Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon join us to discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges. Robert and Bonnie aretwo of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press.
After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator.
John: Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon. They are two of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press. After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator. Welcome Robert and Bonnie.
Robert: Good to be here.
Bonnie: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are: …are either of you drinking tea?
Bonnie: [LAUGHTER] I brought my lemon water. Can I still be on your show? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Well, they are two key ingredients of tea.
Bonnie: Yes, right. That’s what I thought.
Robert: And I brought my favorite flavorful herbal tea. Sweet and Spicy Original from Good Earth.
Rebecca: That sounds good. I’m sporting the Hunan jig again, John. That’s all I got. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I have a ginger peach green tea today.
Bonnie: Oh, that sounds delicious, too.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?
Robert: It actually started with me. And it’s hard for me to trace exactly when it started. But I’ve been out of the classroom on a full-time basis for a while. And when I got back in, I was amazed to see just how many students were flaming out and fizzling out by the end of the semester because of mental health challenges. And I’d sensed that this was an issue of increasing severity, but still seeing it firsthand, especially after a few years away, was really breathtaking, and got me thinking about the way that we teach and our course design decisions and what effects that might have on students and whether there were things that we as professors could do. So I ended up kicking off a semester-long faculty learning community exercise, we call them a “Think Shop” here and Bonnie was one of the members of that group. And I thought I wanted to tackle a book, and eventually as we got into it, I invited Steve Hunsaker, who’s not with us today and Bonnie to join us. And it’s been a marvelous collaborative effort.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who your target audience for the book is?
Bonnie: College professors, somebody like me, who didn’t come from a background heavy in psychology or understanding the psyche and to someone that loves mathematics… someone like me, who doesn’t really understand all of the details, but wants her students to feel safe in her classroom and have a safe place to study and to thrive and to be passionate about something. And so, yeah, so college professors, research or at our Institute, we focus on teaching but either kind of Institute.
Robert: So that said, our research assistant has now graduated and is teaching elementary school, and said she uses many of the ideas from the book. And they’ve been relevant even in a K-12 setting. I was thinking through how we probably, from a marketing standpoint, didn’t choose wisely enough… that really many of the ideas in the book would be beneficial to a student, even if their teachers choose not to do any of these things, they could still realize, “Wow, community matters, maybe I should try to connect with some people and create a study group, even if the teacher doesn’t facilitate that.” So I would say college students with mental health challenges and their parents might benefit from it as well,
Rebecca: When we’re running professional development, which is just another setting of teaching, those students might also fit some of these descriptions, too. [LAUGHTER]
John: Could you tell us a little bit more about that faculty learning community that this work began to grow out of?
Robert: A few years ago, we’d started a formalized faculty learning community exercise, we branded ours a “Think Shop,” but basically, it’s a semester-long effort where faculty from different disciplines come together and take a deep dive into the scholarship of learning and teaching or something that affects teaching and we exchange ideas. So we met every week, we each read different things, and I kind of facilitated that and led a discussion. So it was delightful to get to know colleagues better and to brainstorm and benefit from the different disciplinary perspectives. Bonnie, would you add anything to that?
Bonnie:Yeah, I am so grateful that I found that community. Not only are we hopeful that we’ll create a place where students can thrive, but I think it’s important for the professors that run these classes to also model this and to participate in these things. So having that community with other colleagues, especially right at the start at COVID, [LAUGHTER] was very helpful to me and my mental health. And it was just invigorating to learn new things and understand a whole new discipline that I had never studied before and to try and understand what’s happening. So I think it was an opportunity for me just to even model when I’m hoping that my students will do as well.
Robert: It turns out community is not just good for students from a mental health standpoint, but for faculty. For us, the timing was fortuitous, it came right on the front end of the pandemic. So at the time when people were kind of having to withdraw socially we continued it virtually, and it gave us some great community support.
Rebecca: It’s probably worth noting that you just mentioned that this conversation started prior to the pandemic. Certainly, our awareness around mental health issues have been raised and related to the pandemic, but these were growing issues among college students prior to the pandemic, for sure. Can you talk a little bit about why we’re seeing these mental health challenges so prevalent among college students?
Robert: It may be a cop out that we took in the book. But we basically said, what are the root causes of this? We’re not really sure, but we know they’re arriving, and that the problems are real. In fact, one of my fears, sometimes, with the conversations among some of our more hard nosed colleagues, when we talk about roots is that I feel they’re a bit dismissive of the symptoms, and think, well, people just sort of buck up, and if they’d put away their cell phones and move some pipe and work like we used to everything would be fine. I’m fascinated by the debates. And in fact, there was one item, we were going to include in Bonnie’’s chapter, and then a meta analysis came out that was contrary to the other studies that I’ve been seeing. And so we left it out. So I’m puzzled, intrigued, and have my own guesses. It’s hard to ignore technology and the way it’s changed society. So that’s certainly a controversial but leading candidate, but something has changed. There’s a little bit of people being more willing to go and get diagnosed, and maybe a little bit of change of measurement. But there’s some pretty good solid measurements, like attempted suicides or self harm, where it’s not just categorization, where we can see this is really snowballing over time. So our short answer is, we’re not really sure. But we know they’re coming to us with these problems, we are rooting for those people researching the root causes. And we’re kind of leaving that to others as we deal with the symptoms that we see in our classrooms.
