By Kayleigh Schiesser
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
Is it a secret college is hard? No. Add some Zoom classes and hybrid classes to the mix, the inability to see friends and go out to let loose on the weekends after a tough week full of assignments, papers and exams, not being able to play sports with teammates, not being able to meet new people as a freshman because they are couped up in their dorms - that makes college even harder.
Imagine being 18, 19, 20 right now. The additional academic and mental stress this semester has placed on college students is astronomical. They have been forced to be glued to their screens for the past three months, causing headaches, strain on the eyes – overall just making them absolutely exhausted.
With the end of the fall semester approaching, check on your fellow classmates, your sons and daughters, anyone enrolled in college. They have had a rough go of it this semester. Professors, too. Fall 2020 has not been ideal, as most people can attest to.
Niagara University has put in its best efforts to make sure this semester could be as normal as possible, for professors and students alike. However, there have obviously been many changes, as well.
Bernadette Brennen, an academic adviser in the academic exploration program, gives her take on how advisement has changed throughout the course of this semester, saying how advisement sessions are now through Google Meet in order to be able to practice social distancing.
“I’m grateful to have Google Meet because we can still see each other without masks! It’s not the same as face to face, but it is a good tool in this situation,” Brennen explains.
Professors have also had to undergo numerous changes in terms of how they will teach their class in an online setting.
Alexander Bertland, an associate professor of philosophy at Niagara University, teaches his courses synchronously online through Zoom. He teaches his classes this semester as he would any other semester, but the downfall for Bertland is the “blank screens.”
He allows students to make the choice to either turn their cameras on or off during lectures, but many students prefer the off option, which concerns him because he has “no way of seeing how the students are responding or if they are paying attention.”
“As it stands, there are too many students who are just blank screens to me who I suspect have not heard anything I have said,” Bertland says. Receiving class participation is also more difficult when cameras are off for his specific courses.
As far as assignments go, Bertland believes they did not change that much from the classroom setting to online. Yet, he has made some adjustments.
“To compensate for the difficulties in getting class discussion going, I am trying to put more comments on the assignments to engage in some sort of conversation,” Bertland explains. “My classes always featured some sort of daily writing assignments for the students to evaluate how they are doing the reading. I am putting much more effort into commenting on these to try to build an exchange of ideas. It is tiring to grade all those short assignments every class … but I think it is having a positive effect.”
He also explains what he would do differently if he had to teach synchronously online again, saying, “I would try to use discussion boards or groups or something to put students in contact with each other to create some sense of community. … I might also make mandatory Zoom meetings with me to talk about the student’s performance. Perhaps I could use that to motivate more students while also seeing how I could adjust. … I am hoping I never need to teach this way again though.”
A lot of pressure has been placed on professors this past semester to make sure they are doing right by the students, and they are definitely feeling the stress.
Bertland says teaching through Zoom is “taxing” on him. He explains, “When I ask a class ‘Did you follow what I said?’ that is sincere. I am really trying to figure out if I need to spend more time on a point or not. Since it is harder for me to get class participation on Zoom, I do not get the sorts of responses I am used to there. … I have little idea if I am pitching the material at a level students are following.”
Before class, Bertland even tends to ask his students how they are doing, which is not asked often.
Megan Frawley, a sophomore at Niagara University in the academic exploration program, says professors could have done more as far as offering more understanding for late assignments, holding more review sessions, or offering to talk if their students needed it, but she adds, “I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that from them.”
“They are going through this situation the same as we are and they are in a leadership position which is likely to provide even more additional stress,” Frawley says. “I think their plates were full enough and we don’t give them enough credit.”
Kevin Wojcinski, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice at NU, agrees.
“It is something new for everyone and everyone has had to try and get used to it. …” he explains. “I think my professors did a great job.”
He goes on to say how some professors adjusted their classes to be more lenient on assignments, however, “Others carry on like nothing has changed which makes it very hard to learn. …”
Wojcinski continued by saying if professors were to space out their work a bit more, it would have caused less stress on their students.
Stress. A word that has been used more on a college campus this semester than every other semester combined.
Students have been stressed beyond belief, affecting them both academically and mentally.
Frawley says finding the motivation to do her schoolwork has been a real challenge over the course of this semester “due to a lack of normalcy.”
“My motivation usually stems from the happiness and joy I experience by doing things outside of classes. I have not been going out very often. … Many things I used to participate in are not taking place,” she says.
Paying attention during Zoom classes allows students to lose their concentration by distractions around them outside the classroom setting, which Frawley says is the hardest part about Zoom.
Brennen says many students find online learning to be a real challenge, causing them to drop or withdraw from courses or the semester completely. While some students do prefer the online option since it allows “flexibility and freedom,” many find it extremely difficult.
“I’ve heard the comment, ‘I can’t teach myself this material,’ too many times to count,” Brennen says regarding how students are performing academically this semester.
Bertland explains it is up to the students to set their priorities and take time to study, but he also finds the importance in his and other professors being encouraging. The problem is he is unaware of how much stress students are truly going through. He is finding the balance between compassion and objectivity to be fair to the students while also following the syllabus, but having limited information on students’ well-being is difficult for finding this balance.
The academic exploration program has been going above and beyond this semester to try to help students through this mentally exhausting time.
Brennen explains, “We’ve been reaching out to all of our students sharing the resources on campus, offering to meet with them regularly, picking up resources from a faculty’s home and bringing them to campus since they were in isolation, working closely with the Academic Success Center to strategize about ways to help get students engaged.” The list continues. The students are sure to appreciate all they have done for them, and their work does not go unnoticed.
Mental health has drastically changed due to online classes and COVID-19 as a whole. The stress it has brought about has caused many sleepless nights for students and allows limited time to engage in outside activities.
Brennen shares how she leaves her meetings “feeling an overwhelming sadness after talking with the students.”
“They say things like, ‘I don’t even feel like a student here this semester. … I don’t want to do this next semester.’ Freshmen say things like, ‘I don’t know any better, but the upperclassmen tell me I’m really missing something. … I’m doing as well as can be expected during this challenging time,’” Brennen explains.
Frawley says the workload for her classes has been “piling on” and with this comes an increase in stress.
“My mental health has been at a fairly low place. Trying to keep up with work has been difficult because of this and not having as much support and understanding from professors has not been easy,” Frawley says.
Both Frawley and Wojcinski share the ways in which they have been coping with this stress. Frawley likes to use the little bit of free time she has to run. Wojcinski finds listening to music to be his “No. 1 stress reliever … even if it’s just for a few minutes.”
Niagara University has acknowledged the struggles both students and professors have gone through, so they have planned a mental health awareness week from Nov. 16-20. There will be mental health awareness workshops, mental health first aid responder training and more. They find it important for people to know they are not alone during these stressful times.
NU has also added mental health days to the spring 2021 academic calendar after seeing the trouble students have gone through to maintain their grades. Giving students days throughout the semester to focus on themselves and take a break from the constant screen time and homework seems to be the right way to approach the coronavirus situation.
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