Post-Pandemic Communications

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Yesterday, with only three weeks of classes left before finals, a student asked me for help in another class. My “Do you need help?” – directed at the history research project we were working on – prompted him to unload the stress he was feeling about an asynchronous online science course for which he had never purchased the textbook because of a problem with his financial aid. My heart sank. I knew there was likely nothing that this student could do to salvage his grade in the course. When our class ended, we walked to the Advising Center to find someone who could provide appropriate advice. A short time later the student appeared at my office to say thank you. “I don’t ask for help,” he told me, “Because it feels as though I’m bothering people.”


I do not think this student is alone in his fear of asking for help. I belong to a Facebook group for parents of first-year students at the college that my son attends and there are regularly posts asking how to find tutors and advisors or where to locate electronic forms for add/drop. All of these, it goes without saying, are parents posting on behalf of their children. Perhaps they are being stereotypical “helicopter” parents, or maybe they are responding to the stress their children are emitting as they seek to navigate college, like my student, without asking the right people for help.


I’ve recently come to the rather cynical conclusion that if a student cannot find a quick answer on the College’s web site, they stop looking. In my experience since our post-pandemic (if that’s a thing) return to mostly in-person classes I see lots of staff throughout campus eagerly waiting to help students, and few students actively seeking out that help that they need. Case in point: Enrollment. Right now, we have several advisors stationed at a kiosk in the main part of our campus to assist students with spring course selection. And yet yesterday I overheard two students in my class complaining that they have no idea what to take or how to finalize their spring enrollment. Somewhere there is a communication disconnect.


Perhaps a side-effect of the pandemic is an over-reliance on the internet when a conversation between two humans could quickly and effectively address questions. In the case of my student, for example, he told me that he “could not find” his professor’s office hours listed online so he assumed she did not offer any. We talked through other steps he could have taken: review the syllabus, check the course learning management system for general information, and, of course, write an email to the professor. 


This experience emphasized to me how important it is to have direct communication with our students, even if we never meet in person. A weekly email to asynchronous online students, for example, can be a simple way to subconsciously remind them how to contact their instructor. Last night I double-checked my own learning management system pages to make sure that students can find me easily if they are stressed. A page with key links – tutoring/writing center, library, mental health resources, etc – should also be a standard component of any online course materials. 


What is your post-pandemic experience with student-teacher communication? Have you found any particularly helpful, low-stress ways to keep your students in regular contact? Please share.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.