John: We’ve always lost a lot of students along the way. And some of that seems to be related to the stress and anxiety that students experience. You describe in your book, the high-risk, high-stakes, environment of college. Why would that tend to increase the prevalence of mental health challenges for students?
Bonnie: So first of all, they’re just coming from maybe a secure place, high school, a place where their teachers were there, they knew them every day, they were very structured, and they knew their schedules, and then they’re coming to this new place to navigate. And it’s a whole new world. And so they’re on their own, their support system is not necessarily in place as they come into this new world. And it’s just like we said in the book about this petri dish just ready [LAUGHTER] for something to happen that does not seem normal or good. And so I think that the uncertain times of it, the deadlines that we put on them, maybe sometimes just not even having a friend. Some of these kids get isolated in their rooms, and they don’t see people for days, and then the teachers start to hopefully miss them. And I think that is part of where we can make a difference. And we were probably going to talk about this later, but when you think about the college experience, the teacher, the professor, is the one that has the most likelihood of seeing these students most often and most regularly, and when we don’t see them. I’m hoping that we’re alarmed. And like, “Where have they been for a week or two weeks or three weeks?” One day, I was in class, and I noticed one of my groups was conversing and that one of the students was really struggling to socially interact with these other kids. And he was just upset and mad. And the other three students were very uncomfortable working with him. And so I started to wonder what was going on. And I made a few phone calls, and one of the students asked me to please call the services on campus… I’m not sure what they were called back then, we’ve been working on this at our campus to get these services more upfront… but I think I ended up calling security because the kids were so worried about this kid, that he was going to be violent, that I ended up calling security. And so security actually had a program where they reached out to him, they went to look for him at his home. And the sad thing is that this kid never showed up to my class again. And so after that experience, I was like “What happened?” like do inform us of things going on. And I found out later on that he had passed away, and there was no details, there was nothing. And as a professor, I was like, “What could I have done?” I didn’t understand, I knew something was kind of strange, but I just didn’t understand, I didn’t have the tools, and it’s not our job to fix these things. But to be able to recognize something in our classes and get these students to places where they can get help. I think that’s something we can do, and it doesn’t go too far outside of the reach of our classroom. We’re trying to build curriculum, we’re trying to build awesome experiences that motivate students. A lot of us might say, we don’t have time for this when I have time to worry about the students outside of our classes. But it would have taken just a couple phone calls, and I know they did reach out. But I don’t know, I don’t know what happened to that student. But still, I feel like I can do something. Even if it’s small I can do something for one person. It matters.
Rebecca: I think the reality is that we often say we don’t have time yet we expend a lot of energy actually worrying about our students, or at least a good portion of faculty do, because they are missing or something seems not quite right and we don’t know what to do. So that energy is being expended whether or not we’re actually acting on it.
Robert: Yeah, in fact, I think there are a couple of false dichotomies to be aware of: one is I either do the stuff I’m supposed to do as a professor or I babysit kids with mental health challenges, or I either focus on being a high expectations professor who really helps students master the content or I just coddle them. And we find those both to be false narratives. For example, I now on the first day of class do things differently than I did the first 10 years. And I have students in teams, I make sure at least one person in the team has already read the syllabus, maybe taking the syllabus quiz, and then I have them show each other. First, I have them connect, get to know each other, share phone numbers, and then I have them show each other all the stuff. And once they’re all done, then I say, “Have you got any questions?” And there are usually relatively few. The dynamic on that first day is fundamentally different and better than it used to be and I get far fewer follow up emails and phone calls asking how to do something because they text each other, they know how to do it. So it’s a simple technique, that’s actually a great one, for helping our students who come to our classroom with some anxiety and wondering if they’re gonna have any help or be able to make any friends. And it actually takes me less time in the course of the next couple of weeks because of the fruitfulness of that investment.
Bonnie: Yeah, what if we could be better teachers, and help our students improve their mental wellness at the same time, and it didn’t take any extra time? Wouldn’t you want that recipe?
Robert: In fact, that’s why we went back and forth on the title, we really struggled. But we wanted to convey the notion that you don’t have to choose between improving learning and mental health, that really virtually every tactic we recommend in the book, we would recommend even to someone who somehow had no students with mental health challenges in their classroom. It just makes for better learning, they happen to also make life much better for students with mental health challenges.
John: One of the really nice things that I observed in reading through your book is that so many of the practices, as you said, are things that are recommended by people who study effective learning techniques. And one of the things you talk about is replacing high stakes exams with lower stakes activities. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Bonnie: Given a little bit away, I’ve been a student myself for the last two years. I took a sabbatical and went back to school. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: And what degree are you pursuing, Bonnie?
