Empathic Pedagogy: Try an Open Letter to Students

After each midterm I give students a chance to provide feedback on the class, my teaching, and their learning. I sometimes leave the canvas blank (“Space for anything you want to say or do”). Some students draw. Some students tell jokes.  My most recent exam gave me pause.

Together with the usual motley assortment of humorous doodles and commentary, I saw windows into the current state of affairs. Two students bemoaned the volume to be studied and the need to know “exactly what they needed to know.” ( for the exam I assume versus in general for the class). A student drew because “I wanted you to have something to be proud of me for, because it is not going to be this exam.”  Another, said “I am failing this class but I want you to know I am trying.”

It is becoming increasing clear that we faculty need to do a better job of socializing students for college and be more cognizant of what students are facing. Financial hardships, mental health issues, life pains.  I was moved. I decided to write them a letter. Here it is. I was blunt. I was open. See what you think.

Dear Student,

As the term rockets to a close, the eager anticipation for the break is dampened by all that needs to be done before that. You are not alone in feeling the stress. Here are some considerations and tips for the weeks ahead.

You may feel stressed by how much you have to do and study. Faced with numerous final exams (many cumulative) the number of pages you are responsible for knowing add up. It would be nice to know exactly what to study for a final. You would love a study guide that is the comprehensive set of what needs to be known for an exam.  You may wish I only ask questions from the study guide or on material explicitly discussed in class. That seems fair, but while that may have been how things were in high school, things are different in college. Something many faculty (and some first-year students) forget, is that some recalibration of expectations are needed in the move from high school to college.

In college there is more responsibility on you the student. College classes are more challenging. Faculty expect you to read more and remember more. In general, you are responsible for the material covered in assigned readings.  All the material. In my view, this does not mean you need to know an example mentioned just once or every little term. I will confess, I sometimes like to include a question on an outstanding study (e.g., Taiwanese students’ memories) to draw attention to a novel finding or even reward those students reading the book.  This said, my goal is for you to remember high level concepts that you can take into your daily life. Remember how our biology explains behaviors (mindfulness activates your parasympathetic system reducing stress), learning theories, can change behavior (put your friend on a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement to be neater).  Cutting down on distractions will help you better elaborate your encoding and remember more.

Yes, I have high expectations. Both for you and myself. I give each class I teach my full attention. I pour my energy into selecting materials, designing class, planning sessions, sharing content, and giving you all you need to learn successfully.  Know that I very much appreciate the efforts you put in. I see you struggle. I see you work hard to learn. I see those who do not and aim to motivate and inspire them to learn.  Yes, I talk about the benefits of repeatedly testing yourself and spacing out your practice. I love it when you do it. I see your efforts, whether it is time online in the course management system and textbook practice tests, or in the detailed emails, or face to face conversations. I respect your efforts to learn and celebrate them.

Know that I work hard to be fair. An exam question that was too picky (that Taiwanese memory study)? I look at the data. Did enough students get it right to suggest it was a fair ask? Was the material students struggled with on the exam covered well enough in class? If not, I am ready to give points back.  Still feel something is not right?  Come talk. I am also open to hearing about things going on with you that may be making you attending class and learning difficult.

I am aware of the challenges many of you face. Over the course of the term I hear about the personal challenges- with mental health, stress, or unexpected hardship. I know that many of you combat financial hardships and struggle to make ends meet, juggle multiple jobs and responsibilities. I strive to make sure I can address your learning needs whether it be in how I structure assignments or being open to help you evaluate and modify how you study or take exams. As always, I invite you to come talk to me anytime. I can help. Use me.  Use me more!

Graduating college brings great rewards. Getting through college can be tough. Often, college is painful, and to paraphrase the Dread Pirates Roberts’s comments about life (from The Princess Bride) life is pain and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. This does not mean you have to grit your teeth and just bear it.  There are ways to cope.

One tip- try changing how you view things. While “I am so stressed” is an easy refrain, try reframing things as challenges. Yes, there are a lot of challenges in the weeks ahead. Be clear about what specific challenges you have, when each is due, and have a specific plan for dealing with it. Viewing things as challenges versus ‘stressors’ seem like simple wordsmithing, but can make the world of a difference.  Plan well. Then KEEP to your plans.

There is a set time between now and the end. Assign your time well. Spend more time on assignments that count for more. Missed some due dates or having trouble finding time to study? It is not to late to learn skills that will serve you well beyond this course, term, and college.  These last weeks are also critical times to keep hydrated, eat and sleep well, and communicate with friends and love ones (social support can buffer many stressors).

No, college is not easy, but you do not have to face it alone. There is some time left to rally and finish strong. I am here to help you. There are many resources on campus. YOU HAVE THIS.  Onward.


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