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In Anxious Times, Students Need Help

Nov 13, 2020 9:32:13 AM

By all measures, 2020 has been hard for students and the semester just coming to an end has been no exception. In a survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education, student mental health ranked as their top concern. With good reason. According to a new student viewpoint survey conducted by the Strada Education Network, more than half of students responding reported “feeling lonely or isolated” during the fall semester. 

Tellingly, a recent survey sponsored by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators found that the single biggest concern of students enrolled in remote or hybrid learning was staying engaged in their classes

Source: Student Wellness During Covid-19

Even with a vaccine for the coronavirus on the horizon, new cases are surging across much of the country prompting many colleges and universities to embrace remote and hybrid learning at least through the spring semester. Still, while faculty have redesigned courses, developed new skills, and learned much from the past two semesters, the problem of student isolation persists. 

Amy Bintliff, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, recently told Inside Higher Education that her “students talked a lot about really missing being in person with their classmates, with their colleagues, with their faculty members, and having those spontaneous, organic conversations and relationships.” We have always known that relationships matter—the pandemic is teaching us just how much they matter. 

Educators today are looking for ways to alleviate the isolation that many students are feeling. The American Council on Education recently published guidance for campus well-being, recommending that institutions provide clear communications about where students can find mental health support and conduct regular mental health assessments across campus populations. Most institutions have published mental health resources for students on their institutional websites, others have incorporated stress management programs into their curricula, still others have directed faculty to reduce course loads so that students (and faculty) can catch their breath. Students have found their own way to cope, relying on family and friends for support, establishing new routines, 

One important strategy, of course, is helping students build the kind of social networks that support friendships and spur learning. Faculty with experience teaching in traditional, face-to-face classrooms have found that technology can help. Amy M. Froide, chair of the history department at University of Maryland, Baltimore, told the Washington Post that new tools like the chat function in her video conferencing platform were an unexpected book. Students felt free to share “pretty significant, profound things” using chat, Froide told the Post. “I was really shocked by that.”

Discussion forums, particularly combined with a chat function, can help students build authentic relationships with their peers. Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with studies exploring how online discussion forums can improve learning. New studies, conducted during the pandemic, also point to ways discussion forums can reduce procrastination and even minimize plagiarism

We’re also seeing—if only anecdotally—just how important online discussion forums are for students who may otherwise feel isolated in an online or hybrid classroom. To some degree, traditional, synchronous classroom discussion has been disrupted this year for vast numbers of students. As well, the social interactions most students expect from college have been curtailed—in some cases, students are often confined to their dorm rooms or not attending classes on campus. Opportunities for contact, social exploration, and idea sharing are limited. 

It’s why tools like online discussion forums are so important. They can help students make connections with their peers more authentically—in a safe environment. And when students have the ability to personalize their “social presence” in the discussion forum through profiles, photos, video, and other media, their engagement grows.  

Online discussion forums aren’t a panacea for student isolation. But tools like these can provide your institution with one more tool that students can use to break down the barriers they are encountering this year and maybe build the kinds of relationships that will sustain them in their education journey. 

Looking for best practices for your online discussion? Explore the Best Practice Guide for Online Discussions, authored by Rhonda Blackburn, PhD and president of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA).

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