Bonnie: And so I love mathematics, but I wanted to see how math works inside of a nuclear reactor, so I went back to school in nuclear engineering. And so, [LAUGHTER] just coming fresh off of that, and having worked on this project with Robin, Steve, I’m like, ”oh, I have so many ideas for you guys about how you could help me not be so stressed out, and not so anxious today.” [LAUGHTER] They didn’t want to hear that. But I was like, “I have some ideas.” But one thing I think that I’m taking back to my classroom from that experience is choice. Like when my professors gave me choice, and they let me follow a path that I was passionate about, I was all in, I didn’t have to be pushed, I was pulled into that direction. And so when I think about assessment in my own classes now, like coming back, and I think about that final exam, and sometimes that is a high-stakes place, and very stressful, even all of our exams can be that way. So for my differential equations course this semester, and I have done this a few times before, I give a choice, of course, between a final exam or final project. And we start talking about this early on. And not all of them want the final project because it is a lot of work. But watching them light up, and to see that they could do something different than sit down and take a test for three hours.[LAUGHTER] It’s just so heartwarming to watch them, and it’s helpful to them. And I was telling Rob and Steve that I had one student that took the project and found something to do inside of his other classes he was taking, and he kind of connected them together. And to watch his passion and to see him come from the student that sat in the back row that seemed mad every day, [LAUGHTER] and when I mentioned this final project, he just lit up and I could see hope, and at the end of the semester, he couldn’t stop. Like I finally said, “You can get some sleep tonight, you don’t need to work on this every minute of the day.” It was just an amazing transformation to see purpose, help him come pull out of this. I don’t know if he was suffering from depression, but he was definitely down a lot in my class, and maybe that was the subject because mathematics tends to make people anxious sometimes anyway, [LAUGHTER] but just to see the turnaround. So I mean, I don’t know that we always have to put everything in one place, but we can give choice and let them kind of have some room to navigate their own way through our courses.
Robert: I should confess that I started from a pretty old school hard-nosed mentality. And that law school, it was a game I played well, so I thought it was a good game. And the in-class instruction, by the way, at my law school was fabulous. I still think that. But the course design, now I look back on that and I think a single assessment that’s three hours long at the end of the semester, and your feedback is one number. So I might have understood a few concepts really well and others really poorly. I actually have no idea. And for that matter, the professor has no idea how well the class is understanding things until she grades the final. She doesn’t have a chance to correct. If I were redesigning law schools, I’d say break it up into four tests. And then make it comprehensive. Give students the opportunity and incentive to fill in their knowledge gaps that they identify on an initial test or assignment. I’m just so embarrassed to admit that that, until I really studied for this and dug in and researched, really didn’t cross my mind. What happens when I give a test to students and many of them bomb it and we just move on. What am I hoping that they’ll learn? …to work harder for their next test? Well if those concepts were really as important and foundational as I claimed they were, I should be more concerned about finding a way to encourage students to go back, fill in those knowledge gaps. And so now I’ve softened up and I give them opportunity and credit, I still give them incentive to try to learn it right the first time, but I’d like to give them some incentive to go back and learn things they crashed and burned on the first time around so that they don’t get left behind.
Rebecca: You mentioned at the start of the conversation that there’s symptoms that we see, we don’t necessarily know the root causes, but we’re seeing the symptoms of various mental health challenges. And those symptoms impact student learning. So there’s a consequence to that. If we’re having anxiety, then we might be presenting that in a particular way. And then that’s probably impacting how learning is happening for us. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like? And then we can follow up with “How do we support students who are facing those challenges?”
Bonnie: I think, especially in my math classrooms, I see a lot of stress, anxiety, and the way that I saw it this last week… I’ll just tell you that example. So we were talking about filling in the learning gaps. I do a little bit of just-in-time review so that my students get prepared for class because I understand that when there are those learning gaps, it can be very intimidating to come back to a class and try and start over again. But then as you start to see their stress… and today, the student just started to get angry at something that was going on in my class. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, my last class, we got to use technology, and we got to do all these things.” And I’m like, “That’s okay.” [LAUGHTER] So I could see that he was stressing out. And he may even have… I don’t know… this was just the symptom, I think, of a deeper identity with him. Like he didn’t identify with math, he didn’t see this math, he saw this as something that he just needed to get through, and stressed people don’t do math very well. [LAUGHTER] And that might be true for other subjects as well. But some of the research I dived into showed that when you’re stressing out and the teacher is coming down on you that you can’t do math, so what are we doing in our classrooms? So I started to rethink things today and said, “What is the root cause of this? What is he really stressing out about?” And that was just a one time thing. But I think maybe you’re asking more about how we identify kids, it’s just not stress, but when they start getting depressed, and when they start having this anxiety. I mean, these are things I think sometimes that are harder to see, unless you’ve been there, or you had experience with that. So one thing that I will share with you is that when I had a situational depression, that was triggered really quickly, I was not prepared for it, I started to withdraw. And I started to come away from my life. And so I can recognize that more easily now, when students start to withdraw from their groups, communicating, or they start to miss class for two or three days in a row. Or they communicate in ways that you really aren’t socially kind, like sometimes they get mad. It’s not just madness, but sometimes they just become very withdrawn and apathetic. I mean, those things are normal for everyday. But if it continues for like two weeks or three weeks, then I start to say this student might be suffering from something that’s depressive or possibly anxiety. So I do look for things like that.
