A wintery campus scene

From longer holidays to compassion in the classroom: Supporting U of T students during COVID-19

Tuesday, December 22, 2020 - 11:14am
Geoffrey Vendeville

Earning a university degree isn’t easy – and this year the challenge is made more difficult by a global pandemic that has forced students to dramatically alter the way they live, study and socialize.

That’s why University of Toronto President Meric Gertler recently extended the winter break by one week to Jan. 11. for students in first-entry undergraduate divisions and some graduate and professional programs.

“It’s prompted by the fact that we’ve all been under an extraordinary amount of stress for months now, because of the burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a letter to the U of T community.

“The entire leadership team across our three campuses cares deeply about the wellness of each and every one of you. We want to make sure that you’re able to rest and recharge, and to make the most of the upcoming holiday break.”

In light of the added pressure COVID-19 has placed on students, Micah Stickel, acting vice-provost, students, is also calling on faculty to double down on kindness and compassion.

“This is a unique time for everybody,” he told U of T News, adding that the university has been listening closely to students through consultation sessions and surveys.

“The message that we shared with everybody is to focus on care, compassion and flexibility.”

In practical terms, Stickel says that means opening up a pathway for honest communication between students and professors while paying close attention to the demands that students are facing in their lives.

He recommends a healthy balance of large and small assignments so students don’t have to juggle too many bite-size assignments – or worry about a single, large assignment that could make up the bulk of their grade.

Overall, the time spent in class and on work outside a class should be in the ballpark of 10 hours per week, per course, he says.

“That’s our ask, but obviously there’s some flexibility there,” he said. “Generally, the message is to think about students’ experience not just in your own course, but in all the courses that they’re taking.”

Professors across Canada can get tips for supporting student mental health from the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health. And, to ensure that faculty, staff and librarians who support students also take care of their own mental health, U of T offers a wide range of resources and supports.

Since the pandemic began, professors across U of T’s three campuses have also been sharing their experiences with each other online and in webinars organized by the Centre for Teaching and Learning, offering advice on how to re-think assessments and assignments and examples of how to lower stress and improve learning for students.

“The biggest thing that I’m doing differently this year is having a “radical generosity” policy for extensions,” Kathy Liddle, assistant professor, teaching stream, in sociology at U of T Scarborough, told the Centre for Teaching and Learning. “Students can get extensions on anything for any reason, without any documentation and without penalty.

“My decision was based on the fact that my priority is for them to learn the material, but I don’t want to tie the assessment to their ability to turn in something by a particular time. Especially this year. They don’t have to ask for the weekly quiz or the weekly discussion post – I just leave them open and then they catch up as necessary. For assignments, I have them contact their TAs to ask for a specific amount of time so that they are making a specific plan for themselves. But we accept every request.”

Liddle says “the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation from the students has honestly been overwhelming.”

Gallery view of Fiona Rawle's online class holding up signs thanking their professor. Fiona Rawle, in the top corner, smiles through her tears.

Fiona Rawle, a professor of biology and the associate dean, undergraduate at U of T Mississauga, coined the phrase “the pedagogy of kindness” to describe her teaching method, which also emphasizes communication, compassion and flexibility.

In her biology course of more than 1,000 students, she aims to foster connections within the class and bridge the “divide” between student and teacher.

“We know that the more connected our students feel, then the better they learn,” she said in a guest-hosted episode of the U of T podcast, The New Normal.

“We want students to know that they are more than a number.”

In the last class of the semester, Rawle’s students showed her some kindness in return, surprising her on Zoom by holding up posters expressing their thanks. Rawle tweeted a screenshot of the class, adding: “You can see me in the upper corner crying a bit…”

Fabian Parsch, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, says the experience of teaching remotely during the pandemic has taught him the value of giving students more time to complete tests.

In one of his classes he gave his students 24 hours to write an exam, providing them with some leeway if their computer crashes or in the case of another unforeseen calamity.

“All these things contribute to students being able to focus on the course content instead of being stressed out by their surrounding conditions during an already stressful time,” he says.

David Roberts, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the department of geography and planning and Innis College’s urban studies program, says he agrees that teaching during a pandemic “requires greater compassion and care for our students and a heightened recognition of the struggles they are facing during this time.”

Whether in his first-year introductory course on urban studies and his fourth-year seminar on cities and mega-events, he says he prioritizes patience and understanding.

“While the pandemic has definitely exacerbated many situations, a lot of our students were struggling with various things prior to the pandemic,” he says.

“Recognizing this, I try to keep abreast of the various support programs available to students and encourage my students to make use of them. I try to be understanding and accommodating, while also being fair to my TAs and others.

“These practices have become more central to my teaching approach as more of my students have confided their struggles to me.”

While COVID-19 has brought student mental health into even sharper focus, the well-being of students was already a top priority for the university, Stickel says.  

As part of its response to recommendations by the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, the university recently launched a new mental health website for students, where they can access a toolkit of resources for building resilience, find health-focused events across the three campuses and book a counselling appointment online.

Stickel also urges faculty to demonstrate a personal commitment to supporting student mental health by including a statement on their syllabus and using it as an opportunity to discuss mental health with students and periodically check in with them.

Megan Frederickson, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, made a point of checking in with her students – all 1,933 of them – in the final class of BIO 120 last week.

“I always tell my students their grades are not a measure of their worth as a human being,” Frederickson told U of T News. “They’re so focused on getting high grades and there are so many wonderful students who are not going to be high-achieving in terms of marks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to go on to do amazing things with their lives.”

To help keep students engaged this term, Frederickson delivered lectures from locations across the city, including ravines, museums and the zoo, in a series of pre-recorded videos that could be viewed asynchronously. In her last video, sitting at her kitchen table, she thanked them for their patience and good humour and spoke about how tough the year has been for everyone and how much she hopes to eventually meet them in person.

“I really do hope that you’re taking good care of yourself and your loved ones and your communities – and I really genuinely think that is more important at this moment in time than getting a high grade in BIO 120,” Frederickson says. “So I wish you good luck on your final test. But remember it is just a test.

“It’s not the most important thing in life – or even in your university career.”