expected response times, what deadlines to prepare for, and expectations for grading and late policies. Professor Higham’s deadlines are the same each week — her goal is to make them transparent and easy to remember, not a source of stress and confusion. She also takes time to repeatedly go over those expectations in class so students can’t miss her instructions. 

Instructors doing small things to show they care about us as individuals makes it clear that we are noticed and that our well-being as people matters.

Higham also ensures her classes over Zoom are as much fun as possible, finding ways to encourage students who participate and answer questions correctly. One example is the “clapper,” a hand toy she uses to loudly applaud students when they speak up. Most importantly, she always gets back to students within the response time she has promised, typically no more than a day. At a time when everythingfeels uncertain, consistent and clear deadlines and expectations are reassuring. 

Care through checking in

Checking on students is another way to demonstrate care. One of Austin’s economics instructors at Penn State sends students mental health quizzes that are not just fun to complete, but also show us that our well-being is important to the teacher. Questions such as “How are you handling this course’s workload during COVID?” are paired with lighthearted multiple-choice responses, often riddled with pop culture references. These quizzes serve as a needed reminder that we’re valued as more than just faces on a Zoom call. 

Jaida, in her role as a teaching assistant, has started holding weekly Zoom office hours that act as dedicated “vent sessions.” Students share their feelings and often sound off in an unstructured way. Every week, students attend who never speak up in class; sharing during office hours often makes them more comfortable and more prone to participate. These check-ins are an important  — and, in some cases, the only — outlet for students to talk through their concerns and challenges. In online courses, it’s easy to feel that you can slip by unnoticed.

Instructors doing small things to show they care about us as individuals makes it clear that we are noticed and that our well-being as people matters.

Care through curiosity

Professor Higham of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte also demonstrates how fostering curiosity is an expression of care. In her American History course, she uses a discussion platform called Packback to encourage students to ask original questions about course material. That kind of tool is more important than ever in remote learning, when it’s harder to stay motivated and engaged. Whereas most online discussion tools are all about the answers, focusing on questions has allowed her class to have more engaging discussions even though they’re not able to be together in person. Knowing that our professors trust us to explore our curiosity, and even guide the discussion, empowers students to engage with the material independently and deeply.

We’re all learning together right now, and we don’t expect our instructors to be perfect. We try to understand what they are experiencing, and the most powerful moments we’ve shared are when they return that same understanding to us. When students do finally have the chance to return to campus, we hope instructors hold onto the surprising bright spots of online learning: their understanding and flexibility, transparency around deadlines and other administrative aspects of class, and efforts to inspire motivation and curiosity.

Jaida Sloan is a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Austin Catania is a student at Penn State.

This story about professors and care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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