Robert: Let me just add to your question, Rebecca, anxiety, or stress can be a bit like the bull and pit. It can be advantageous sometimes. it can save our lives, when some adrenaline is needed, but in certain situations, and for certain people. In fact, it seems to affect different people differently. It’s very unhelpful in the learning process. So the consensus of the research that we saw suggested that maybe in short, occasional doses, it can be fruitful, but chronic and high doses, stress almost always interferes with the learning process. And then depression, it was just always bad, [LAUGHTER] we just couldn’t find anything saying this was ever helpful to the learning process. And there’s a bunch of physiological explanations for it. But, in fact, one thing to remember is, some of us do well, like I speak better, with some stress than without it. And so those of us who succeed in teaching as careers are probably people who dealt well with that anxiety and stress built into college. And it may make it difficult for us to understand and empathize with students who process that differently. And it may cause us to be just a little callous and say, “Yep, college is stressful, buck up.” But it’s helpful if I then think about how I sing a solo. I sing much worse than I sing in a duet or a quartet. And in practice, I sing better every time than I do in a public performance. [LAUGHTER] So in that area, I can see: “Wow, stress really undermines my performance.” So it’s just a matter of being mindful of how these mental health challenges, generally, when there’s too much of them and they last too long, almost always interfere with learning.
John: What can faculty do to try to create a more supportive but positive environment for the students, which will reduce extreme levels of stress and reduce anxiety which can interfere with learning?
Bonnie: So this is where I’ve been working,[LAUGHTER] coming back from my sabbatical and seeing and feeling the stress. I want to be more aware. And so some of the things that we researched and looked into, I’m starting to use more regularly in my classes. And so one thing for sure, and we hear this a lot, just as a regular teaching strategy is to learn their names as soon as possible when they know that somebody knows them, and somebody understands that they’re not there or they are there, it makes a difference. So this is our first week of school, and so I have put a lot of energy this week into taking those names home and learning their names. And I have an every day classes, this is day three in that class, and just being able to go up to them today and talk to them, ask them their name, their major, and even before class, I’m there trying to understand who they are, a little bit about their background. And so it’s important to me, it’s important to me when I was a student, that they knew my name, and that they knew I was Bonnie Moon, and that this was what my dream is and I’m hopeful that this will happen. And so I think that’s one specific thing that we can do. I realize that some teachers and professors have these huge classrooms [LAUGHTER] with 500 students. So, we’re very lucky here because we have classes between 30 and 50. And so we can learn their names in a couple of weeks if we work hard at it. So I’m very intentional at that at this point.
Robert: I’ll add another just in terms of messaging, we found when we did focus groups that students had had a variety of experiences with professors. So they were looking to read us, they’re looking to see what does this professor really think about my situation and do I dare go ask for a bit of flexibility if a mental health crisis arises. So I added two paragraphs to my syllabus, and I have yet to have anybody I felt like was trying to exploit it or take undue advantage of it. And I’ve had other students thank me who I had no idea had mental health challenges, and they didn’t have to use it. But they said, just knowing that I felt this way, put them at ease. I have this section on mental health challenges:
A growing number of students experience mental health challenges to varying degrees. Doing what you can to stay ahead and on top of depression or anxiety by wisely taking care of yourself will be a key to succeeding academically. But even then, sometimes these challenges can affect your ability to complete the required work. Or a particular assignment might trigger anxiety for you in ways that I’ve not anticipated. Or maybe you reach a point where you just can’t get yourself to class at all. In any of those cases, please come and talk with me, or at least send me an email. I’ll listen and do what I can to help. But the sooner you share your challenges with me, the more I can help. To learn the material and pass the course or earn an A you’ll still need to do every bit as much work as other students…
By the way, as an aside, all the students in our focus groups were not only fine with that, they wanted that. They didn’t want us just to write off assignments that they missed from two weeks that they were in bed with severe depression, continuing:
…but we may be able to find some creative ways to help you do that, especially if you approach me when your problems arise, instead of at the end of the semester.
I think I get a lot more students now willing to come in, my having made it safe through this provision, and let me know about their problems while they’re still in progress and we can still do something about it. Before I was getting a lot more coming in the last week, who were in a hole that was just so deep, I couldn’t, in good conscience, find a way for them to get a passing grade.
Rebecca: So the key is catching them before they disappear.
Robert: Yeah, I think doing some preventive things. So being proactive. We found some interesting studies about just mentors. And as students being less likely to commit suicide if there was an adult they felt like they could talk to about personal things if they needed to whether or not they had taken advantage of that. In fact, for almost everything, the leading intervention that we could find was improving that connection between professors and students. Whether you want to help more students graduate, more students thrive after they graduate, Frankly, even more students participate in class discussion. For all of those different outcomes, the single best intervention seems to be strengthening that connection. So we’ve shared some ideas in the book, and I might just share from our wonderful friend and colleague, Steve, who can’t be with us today, his thought. He says:
This takes me back to Uri Treisman and his amazing work. Treisman, who teaches at University of Texas-Austin tells his students they can succeed in calculus and that they belong, but he goes far beyond asserting that. He traces for students a mathematical genealogy in which they appear at the end of a long chain of ancestors that begins with Leibniz and Newton. He invites his students to meet with him on Saturdays for one-on-one conversations that may not be about calculus, but which are clearly about their success. The depth of Treisman’s heroic dedication to students astounds me, I may never get close to his level of commitment to his students, but I’ve taken a step in that direction by building one-on-one conversations with my students into the semester schedule. I believe that students understand that time is precious and that even 10 unhurried minutes of unscripted conversation about their plans, challenges, and dreams send a clear message about care and commitment.
