What do we do when students despair? Considering pedagogical caring

I graded my strategy students’ first position/reaction paper late last week. As is usually the case on the first one, students do quite poorly, not making the conceptual leap from summarizing the contents of the article to which they had to respond, to making supported judgments about the article’s assertions. It’s a complex learning process, and as such I offer extensive handouts and scaffolding to lower their anxiety level. While the mean score is usually a low ‘C’ on the first paper, one student simply.. how should I say it.. bombed the assignment. “Bob” [not his real name, and he knows I am writing about this] did not follow any of the directions for either content or structure, and appeared to have no grasp of the assignment’s intent.

What I have learned over the last three years is that my students would rather me contact them privately before they get their assignment back and let them know they have done very badly, instead of being blindsided when getting the assignment back with their peers. This is true even when I contact them on a Friday, and they might stress out about it all weekend before the assignment is returned in Monday’s class. After emailing Bob with the unhappy news, he replied with this message:

After hearing what everyone else did I actually came home ready to drop the class because I did not feel like I understood at all…When everyone else talks in class, I feel like I am not on that level.

So, we set up a meeting. I also have a policy where students may re-do the first assignment to make up half of the missed points, an opportunity Bob gratefully accepted. In his last email to me on Sunday, he wrote this:

I wrote my new reaction paper yesterday and would like to turn it in for half credit on Monday. … Thank you for caring and not just giving up on me.

Now, lest you think I am typing this while standing on a self-congratulatory soapbox, let me say I have come quite late to the student caring party. You’ll note that it’s been only in the last several years that I alert students to very poor performances beforehand. It’s also only in the last several years that I have added other pedagogical caring behaviors  to my student engagement repertoire, including contacting students who miss several classes to see what’s going on, talking one-on-one with them about distracting classroom behaviors that are causing alarmingly fast drops in their Professionalism scores, or sharing difficult feedback with them to which they are obviously blind in the Johari sense.

I am not proud of this fact, and could offer you multiple explanations for it that served for years to support my non-engagement: as a strongly typed MBTI “T” I am reflexively not terrific at considering the impact of my classroom practices on students’ psychosocial learning processes. In teaching adult students, I had never believed in following up with them about things that were firmly their responsibility, like contacting me if they had any sort of problem. And lastly, I just didn’t want to spend precious time bringing up a topic with a student that could result in a long conversation—I had writing to do!

How far should we go to assist a student in distress? What is my ethical responsibility as an educator to help a student connect to our classroom learning? During my subsequent conversation with Bob, I realized the problem went well beyond flunking one assignment. Sitting in a classroom and being paralyzed by an inability to either understand or contribute to the conversation is a daunting and terribly isolating experience. [Trust me on this: my doctoral seminar in micro-economics still haunts me] I find Bob is emblematic of other interactions I have had in recent years, in that, today’s students are an odd mix of andragogical and pedagogical orientations: they have significant life experiences germane to course material they want to share, and yet, they still look to me for assurance that they can succeed, that they’re not the only one who has struggled.

A dear friend and colleague co-wrote an article  that has had immense influence on my student caring behaviors. Tom Hawk, with co-author Paul Lyons, gathered data over six semesters to ascertain how students experienced a lack of faculty caring behaviors. Their provocative article, “Please don’t give up on me: When faculty fail to care”  could force us to be present to how we don’t care for students when we recognize our own behaviors on their lists: we show a ‘complete disregard for whether or not I  got the material..’ or, ‘ignored me for the remainder of the course even though it was clear that I didn’t understand the material..’ Hmmm. Guilty.

How do we determine when to engage with student distress, and how do we do it most effectively? The robust and growing ethical decision-making and ethical behavior literatures indicate that all sorts of variables moderate our ethical intentions, reasoning, and ultimately, behaviors. What is clear, however, is that behaving well starts with awareness of an ethical situation. Another of the Ethicist bloggers, Lorraine Eden, suggested a classic strategy framework  that I agree could be very helpful here as we consider how to respond to student distress—Awareness of the problem (not always obvious!), Motivation to assist (it matters why we in fact engage), and Capability to help as the situation demands (we have to be able to reasonably assist with that student’s particular needs).

