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Support Students by Teaching Outside the Lines


College students aren’t immune from life’s hardships and changes. College instructors can teach beyond the course outline and provide students with some collegial guidance that helps them balance their academics amidst personal and professional challenges.

Let’s establish the assumption that instructors support students and set them up for success. Completing a course and achieving its outcomes is a success – that’s teaching in between the lines. As instructors, we have a range of experience and knowledge to share with students – even if they don’t know to seek it out. You have years of knowledge that can be imparted from how to optimally complete assignments, where to focus attention, manage time and balance personal life with academia. Try flexing your style and teaching outside the lines and integrate some worldly academic wisdom.

The Instructor-Coach

Compelling and impactful instructors are instructor-coaches, teaching beyond the course outline. They use the course to truly connect and motivate students, getting them in a high state of readiness and focus. Some tips are:

  • Huddle with the students about the class’ activities. Get them energized and focused for the time together. Be like a coach and give a lively talk before beginning class.
  • Know when to take a timeout. Watch the students, their engagement, eye contact, attention span, quality of discussion. Take frequent breaks during class time and not when it’s convenient for you or the class material. Students learn at different paces and giving them downtime can let information sink-in and recalibrate them for the rest of the class.
  • Manage classes like periods in a sports game, use time wisely, and trust your players. While we want to maximize class time and institutions want to provide value back for the cost of tuition, don’t lose sight of the big picture that we want students to successfully complete the course; and that doesn’t have to mean doing the full classroom time. Structure time to effectively cover the essentials and end class early every once in a while. Let students know you’re giving them back time and trust them to use it wisely and that you’re available to meet during office hours.

Student Mental Wellbeing Matters

Support students and recognize their emotional and mental wellbeing. Students may be experiencing the stress of divorce, personal injury, or family illness. Most recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic caused many to feel anxiety and insecurity at higher levels. Some tips to do this are:

  • Let students know that you’re open to their informing you in confidence of any life situations that could impede their focus and progress, and that you’ll support them with the class. These discussions are best had before a situation affects grades. Actions to take include proactive assignment extensions, allowing a few assignment resubmissions per course, you're being available outside of class time and office hours to catch them up, and factoring in their situation when evaluating their assignments and class contribution.
  • Remind students to take advantage of the college’s wellbeing assistance resources. Mental health counselors and success advisors are a few examples institutes have that cater to helping students balance educational and personal responsibilities.
  • Establish commonality and empathy with students. You’re human too and sharing how you manage through adversity and keep your work commitments can serve as a positive role model.

Encourage Student Responsibility and Accountability

Encourage students to take responsibility, even in hard times, and hold them accountable for creating and owning a path forward for completing the course. While personal responsibility is assumed in college and is part of the learning process, go a little further and encourage it. Some ways to do this are:

  • Identify students behind in coursework or grades and encourage them to develop and share with you an improvement plan. Let them develop and own their plan, which can include suggestions on time management, how to better contribute to group work, changing ways of studying, or any other creative options you can uncover together.
  • Inspire compartmentalization to focus. Encourage students to think of class time as a safe zone, a brief respite away from “real life,” and leave life’s issues outside the class. Ask them to not check their phone or email during class.
  • Set expectations and add to your course outline a section on desired class behaviors and actions, and regularly discuss. This is a helpful way for you to frame-up and hold students (and yourself) accountable for thinking, feeling and behaving in the course.

These days teaching effectively and setting students up for success means more than staying in the lines of the course outline. It means flexing your style to be an instructor-coach, recognizing and addressing how the real-life emotional and mental wellbeing of your students can impact their work, and holding them accountable for creating a healthy path forward to successfully complete the course.

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication and the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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