How Do I Compassionately Support Students in Times of Disruption?

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No doubt about it, we are teaching in a time of great disruption – in terms of COVID-19, our teaching modalities, student life, and national politics. Focusing on teaching and learning under such conditions is difficult, to say the least. In fact, stress has the potential to reduce students’ ability to pay attention, memorize new concepts, feel motivated, manage their time, and make decisions – all of which are part of learning (Imad, 2020a). So what, specifically, can we do to serve as sources of comfort and support during this time? What can we do to ensure learning is possible? We can ease student anxiety and support learning by designing courses that offer flexibility, by providing social connection, and by connecting students to wellbeing initiatives.


Designs for Disruption                                                            

Teach to the learning outcomes, not the content. Identify what course content and features are most essential, what you want to prioritize, and what is duplicative. Streamline and simplify as much as possible. If your anthropology students can understand cultural relativism after three readings, don’t use a fourth article. If you usually encourage reading compliance through reading quizzes, but now you are using a discussion forum that can do the same, consider dropping the quizzes.

Be flexible. Consider allowing students – who may very well be dealing with extraordinary situations in their personal lives -- to turn in assignments past the original due date for partial credit. You can also create flexible deadlines for some assignments. If possible, allow students to demonstrate their learning in a different way. For example, if a student does not participate fully in a class discussion forum for a while, you might allow them to improve their participation grade by summarizing the activity for a week, and identifying helpful contributions by other students. You can also provide flexibility by adjusting your grading scheme so students only need to complete, say, 10 out of 12 quizzes, or 10 out of 15 discussion posts, for full credit.

Offer a few low-stakes assessments instead of just one high-stakes one. Break that final paper or project into carefully scaffolded sub-assignments: a thesis statement, a research log, an annotated bibliography, and a shorter paper. Or divide your midterm and final exam into 6 smaller exams that focus on distinct portions of your course content.

Build peer support and collaboration into your course (Imad, 2020a). Students will have an easier time if they feel they are part of a meaningful community. Give pairs or small groups of students time to work together, structure assignments so students need to work together, and encourage them to check in with each other. Encourage the development of trust and mutual support through community-building activities. See our Group/Collaborative Work page for more details.

Communicate Early and Often

Be in touch, then stay in touch.  Establish and then actively maintain your communication with your students. Regularly reach out through emails, course announcements, chat opportunities, and individualized emails with supportive reminders or messages of reassurance. You can also review student participation in Moodle/Blackboard to help you identify which students do not seem actively engaged. For more ideas on how to stay in touch, see our Teaching Presence page.

Repeat what you’ve said, and say it in multiple ways.  When people are overwhelmed, their executive functioning skills diminish and they are less able to remember things. Providing information in multiple ways (in synchronous sessions, on your course site, in assignments) will help your students. Use the phrase “Remember in week X, when we learned…” often (Imad, 2020b). And be understanding if they forget a course detail.

Provide a sense of safety in your class by encouraging open communication (Imad, 2020a). Communicate with your students frequently, address them by their names, and let them know that they can be themselves in your class – even if being themselves means sharing fears. Open your Zoom classes early and stay a few minutes late so you can chat with your students, ask them how they are doing in general, and with your assignments. Consider doing the same with Zoom office hours. Model openness by sharing how you are experiencing the semester, how you have adjusted your work routines.

Connect Students to Campus Wellbeing Efforts

Become familiar with campus resources for student wellbeing. The Maroon folder is a resource guide for recognizing and assisting students in distress. The UMatter team has developed this guide to help you recognize, respond to, refer, and report concerns about your students. Updated regularly, the Maroon Folder is a one-stop guide to supporting students in need. This year, updates include a special insert focused on creating a culture of care in remote classroom spaces. In addition, UMass Wellbeing Access and Prevention has created a faculty resource box where you will find concrete resources for students and “plug and play” public health information in the form of slides or short videos that you can play at the start of your lectures to promote public health and wellbeing, and which highlight the weekly theme. This box file will be updated regularly throughout the semester.

Validate your students’ feelings and encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health. Advise students to seek out help if they need professional mental health support. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) has a webpage devoted to helping students with Coronavirus-related anxiety. Send out a link to this page through a course announcement.

Validate your students’ feelings and encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health. Advise students to seek out help if they need professional mental health support. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) has a webpage devoted to helping students with Coronavirus-related anxiety. Send out a link to this page through a course announcement.

Let students know how to find the support available to them.  The campus will be offering numerous opportunities for students to participate in their own care, including: teletherapy, a free Koru mindfulness course, positivity and relaxation training, peer health workshops, and more. For more details, see the Campus Life portion of the Reopening Plan. Veteran Services also maintains a list of campus resources for veterans, including a list of Veteran Guidelines and Best Practices in the Classroom.

Finally, please be compassionate to yourself. Take care of your own physical and mental health. For some tips, see the UMass Amherst Center for Counseling and Psychological Health resources on Psychological Tips for Managing Coronavirus Concerns. You might also consider the CTL’s Contemplative Pedagogy Working Group, a regular venue for discussing pedagogies of compassion and empathy.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at

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Costa, K. (2019, August 12). Trauma-informed teaching [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Imad, M. (2020a) Trauma-informed pedagogy: Teaching in uncertain times [Magna Online seminar]. Retrieved from

Imad, M. (2020b, March 17). 10 strategies to support students and help them learn during the coronavirus crisis. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from