So, that’s from Steve Hunsaker, our wonderful co-author.
John: So you mentioned both in your book and in the conversation so far that students do care about whether their instructors care about them. We’re not always very good at sharing that, though. I think most professors do care about their students, but that doesn’t always get conveyed. Certainly learning their names is one strategy. Meeting with them one on one is another strategy. And you mentioned, letting all the students know that they’re capable of being successful is one way of doing it. Are there other strategies that faculty could use to let students know that we do care about their success?
Robert: I’ll start with the baby one, if I might, and this one hurts, because even after presenting and teaching about it, I still catch myself doing this. I’m busy. So when I get an email that says, “I’m going to have to miss class on Monday for a funeral, is that absence excused? Or if not, is there anything I can do to make it up?” I tend to go right to “Oh, that is an absence that can be excused. You get three excused absences after that you can make it=…” And then once in a while, the thought will come to my mind, did you catch the word funeral in the email, they’re going to a funeral. They’re a person who’s going to a funeral. So I’ve tried to stop and say, “I’m so sorry to hear that someone you know and love has passed away? Do you mind if I ask who?” And they’ll email back, “It’s my grandma.” And I’ll say, “Tell me how has your grandma blessed your life? How are you like your grandma? What will you miss most about your grandma?” It takes me like 10 seconds [LAUGHTER] extra typing, but it converts what was a transactional email into a human email. So just to be human in our interactions with students, I think, goes much farther than we might imagine.
Bonnie: I’ll add to that. I think accessibility is something we can build into our lives as we look at our semesters, when we’re accessible to students, and we really do meet our office hours or we arrange to meet with them and that we make ourselves available. I think that sends a message that we care about their success and about them. But I think that’s something to do. I know that one semester, my stat students created a project, where they just said “Now are professors really in their classrooms, if they had a question? And so they went around campus during office hours and checked to see if professors were there. [LAUGHTER] And they had a great project. And they found out that their alternative hypothesis that professors are actually there less than they say turned out true. [LAUGHTER] So we had to do some work. But they cared, they care whether we care. So I think accessibility, and then the one thing I would add to that would be how we structure our courses, like we don’t have to go way out of our way to make this happen. We can restructure our courses so that we get the learning done. And actually, we can maybe even improve the learning as we restructure. So an example would be in one of my classes, I have a lab day built in. And it’s not a lab day outside of class time, it’s not asking them to go get in groups outside of class time, I actually create a lab day during the week that we come together and they get to ask questions, they can talk about the homework, they can work on their group projects, because I care that they have a life. I know my class is not their only class and meeting up with groups is difficult. And I care about that. And so I just build it into my curriculum. And so I do a few more videos, I do a little bit more writing so they have some things to prepare for class. If I don’t need to say it during class, I can put it outside of class. And then during class, we can use that time to collaborate and to foster relationships and to think about deep things and to get passionate about things. Because I’m there, the best time for them, I think, is with me. [LAUGHTER] I want them to be there and I want to be their tutor, I want to be the one that sees how they’re doing on their math problems. When they run into a hard math problem. I don’t want them going to the math lab, asking another student that’s at their same level the question. I want them to come ask me. [LAUGHTER] So I set up a day every week, and that’s what we’re going to do on Monday, it’s going to be lab day. And it’s kind of a nice breather after the first week, because I’ve kind of pushed them a little bit getting started, we get right into the mathematics. And then on Monday, we have a lab day, they can breathe and I can talk to them about how things are going, I can kind of assess how I’m doing with the teaching. And if I need to change things around for the next week, we can build it into our classrooms.
Robert: I’ve started using Calendly or then I moved to Bookings, but to make it easier for students to access me. And so it’s just anytime that’s available on my calendar, they can meet with me. And when they meet with me… I stumbled on this last semester… I’ve said have you got your phone with you? Of course they have their phone with them. Would you mind showing me a photo or two or a video that would help me better understand you. So this morning, a student shows me a fascinating photo of him and two friends and his snowmobile and a big hole that he’d gotten stuck in, and told me about his love for snowmobiling. I will remember him better and understand him better because of that. I’ve been amazed at the things that students have shared with me and how understanding their backstories changes my perception. I remember asking one student “Just tell me your backstory.” He said, “Well, I was abandoned by the side of the road, I guess because I had a cleft palate. And then I was in an orphanage until I was adopted.” He was in another country. Wow. This was a student who sometimes didn’t stop talking as soon as I would have liked him to stop talking after we’d done a small group discussion. I just saw him in a whole different light and was amazed by the things that he was accomplishing. So understanding students’ backstories, I think, helps strengthen that connection we have with them.
Rebecca: One of the things that I really appreciate about the examples that you’re sharing are that none of them are big time commitments. None of them are huge asks, but they’re cumulative when they add up, and they add up in a way that really demonstrates care, and then when I’m doing it, and John’s doing it, and Rob’s doing it, and Bonnie is doing it, then the student really feels supported.
