Bob Ubell on Stressed-Out Students and What Faculty Can Do!

Toxic stress amongst students: How is it being combatted?

Dear Commons Community,

My colleague, Bob Ubell, had a column on Friday published in EdSurge, entitled,  “With Stressed-Out Students in Challenging Times, Faculty Must Embrace Caring Practices.”   He provides a number of interesting and helpful comments on how faculty can alleviate stress for their students. Below is his column in its entirety.  Well worth a read!



With Stressed-Out Students in Challenging Times, Faculty Must Embrace Caring Practices

by Robert Ubell

July 8, 2022

In the bad-old days of college teaching, especially in technical subjects, professors would stand before a classroom of freshmen and say, “Look to the right, look to the left. One of them will not graduate.” The idea was fear of failure would motivate students to do whatever it takes to stay above water academically.

But these days more professors take a more caring approach to teaching—a compassionate response to the collective trauma driven by the COVID pandemic and other challenges facing today’s college students That became clear to me a few months ago when I gave a talk on the benefits of active learning to more than 75 New York University faculty. In a poll addressed to attendees, I asked them to identify engaging teaching methods they use online and in person. What came back was a flood of responses with dozens of approaches, showing that this audience was putting plenty of thought and care on how to encourage students to participate and succeed online and on campus.

“There’s far more motivation when students perceive that they have more choice and control,” says Bahriye Goren, a visiting clinical assistant professor who teaches courses in competitive strategy and digital marketing. “We want students to experience that they are cared for—that we are helping them learn—rather than viewing us only as authorities.”

Yael Israel, an assistant professor who teaches courses in project management, agrees. “It is our practice to care about how our students learn, appreciate each student’s trajectory and open pathways where they feel safe to express themselves best.”

Goren and Israel say their emphasis on caring in teaching did not derive directly from what has come to be known as the ethics of caring, but from their own experience of the needs of students. Still, I was intrigued by their acknowledgment of caring as essential in effective student engagement. So I explored the notion of caring pedagogy and discovered, to my surprise, that it goes all the way back to the 1930s and ‘40s, to the pioneering work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, noted in learning-science circles among the founders of social constructivist theory. Later, Stanford University philosopher of education Nel Noddings extended it into a broader ethical concept.

The ethics of care differs in crucial ways from 18th- and 19th-century ethical philosophy, largely based on duty or utility and supported by reason and logic, following universal, objective rules. By contrast, ethics of care depends on emotional qualities, such as compassion and empathy. Vygotsky pointed out that feelings and cognitive capacity are not separate; his classic research concluded that they are formed together.

Online or in person, caring pedagogy blends student-centered learning in a safe, responsive student-faculty relationship. Unlike a nurse treating an invalid, or a parent raising an infant, caring in higher ed is an interpersonal practice, with faculty and students in complementary roles—listening carefully to one another, understanding each other, sympathizing, trusting, respecting and depending on one another—attributes that go hand-in-hand with active learning.

Active Learning Faculty Support

I wondered what made the difference. Why did so many faculty at NYU’s School of Professional Studies’ Division of Programs in Business embrace active learning, while professors elsewhere often resist or ignore it.

As expected, many studies reveal a high level of reluctance among professors to abandon conventional lectures, with many saying they don’t have enough class time or they don’t have enough time to develop materials for active approaches. Other studies show that professors just don’t have time to devote to teaching amid other professional responsibilities, since most tenure-and-promotion guidelines emphasize research over teaching. Why should a rising professor take on alternative instruction strategies when it might not mean much to clinch a promotion?

But perhaps the greatest barrier is departmental culture. If your department doesn’t support active learning, why should you?

NYU’s Division of Programs in Business is one place working to encourage faculty to adopt active-teaching techniques. The school runs a vigorous effort to get faculty up to speed to teach in new and engaging ways. Running 4 to 6 faculty workshops a semester, attended by as many as 75, and occasionally much more—up to 120—with each session introducing a new learning tool, giving attendees a chance to practice with others in real time.

“Faculty have been educated their whole academic lives in the lecture mode, and that’s what they reproduce in their own classrooms as instructors,” says Negar Farakish, assistant dean of the division. ”Our overarching message is to show that faculty can move effectively from lecturing to active, experiential learning, leaving each workshop with two or three very practical takeaways. Working in small groups, faculty share their experiences and best practices with each other. It gives them an opportunity to quickly adopt new pedagogical approaches and techniques.”

In addition to attending workshops, novice instructors must run through a 25-week onboarding process in which practiced faculty closely monitor them, proposing alternative methods and giving them useful tips on how to excel.

Urgent Care

College students are faced today with far more than common stresses caused by day-to-day struggles with motivation, test anxiety, procrastination and time management. They live under a cloud of massive gun violence, student debt, endemic racism—and now the brutal war in Ukraine.

The pandemic has not only unleashed a devastating disease, but has flung collateral damage at college students, causing them to suffer emotional disturbances at increasingly troubling rates—misery faculty say they never encountered before.

A new PsychologyToday, report says depression rates for college students doubled over the past decade, with 66 percent of college students experiencing overwhelming levels of anxiety. Most troubling, the report found that suicide is the second-most common reason for death among college students

Colleges cannot continue to go on as before, as if these realities can be brushed aside. Our faculty have a new and deeper obligation now, not only to open student minds to intellectual discoveries, but to turn the classroom into a caring refuge from cultural and economic abuse.

It makes perfect sense that studies show that when students in higher ed are taught in a caring environment, motivation, desire to succeed and enjoyment increases along with improved attendance and attention, increased study time and additional course enrollment.

Active learning is not merely a collection of pedagogical tricks, but it has a deeper and more meaningful implication for higher education. It embraces philosophical and psychological insights that place caring for our students at its very heart.

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