Skip to main content

Good Teaching is Good Teaching: Learning Science and Student Success in the Time of COVID-19 with Dr. Robert S. Feldman

Let’s start with a quiz: The average student today is…

A.    Struggling to keep a balance between staying safe and maintaining a normal life
B.    Scare, depressed and worried about the future
C.    A bit lost, and a bit angry
D.    All of the above

I think we can all agree that “D” would be the most common answer when we think about these unprecedented times we are living in. So, the question becomes what can educators do?

In this first-ever Psych-Ed Talk, Dr. Feldman explores this question along with three other key questions:

What is happening to higher education and students today?

When you look at the national landscape of reopening plans it’s a pretty chaotic landscape. Some schools are fully or primarily in person, others are hybrid, some are primarily or fully online, a few are still undermined. Not to mention it’s as Dr. Feldman points out a “moving target”—constantly evolving as new COVID-19 cases emerge. Instructors, like yourself, must be ready to transition into Plan B, or even C, as these re-opening plans shift. From a student perspective, what does this look like? How is it affecting them?

Students are struggling with COVID restrictions: social distancing rules imposed, frequent required COVID testing, forced transition to online learning, overturned routines, damaged relationships, and strained support systems are just a few to be named. Dr. Feldman attests this to “student reactions to COVID restrictions are exacerbated by their immature brains,” pointing to risky behavior which peaks in late teens/early 20s. “In some way, we’re asking students to exercise significant self-control at a time when they are genetically programed to be the riskiest of their lives,” Feldman mentioned.

What are the short-and-long-term challenges we face with students during a pandemic?

Nearly two-thirds of adults aged 18-24 have either changed or canceled their education plans. And, as Dr. Feldman points out, “we just don’t know” if the student experience will rebound post- COVID. With financial struggles, dealing with grief and trauma, and changed worldviews, we can’t possibly know how this will impact their decision-making moving forward.

Student mental health is also a big cause for concern with high percentages indicating they’re suffering from stress or anxiety, disappointment or sadness, loneliness or isolation, financial setbacks, and relocation. Racial and Socioeconomic disparities are also exacerbated by COVID: higher levels of stress in People of Color, Internet access is more limited for students living in poverty, differences in availability of adequate hardware, and physical spaces to study may be less available.

What can learning science tell us about how to promote student success in the current environment?

Learning science is a multidisciplinary field focused on how people learn, and how they can learn better. It focuses on the scientific principles underlying learning, teaching, and educational practice, and can provide educators with practical solutions that can increase student success in a significant way.

Five key principles of instruction drawn from “Learning Science for a COVID-World,” that Dr. Feldman points out are:

  1. Good Teaching is good teaching, whether we are teaching face-to-face or online.
    How material is delivered is less important than the quality of instruction. Dr. Feldman suggests avoiding long lectures! Instead, follow the 10-minute rule—don’t do anything longer than 10 minutes.
  2. Active learning that promotes student engagement is central to student success.
    Make material meaningful and relevant to students’ goals by personalizing the material, providing multiple opportunities to engage with the material, use interactive tools, polls, video clips, and other involving exercises. Furthermore, reply quickly to student questions and comments. Let them know you are engaged with them!
  3. Provide opportunities for student-to-student and student-instructor interaction.
    Supporting students’ relationships and connections with others is essential: create a climate of care! Make assignments that require students to work with their classmates: short-term synchronous projects, peer instruction, discussions or debates, collaborative brainstorming. Provide opportunities for student-instructor engagement by making yourself accessible to students: formal office hours, engagement on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  4. Teach students how to be successful: good students are made, not born.
    Help students become agile learners by providing direct instruction in study skills specific to your course topics like effective reading and test-taking strategies. Offering advice on “soft skills” like Zoom etiquette is another life skill that will benefit students today and in the future.
  5. Use technology to personalize the delivery of course materials.
    College students embrace technology. It can be personalized to address students’ specific needs and concerns. Adaptive technologies produce significant improvements in persistence, retention, and graduation rates. This is based on learning science. In McGraw Hill Connect’s SmartBook, students are assessed on knowledge and confidence levels and the system adapts to the student’s needs. It also allows for more targeted instruction by faculty and more data-driven instructional decision making at institutions.

Psych-Ed Talks are a new webinar series by McGraw Hill designed to help circulate ideas in the world of psychology and teaching psychology. The next one will be given by Dr. Laura A. King entitled “The Art and Science of Survival during a Pandemic” on Friday, October 16, 2020, 2:00pm EDT/1:00pm CT. You can register here.

About the Author

Robert S. Feldman is the Senior Advisor to the Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He also serves as Senior Fellow in the Center for Student Success Research at the University. Prior to serving as Senior Advisor to the Chancellor, Feldman was Deputy Chancellor of the University, and before that he was Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as serving for a period as Interim Dean of the College of Education. Feldman also was the founding director of Power-Up for College Success, a first-year experience course for students at UMass Amherst. Before joining the central administration, Feldman was Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He also served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department and initiated the Research and Mentoring Program. Feldman also has served as a Hewlett Teaching Fellow and Senior Online Teaching Fellow. A Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Feldman received a B.A. with High Honors from Wesleyan University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Feldman is winner of the College Outstanding Teaching Award and recipient of a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer award. In addition, he was President of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) Foundation, a coalition of groups representing the behavioral and brain sciences, and is now a member of the FABBS Board. He is also Chief Scientific Advisor for GetSet, Inc. and he is Chair of the McGraw-Hill Education Learning Science Research Council Advisory Board. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Social Psychology Network, the United Way of Hampshire County, and New England Public Radio. Feldman has written more than 250 books and scientific articles. His books include The Liar in Your Life, Understanding Psychology, Essentials of Understanding Psychology, Fundamentals of Nonverbal Behavior, Development of Nonverbal Behavior in Children, Social Psychology, Development Across the Life Span, Child Development, and four versions of P.O.W.E.R. Learning: Strategies for Success in College and Life. His research interests include honesty, deception, and impression management. His research has been supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Disabilities and Rehabilitation Research.

Profile Photo of Robert S. Feldman