In my scenario, the student’s dismal assignment performance was my first Awareness clue, and a relatively simple probe made it clear that Bob’s issue was more holistic than just that one assignment. Student struggles may not be so clear, as is the case with the increasing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning home and finding repatriation a daunting, bewildering task. Domestic violence victims, too, tend to take pains to make their misery invisible to outsiders, as I have unfortunately seen with a handful of my female students. Awareness means we have to deliberately be alert to potential issues that plague certain groups of students, and not accept the status quo as OK. It also means we have to participate in sometimes emotionally difficult training, like being present to what post-traumatic stress syndrome might look like in practice.

Maybe the most unsettling part of the A-M-C framework in this context is the Motivation aspect. Why, ultimately, am I helping? Do I like this student a bit more than others? Would I help another student who I find kind of annoying who had the same problem? Am I hoping to deliberately manage my way to better teaching evaluations? Am I thinking that my intervention here will fundamentally boost this student’s ability to learn in my class, and maybe even in his entire college suite of courses? Students pick up on our insincerity in a heartbeat, and their antennae ferret out our instrumentality when we help for the wrong reasons.

Finally, we need to assess the extent to which we can reasonably assist with a student problem—our Capability. Returning again to my scenario with Bob, I was clearly able to help, and it was my role to be proactive in doing so. Years ago, I had a student whose sibling died, sending her entire family into a paralyzing spiral of denial and pain. When she came to me to discuss her options for passing the course, it became a counseling session I was not qualified to conduct. I knew I was out of my league of expertise, and so in that case, continuing to “assist” would have been unethical for me. Thankfully, our student counseling center was available, and I remain grateful to this day that they took over for me.

Our Capability to assist is also impacted by the sheer number of students we may have any given semester.  My courses are small enough where managing individual student needs is workable; what about the huge 300 student lecture courses, where we don’t interact with students personally? While perhaps we could monitor individual student grade patterns, it would be pretty much impossible to engage in caring in the same ways as with a 25 student seminar. What might caring look like in these mega-courses? Ultimately, what’s in your assistance toolkit, and what’s not? Honestly assessing our own skills is critical.

I have experimented with caring behaviors after I understood that some of Tom and Paul’s students could have been talking about me. The results of my little experiments leave no doubt at all as to my power to fundamentally change a student’s experience from negative to positive, from disengagement to immersion. Consider this comment from a student who added my course late, into the second week, and was obviously struggling with course norms and expectations.

At first I didn’t like her teaching style but she took interest in me and drew the best out of me which in turn created interest from me in the class and has resulted in a great experience. I will choose her as a professor in any classes she offers that I need in the future.

The “before” Kathy would have seen that he was struggling, but not spoken to him, since that was HIS responsibility to come to me.  The “after” Kathy spoke to him after class in week three, alerting him to several course policies he was violating to the detriment of his entire course grade, and encouraging him to modify how he participated in the class.

This is still a process—I don’t have this all figured out. And it is still a very conscious, cost-benefit calculus for me to decide to have these conversations. There have been, however, zero instances where my caring behavior toward a student was for naught, where I did not notice a dramatic change in performance, attitude, or both. What’s clear to me, for better or worse, is that I can no longer blissfully deflect obvious student distress under the guise of students’ owning their own learning experiences.

I invite your comments and experiences.

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Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

2 thoughts on “What do we do when students despair? Considering pedagogical caring”

  1. I’m struck by the pre-alerting approach you’ve developed. This semester I’ve begun decoupling qualitative feedback-most developmental comments on papers from quantitative feedback (a.k.a. the grade) which is accessible via our course management system Moodle. This allows the first interpersonal point of contact to be on the comments and not the numbers. It also provides a level of confidentiality for the students who may feel pressure to “share.” This certainly takes a bit more time and as you infer it seems that caring and efficiency are not always comrades. Are there other strategies you and others have found to utilize technology to provide “caring” and developmental feedback that are also efficient?

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