Robert: That would be our dream, the more people who do these kinds of things, the greater the support network for our students. And you know, once in a while, we’ll do some things that we wouldn’t otherwise have done. On occasion, I will walk a student who is suicidal over directly to the mental health center, to the counseling center. And so it takes me five or 10 minutes, but at the end of the day, I feel like those were probably the most five or 10 important minutes of the day. Actually, that does remind me of one other thing. We’ve talked about connecting with the students, course design decisions, classroom tactical decisions, but we do play a role as gatekeepers. We’re in a position, not to provide mental health counseling, but to spot students in need. Students, when we do the kinds of things we talk about, tend to trust us. And then I’m surprised how many will describe what, to me as a layperson, sounds like depression, but they’ve never been treated for it, they’ve never seen a counselor. And so I just make the pitch. “Wow, I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve talked to many students with similar symptoms who’ve gone to the counseling center, it’s free here, and wow, they’ve gotten some great help, and let me introduce you to some other resources.” So just being that wise friend who knows how to connect people with resources, we’re in a unique position to do that, as professors. We may as well learn how to do it.
John: And I’ve noticed that students are much more receptive to that than they were 20-30 years ago, where there appeared to be more of a stigma associated with that. So reaching out that way can make a big difference. And I know I’ve been referring more students for mental health assistance on campus than I ever have before.
Robert: And we can contribute to that continuing evolution by making our classrooms a safe place by saying “I love to go out into the gardens and meditate periodically, I experience stress and sometimes get physical symptoms. It’s a great way for me to cope with my stress.” By just saying that, I’ve signaled to students that it’s okay to talk about it. Sometimes two or three weeks before the end of the semester, I’ll take a meta moment and say, “Hey, some of you have been here longer than others, what are some keys to not exploding during the final two weeks of the semester. Go!” A discussion erupts in which they’re remarkably candid, and they’re spot on. They talk all about things that Bonnie included in our chapter on wellness. But again, it makes it safe, and they get some good counsel from each other.
Bonnie: I agree. And when we bring that to the classroom, we actually are real, and say, “You know what? I do have some stress. And I’m probably a little overwhelmed right now. And I want to back off and love you guys and set some boundaries for ourselves too.” Like, “I’m going to check my email within 24 hours. But usually after six o’clock at night, I’m done checking email…” and let them know that you’re gonna take care of yourself too. And hopefully, they can see that that’s important to you, and they will say “I need to take care of me too.” And it’s okay to have those conversations and as you develop those relationships, you can be a little more candid and they will feel, I think, more free to come to you when they do have a problem if you’re honest and authentic and say, “Yeah, I’m a real person, like I actually have to eat [LAUGHTER] and take care of myself and I have a goal this semester.” I told my students, on Wednesday, we started, that I’m going to do the lazy woman iron. Is it like the iron woman?”
Robert: Yeah, the Iron Man.
Bonnie: Yeah, the Iron Man, and I said, you know, I’m not good at it. I want to get back in shape after COVID and Christmas. And I said, if I see you guys at the gym, that’d be awesome. Please don’t make fun of me. [LAUGHTER] But I’m gonna be on the treadmill trying to get my miles in, and in a month, I get to do an Iron man. I think I can do that. And it’s just fun to open up with them. And there’s possibilities as you’re studying hard, you can still take care of yourself outside of that, and as your professor, I’m gonna take care of myself, because I want to be good for you. I want to be healthy for you. And I want to be excited to be here tomorrow and the next day, and to do that I want to take care of myself too.
Robert: So promoting wellness practices, I think we’re uniquely positioned to encourage students to get enough sleep, to eat well, to exercise, without being preachy about it, and we’re vulnerable in the way that Bonnie just described. That could inspire a number of students to step back and think maybe I could incorporate more exercise into my daily routine.
Rebecca: Again, those are small things that don’t take a lot of time. It’s a small little conversation or a small little anecdote that you share to set the stage for wellness. So it’s not as hard as sometimes we imagined it to be.
Bonnie: I don’t want to overwhelm professors either, ‘cause it could get overwhelming thinking I need to do all this, but, like you said, one or two things can make a big difference. Just a simple thing that Rob inspired me with and Steve too, to talk about. We live in a place where it’s cold, a lot of the year, [LAUGHTER]…
Rebecca: … me too.
Bonnie: … lots of snow here in Idaho. Yeah. And so it can get a little depressing anyway, because of the climate here. But, I send a roll around to see who’s there every time because I do keep rolls, not for the grade, but just because I want to know who’s there. And I say, “If you’re here I want to know, if you’re not here, I want to know. So I send the roll around, and I sent a question around yesterday about what are some fun things you can do outside in Rexburg, like when you need a break. And so then they write their name down and give ideas and so we send that around and it’s super easy. I didn’t have to take any time out of class for that. They signed up and then the other day I asked, “So, what’s your favorite comfort foods?” just kind of get to know them and show that you care about them. But it’s like a super easy way to take care of things and to inspire them to maybe do some wellness that week. [LAUGHTER] And think about those things that they might not be thinking about.
