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Redefining Student-Centered Education During a Pandemic

Creating a student-centered learning experience online means creating outlets for students to voice concerns, offering mental health services in light of increased stressors, and taking care of yourself so you can better care for your students. 

With the pandemic keeping college students out of the classroom and off campus, many institutions are asking themselves, how can we be student-centered if we don’t even know what’s going on with our students? We recently hosted a webinar to share the major challenges we’ve heard students talk about this semester, and ways in which our organizations—Lakeland Community College (Kirtland, OH) and Persistence Plus—have worked individually and in tandem to address those challenges. 

Lakeland and Persistence Plus have partnered since 2017 to bolster student success via a marriage of behavioral science, mobile technology, and on-campus efforts. The strength of our partnership allowed us to tap into students’ hidden barriers with the onset of the pandemic and keep their experiences at the center of our interventions and programs. Lakeland has used its human-centered design thinking approach to reach out to students, listen to their concerns, and offer resources. Meanwhile, Persistence Plus has refined its approach to mobile nudging by examining thousands of open-ended responses shared on our platform since March by students at two- and four-year institutions nationwide. There are three major issues that emerged from the students’ responses to nudges: online learning, burnout, and mental health.

Dissatisfaction with online learning

“Online classes have been tough. Looking to change an online class to hybrid. The fact that after Thanksgiving it will all be online. I understand but it just makes it hard for everyone, I’m sure. Just lots of adjusting.” – Lakeland student

It may come as no surprise that many students are still unhappy with remote learning, despite knowing full well that they were signing up for it this semester. Lakeland students have struggled with this adjustment, and Persistence Plus sees those same struggles happening across the country. While Lakeland students have expressed feeling isolated from their peers, the global view afforded by Persistence Plus’s data indicates that students, above all, miss connecting in person with their instructors. That distance from faculty has induced a sense of abandonment, often encapsulated by the phrase “I feel like I’m teaching myself.” We know how important those mentoring relationships are for student retention, and those connections are difficult to foster in a virtual environment. Furthermore, students, like most of us, have serious screen fatigue. As the semester wears on, more and more students report to Persistence Plus being unable to focus on classwork and needing more time away from computers.

Lakeland has worked diligently to develop programs that reduce the stress associated with navigating online learning. First, Crash’s Camp for Remote Learning, named for our college mascot, is a 5-module video course with advice on online courses from Lakeland students and faculty, strategies for success, and ways to stay organized. Lakeland also hired a Remote Learning Concierge. Just like a hotel concierge who can assist you in navigating a foreign city, Lakeland students can contact the Remote Learning Concierge for help navigating online courses. On top of providing necessary resources like computers and internet access, the Concierge talks about what it means to be a successful online student, from time management to online communication skills.

Meanwhile, Persistence Plus has increased its focus on supporting students through the challenges of remote learning. One nudge that has resonated with students is advice-giving. Based on research conducted by Dr. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, giving advice to others often helps the advice-giver as much, if not more than, the receiver. Thus, the Persistence Plus platform asks students to share advice they would give to others dealing with their same challenges. Tips around effective study spaces, help-seeking, and time management reinforce those lessons to the advice-giver and motivate them to stay on track in their online courses. All of these on-campus, remote, and mobile interventions are informed by what students have told us they need to be successful in online learning.


“Between the work I have for classes and my part time job, I am so burnt out. There is no time to relax or just breathe.” – Lakeland student

This student’s message echoes the feelings of students nationwide, who are still adjusting to a new mode of learning while working, taking care of their families, and supporting their children’s education, all against the backdrop of a pandemic and social and political unrest. Moreover, many Lakeland students have suffered job losses and have been directly impacted by COVID-19—with either themselves or close family members contracting the virus. These circumstances have led many to express feelings of overwhelm and emotional exhaustion—in other words, burnout.

As described in the mental health literature, burnout is a multi-faceted impairment, part of which concerns a lack of control and low self-efficacy to accomplish one’s goals. Because students cannot (or should not) stop moving toward a credential, going to work, and taking care of their kids, time management techniques can boost their sense of efficacy and control. For example, corporate employees who blocked off two hours each day to work on important tasks were 14% more productive and felt 9% less overwhelmed. We can encourage students to take this strategy even further: schedule finite increments (e.g., 15-minute blocks) in which they will study, work, prep food, even do things like meditate, have a Zoom call with mom, or catch up on The Queen’s Gambit.

Making detailed schedules can go a long way toward easing burnout, but we all know by now that life doesn’t care about our plans, which is why psychologists recommend the mental contrasting technique. For example, if a student has blocked off time at 9:00 PM to complete their online math quiz, they should consider what could go wrong (e.g., my son won’t get to sleep, the internet is down) and create contingencies (e.g., I will finish during my lunch break the next day). It’s impossible to anticipate every obstacle but planning for the most likely scenarios has been shown to increase the likelihood that people follow through on their best intentions. Most importantly, these time management techniques are adaptable for each student’s unique circumstances.

Mental health

“I can’t do anything because I’m depressed” – Lakeland student

Given that students are completely burnt out, it’s no surprise that they’re experiencing feelings of depression and anxiety at levels never seen before. Students were left emotionally vulnerable by the spring: 33% reported anxiety, depression, or both over the summer, and 63% reported worse mental health since the onset of the pandemic. As one Lakeland student put it: “The stress of school and not having another outlet to enjoy life caused a lot of frustration for me. I started to walk in the park and around my neighborhood to release the toxic energy, all of these negative thoughts in my mind.”

Lakeland works to ensure that any student facing mental health challenges can readily find help. The CARES Team is prepared to mobilize quickly when concern for a student is raised by a faculty member, student navigator, or via the Persistence Plus platform. All of Lakeland’s student counselors who typically help students with their academic and professional decision-making are also licensed mental health counselors, and Lakeland also has a campus psychologist on staff. That psychologist has also engaged faculty in ongoing training on signs of student distress and techniques for stress management. Moreover, faculty members have included valuable mental health resources on their syllabi and course websites.

On the Persistence Plus platform, we’ve doubled down on nudges that express caring and give students a safe space to emote. Decades of research on expressive writing show that people who write in detail about their negative emotions handle them better in the moment and show improved long-term mental health outcomes. College students, in particular, demonstrate lower levels of depression and better academic performance when they engage in expressive writing. These interventions are easily translated into texting, through which students tell the Persistence Plus platform what’s bothering them most at that moment and share their feelings about that stressor. Nudges then encourage them to continue this practice (something also being reinforced by Lakeland faculty) and connect them with counseling resources as appropriate.

Our encouragement for you

While we’ve talked a lot about students’ dissatisfaction with learning online and their struggles with mental health, we acknowledge that you, too, are likely dealing with similar challenges. Just as we do for students, we encourage you to leverage any and all resources at your institution to take care of yourself. We know you’ve done Herculean work to keep students engaged and enrolled, but your efforts will only last as long as your strength holds out, so do be good to yourself.

As the pandemic rages on, spring 2021 is shaping up to look a lot like fall 2020. Going forward, use whatever means you have—text messages, phone calls, social media—to really listen to what students are telling you about what they need to keep going. Above all, keep moving forward, and don’t let yourself get discouraged. You may think that because you sent a student a message and received no response that it was a meaningless exercise, but you just never know who you’ve touched. As Lakeland students shared with us in fall 2020, sometimes even a small nudge can have a big impact:

“I like when you send me kind, motivational messages.”

“I loved that it honestly helped me stay accountable for my schoolwork and grades, and it helped me overall in my grades as a result.”

“You’re someone who actually texts me back. You know what, you’re a cool robot to talk to <3”

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