As the end of the semester approaches, students face the usual final exams, projects and papers amid an unusual finals season. In addition to increasing academic rigor, students have endured immense personal challenges this semester, including strains on mental and physical health as a result of the pandemic. The recent rise of COVID-19 cases and close contacts on campus further compounds this stress. Thus far, many professors have displayed an understanding of these circumstances as they have adapted to hybrid platforms. As we navigate the final weeks of this semester, it is vital that faculty continue this trend of empathy and flexibility by prioritizing student well-being and adjusting class policies to reduce stress.
This semester has taken a significant toll on students’ mental health. While taking classes, students have faced financial hardship, loss, social isolation and heightened anxiety about contracting the virus. Levels of stress and anxiety were elevated by the polarized political climate leading up to the presidential election, described by some as one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime. On top of these considerable stressors, many have had to continue their academic careers in environments not conducive to academic success. The virtual format of some classes has made collaboration and forming study groups difficult.
Additionally, many students have expressed profound difficulty focusing on coursework and staying motivated, a notable change for Tufts’ passionate and driven student body. This experience may be exacerbated for remote students and those in quarantine, who do not have access to on-campus study spaces and thus may have trouble staying productive.
Now, as students prepare for final exams amid increased COVID-19 restrictions and a general sense of anxiety about traveling home for the semester, it is especially important that professors support their students.
After months spent staring at screens with little chance for respite, some students may be experiencing academic burnout. While Thanksgiving provided students with a momentary break from classes, some still opted to stay on campus for the remainder of the semester. Between an atypical holiday and the diminishing social outlets available during colder months, many students have been unable to get a truly relaxing break. Furthermore, as a result of the rise of cases on campus and in the surrounding Medford and Somerville communities, there are now more students who will have to take their classes while in isolation. Professors must take these old and new stressors into account when assigning final projects and exams to students.
It should also be acknowledged that professors — not just students — face challenges as well. Conducting engaging classes during a pandemic is not an easy task, and professors’ hard work should be applauded. In addition, faculty and administration have maintained an empathetic approach in designing academic policies, including implementing an Exceptional Pass/Fail policy (EP/F) for the fall semester and offering students the option to take classes remotely.
While still praising these accommodations, we urge professors to recognize that conditions are constantly changing, and students continue to face new challenges. Looking toward the end of this semester and beyond, there are a number of ways that professors can alleviate stress and support their students. Faculty can offer flexible due dates and extensions for assignments, alleviating some of the pressure on students who may be dealing with difficult personal circumstances.
Professors should also give students additional opportunities to improve their grades as the semester closes, such as extra credit assignments. This will offer students who might have struggled earlier in the semester a chance to redeem their grades and end the semester on a strong note. Additionally, professors should work to give students a rough estimate of their grades before Dec. 11, the deadline for students to opt into EP/F grading.
Perhaps most importantly, professors should make sure to regularly check in with their students about their well-being. Using anonymous surveys, professors can gather student feedback to understand how they’re faring and field suggestions. Even setting aside five minutes at the beginning of a lecture to ask students about how their week is going can foster a sense of community during a time when many feel isolated.
Employing an empathetic approach to academic work in these last few weeks of the semester will prove critical to ensuring student well-being and academic success. Not only is this approach important this semester, but it will continue to be until the pandemic subsides. When designing course materials and policies for the spring semester, Tufts faculty and administration must learn from the hardship our community faced in the past eight months and work to actively support students in the future.