Robert: Rebecca, you have mentioned this a couple of times that it caused me to look up a quote by one of my mentors who happens to be the father of our current university, President Henry B. Eyring. He talked about how small changes can often have a big impact. And he said, “The best place to look for small changes we could make in things is in things we do often. There is power and steadiness and repetition.” And if we can lead by inspiration, or intuition, if you will, choose the right small things to change, consistent change will bring great improvement. So really, there are some things that we suggest, that if they were to change from one final at the law school to four different tests, and then a comprehensive final, that’s a bigger change. But much of what we advocate in the book is something that you can do quite simply, and much as I love many coherent systems of teaching, they intimidate me, like Project Based Learning, it sounds really cool, it’s just been a bridge too far for me. I just haven’t been willing to make the huge investment, it feels like I would need to make to switch my course over to that all the way. On the other hand, I could show up to class a little bit early and sit next to a student and get to know her, see how she’s doing, and connect with her. That’s a small change I can make.
Rebecca: Related to mental health, one of the things that many of our colleagues have certainly noted and there’s been many articles in The Chronicle and other places about this is the idea that students seem pretty disengaged right now. They’ve survived multiple semesters of COVID and other world complications and seem disengaged. Sometimes they’re doing the work. Sometimes we’re seeing students disappear. Sometimes they’re in class not doing anything. Sometimes they’re doing stuff outside of class. It looks different depending on the students. But there’s this general sentiment of disengagement. How do we help students feel engaged or reinvigorate their energy around learning?
Robert: Let me try three concrete ideas and then I think Bonnie might have some as well. First, at the risk of beating a dead horse, the more connected they feel with us, the less disengaged they tend to be in our classroom. I noticed when I sit next to a student and chat a little bit before class, that student who has not made a comment all semester, a good chunk of the time they will volunteer a comment for the first time. It seems to be a strong correlation there. Another thing that I learned in researching this book, and we did a survey of our students, one of the things that causes the the most anxiety was when the course was moving on, the class was moving on, and they felt like they didn’t understand something. I heard Sal Khan at a talk at Stanford say that the problem with the monolithic approach to higher ed or to education in the United States is that we kind of assume everybody moves at the same speed. So we did a test on chapter one, which is learning to ride a bike and a bunch of students get a C or a D or an F, and then we move on to riding a unicycle in chapter two, and we’re surprised when they fall off. We’ve given them no incentive to go back and master bike riding first. Just this week, I had a conversation with a student who’s a family friend, he grew up in our neighborhood, and he’d struggled. He said, “This is my redemption semester.” He was going to do some things differently. And I said, so here’s what to do differently, especially in your math class. When you get a poor score on a test, try to figure out what things you didn’t understand and go watch Khan Academy videos, or go to the TA or the tutoring lab, and figure out what those things are. I happen to be here on campus last night, and I saw him at about 8:30 when I left, and he had been watching Khan Academy videos, and said this was transformative. It really hadn’t crossed his mind before to fill in the gaps. But what happens I think is if that train leaves with students not on it, they then get disengaged, they’re lost. So if we can build into our course design ways and incentives for them to master what they don’t initially master, I think they’ll remain more engaged.
Bonnie: I agree with all that, actually and thanks for bringing in mathematics.[LAUGHTER]
Robert: Always given you a nod when I can.
Bonnie: I could always use some advice and some help there too. But I wanted to add to that… I guess, maybe emphasize… the importance of that connection, and choice and passion. sometimes we get a little dispassionate with our lives, or we’re going in a direction, it just seems that’s not really where we want to be. And as a teacher, it’s an opportunity to get to know kids, find out what their passions are, and maybe help to see some of that passion in your course. And I realize this might take a little bit more time, but sometimes it’s worth it. When we think about our projects and I find out the students majors and maybe a little bit about what professors they’re also working with, sometimes I can tailor a project to them, like I talked about before, and the students can come alive. At the same time. I think we need to be realistic too, some of these students might not really be disengaged, they might be overwhelmed. They have a job outside of your class. They have another 16 credits they’re taking. They may have other family and things like that that they’re working with. So it might not be about you [LAUGHTER] or your class, it might be about all these other things they’re dealing with and we could try to give good counsel as advisors and mentors and invite them not to overbook themselves. It’s not about how fast to get there but about the journey and as you go, you can try those things, but sometimes, they’re just overwhelmed and they can’t do your class too and do it well and everything else. So, sometimes I do ask my students do you really want to take my class this semester? [LAUGHTER] I’d be happy to see you next semester, but maybe you do need to cut out something because the disengagement might be actually something else.
Robert: In fact, I’ll throw that out too. I try to proactively by the second or third of the week of the semester, now reach out to my students who are falling behind in terms of their grades. Most of them are falling behind, not only in my course, but other courses. And so now I try to counsel them a bit more holistically, not just get my assignments done, it’s “So tell me a little bit about your approach. How’s it compared to what you were doing in high school?” Nobody’s really, especially if you’re a first-generation college student, nobody’s explained the rules that in high school, you could get by with very little homework. And in college, it’s flipped. You’re supposed to spend much more time doing homework. I talked to one student and asked him how much he was studying every day and he said an hour. He said it proudly. I said, “No, I mean, like, for all of your classes, and he opens up his calendar, he said, “No, I’ve got a study hour every day.” And I said, “Oh….oh, oh, oh, did you know it’s supposed to be two hours for every credit hour, like if you’re taking 14 credits, you should be spending 28 hours. Think of it like a job, you want to put in like 40 hours a week. This was an epiphany. I think he was a first-generation college student. Somehow nobody had made that clear to him, and he was failing in almost all of his class. So when we’re proactive, reach out to struggling students early, we often find that they’ve got other issues going on, or just haven’t figured out the rules of the game for college life and how to succeed. And that can cause anybody anxiety.
John: One of the things you suggest in your book is that people consider exploring QPR training. I know we have that on our campus, and we recommend that faculty participate in that. Could you talk just a little bit about that, and what its role may be in dealing with students who face more severe challenges.
Robert: So for me two big takeaways are that just as if you were playing soccer, and a friend crashed into somebody, and you could see the bone sticking out, you would say, “let me help you go to the emergency room.” You’re not a doctor. But if they say, “No, no, I’m fine.” You say “I see the bone sticking out. I haven’t been to medical school, but that seems like a bad thing.” Let’s get you into the car in to the doctor. So just knowing that it’s okay, I think sometimes we feel like it’s illegal for me to engage in counseling. Therefore, I can’t say anything at all about this. So that QPR is kind of a twist on CPR that just as if there are no doctors around and someone’s had a heart attack, it’s helpful to have a civilian do CPR, It’s helpful if I’ve got a student in my office, who I can tell as a lay person and with a little bit of training, wow, they’re struggling to get out of bed. And so now, the other thing I came away with from that is, it’s okay for me to ask “Are you feeling suicidal? Have you had thoughts of taking your life? Have you got a method?” Let me take you to the counseling center, and then just kind of spot. And then the other big takeaway for me was that studies show if they will promise you that they won’t take their life without calling you, people are much less likely to take their life. So I wouldn’t have felt comfortable or thought that was appropriate before I took that QPR training. I found that it’s made me feel like a lay clinician, and it’s alright for me to talk about those things. And now, over the last three years or so, I’ve taken several students who are suicidal to that counseling center. In fact, in a church setting, I was talking about this, and a young woman who was a leader in her congregation texted me that Sunday night and said, “Would you walk with me tomorrow?” She was a leader. She knew exactly where the health center was. She didn’t need me to show her. But she wanted someone just to walk her over there. And I asked her before we went, “Are you feeling suicidal?” And she was. So just to be that friend who can connect people in dire need with mental health professionals is a critical role that I think any of us can play in any walk of life, but especially as teachers.
Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer.
Robert: Thank you.
Rebecca: I was looking enough just to make sure I had it right. [LAUGHTER]
John: And the training tells you what questions to ask including, “Are you feeling suicidal?” and then persuade them to get assistance and refer them to the assistance, including walking people over when needed.
Rebecca: I know that when I went through the training, I quite literally used it the next day. So it’s a useful thing to take the time to learn. And it does give you the tool set or the toolbox to feel like you can engage when necessary.
Robert: It probably gets your antennae up too.
Robert: You might have spotted that thing before but I think I’m more likely to spot some things now, to see disengagement that’s kind of come on quickly to the student in class or absences and reach out.
Rebecca: Or maybe to act on the thing that you spot that you weren’t quite sure of.
John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”
Bonnie: So next, I’m going home. [LAUGHTER] I can answer this so well, and eating the dinner that my husband, I think, made for me [LAUGHTER] after this first stressful week of the first week of school because he knows I’ve been so intentional this week about trying to be there for my students. I’ve worked long hours this week. I haven’t taken care of myself as much as I want to. So I’m going to go home, take care of myself this weekend, and hopefully, on Monday be refreshed for my students and I’m so excited to keep using some of these ideas and becoming their friends. I love working on my classes because I feel like we’re friends, and it’s only been three days, but I can’t wait to see my friends on Monday and I hope they feel that teamwork and that team that we become, I think, as we become a team throughout the semester. Some of these things don’t come up as often in my class, I don’t see the stress as often as they feel that teamwork. So I think the next thing for me is just to continue to work on being a good team member and creating this team that I want to see this semester… after I get some good dinner and a good night’s rest. [LAUGHTER]
Robert: I’m glad you at least include a good dinner because I feel like my answer is very selfish [LAUGHTER] compared to your selfless outward facing answer. But my career’s been unusual. I’ve spent about half of my time at BYU Idaho in academic leadership. And so just in the last couple of years have been able to dive in and research and write about these things. I’d kind of like to go speak to people who are interested in hearing about this, do workshops together with people who are learning how to improve this. I also helped teach a course that I designed and have team taught for the last six years with a couple of colleagues here for our new faculty. It’s a semester-long course. And so I’ve recently written a textbook for that course. That’s kind of all the stuff we think new teachers should know. I think we’re calling it Architects of Learning. And so I’ve got that to a point where eventually I’ll pursue publishers, figure out how to get those ideas out there as well. But build on some of the kind of the same stuff that’s laced through this book about just being intentional about the decisions we make in our tactical classroom decisions and our course design decisions can go a long way to improving learning.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciated getting to know you and your work better and sharing it with our audience.
John: While we were able to see an advance copy of this, we are wondering when the copy will be released to the public. Mine is on preorder.
Robert: Yes, so it’s preorder and it’s March or April, West Virginia University Press has told us. So we’re looking forward to that actually getting out there soon. And we’re so grateful that you would have us on your show. We love connecting with kindred spirits who care about teaching and learning and education can do to make people’s lives better. Thank you.
Bonnie: Thank you.
Rebecca: Thank you
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.