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In my opinion

A professor asked her students how they were coping. Here’s what they said.

With the pandemic upending their lives, many students are feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed.


In the mad dash for Canada’s universities to become places of online learning in a matter of days, I have read about the struggles many professors are having with this shift. It is not a struggle that I personally experience because I have been using online learning features in my classes for over a decade. But, for those of us who have not, and those of us who teach subject matter that is difficult to assess or teach online, there is certainly a steep learning curve.

Amidst my social media meanderings, I see seminars being held on Zoom (often with cameo appearances from family pets or small children), readings being discussed in online forums, exams being rejigged for weighting or turned to papers, and professors wondering how to combat cheating in an online world. I struggle with the ethics of this supposed “business as usual” perspective when there is certainly nothing normal about our current circumstances.

And what about the students? They were forced to leave student residences abruptly. Many work on the “frontlines” at the grocery stores and other essential services that will not close. Most are taking full course loads that were all just hastily put online. How are they coping?

I cannot assume everyone is OK. I cannot carry on with assignments like the situation is a minor inconvenience. The first week of this, I assigned a historical reading on school closures during pandemics and the good that they did in containing viruses. It seemed relevant to the subject matter in our course and students seemed to find it useful, even encouraging. At least that’s what they said in the online forum.

However, last week I couldn’t bear to make them read. I just asked them to tell me (anonymously if they wished) what they wished we understood as their professors. I asked their permission to share their views.

Here are some of their responses:

… this entire situation has created a lot of stress for most, if not all students. Not only have our family, social and work lives been affected but our school lives as well. Everything has now been shifted online, due dates have been changed, marking schemes altered, and some courses are being graded on a pass or fail basis. All of these changes for a full course load can become VERY overwhelming for students.


… being stuck indoors all day, our motivation to do work has gone down significantly. Many of us also do not have the proper working environment at home, especially if there are other family members around. Despite being able to work in our rooms or in an office area at home, there are still many distractions.


… I’d like to remind profs is that a lot of us have moved back home with our families and there can be a lot going on. Everyone’s household is different, and it can be a struggle to find time to sit down to study or even have a quiet place to focus since campus and libraries are closed. There’s also a lot going on with the world around us that we are trying to keep updated with. So, it’s quite difficult to balance school online, family and the world around us during the pandemic. Please also keep in mind not everyone is great with online learning.


… I know we are all going through this experience together, but I think some professors need to be more lenient. Yesterday I saw a tweet that said, “Oh you’re going through a world pandemic? No problem here are 3 exams, 2 projects and a lab report due this week plus you have to teach everything to yourself goodbye.” I haven’t read something more accurate. I know professors are trying their best, don’t get me wrong, but there needs to be a greater sense of understanding as students handle stress differently.


… A very close friend of mine does not have internet access where she lives and used to go to the nearest Starbucks or library that provided internet for her. She is now struggling and had to decide to stay in her student house by herself during this time so she would have the resources. Some students do not have resources because of their location or due to their financial status.


… the one benefit of being stuck at home should be less distractions, thus easier to work. However, I cannot focus. I’m concerned about my safety, my parents’ safety, the well-being of my peers, my unexpected new-found role of “living with parents and unemployed.” … I can’t focus. I can’t sleep. I can’t think straight. Amidst all of this I have six courses to complete which decide if I graduate or not, with final assessments all due around the same time. … I’m really stressed out, and scared.


… Some students also are being indirectly affected by having their daily routine interrupted and this can cause a lot of mental distress as well as physical. There are people who are isolated from their family and friends. There are students who are in precarious living situations, especially students in residence.


… It’s not easy to focus on schoolwork which seems so trivial compared to what is happening outside our houses. … The uncertainty makes it difficult to carry on normally.


… I appreciate that it’s not fair for teachers to simply pass students without them meeting eligible criteria, however when these criteria were established, there was no assumption that we would find ourselves as we do now. I think students would benefit from extensions past the standard time frame submission of marks. I fear many students would not feel comfortable sharing these feelings with professors in light of gaining a poor reputation among their assessors. They simply take the late marks or reduced grades as the way things shook out because of the pandemic.


… The first few days of quarantine, I found myself greatly disoriented as though my brain went foggy. I am not close with my roommates and have been in my room for days now without social interaction or routine, and have been feeling very down and lonely. … There is pressure to be extra productive now that I am doing nothing else but work. However, the past few days have proven to be the least productive ones yet this year.


… We are moving back home to take care of loved ones, having to change our social and academic environment within a day’s notice, and are still having to keep up with the rigorous nature of academia. Another important note is that many students are going through financial hard times, many families are going through layoffs … I wish that professors understood that the current problem for students isn’t just the curriculum change, all aspects of our lives are changing and it’s incredibly hard to manage all of the work they have assigned while trying to adapt to a million other changes.

I guess none of this was terribly surprising to me. I think we have all been trying to rush this in the hopes we can finish the winter term without our students falling ill themselves – at least not yet.

Listen to your students. Let them access you in different ways – don’t insist on a single form of communication, allow for emails, calls, online messaging, if you can. If you have hundreds of students, this is not possible, I realize. Rethink if that massive final paper is really necessary. Maybe a short reflection piece would be just as useful? I don’t have all the answers – I just wanted to give the students a chance to tell us what they thought we should know.

This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, at GatewayCities. The original article can be viewed here.

Karen Robson is an associate professor of sociology at McMaster University, where she holds the Ontario Research Chair in Educational Achievement and At-Risk Youth.

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  1. K. Loepelmann / April 8, 2020 at 17:09

    Is this a surprise? Aren’t we as instructors going through all of these same things? Stress–check. Motivation–check. Stuck inside with family–check. Overwhelmed by work/email/discussion forums/information overload–check. Isolation–check. Pressure to keep up with work–check. (And, in Alberta, looming job cuts–check.)

  2. ACRVK / April 9, 2020 at 01:34

    This is the comment that stood out for me “There is pressure to be extra productive now that I am doing nothing else but work. However, the past few days have proven to be the least productive ones yet this year”.

    Guilty as charged as a parent of two kids at universities far away… i have caught myself saying … “well, you have nothing else to do” … when they tell me are stressed about their work but they aren’t doing much.

    And here i sit working from home as an academic librarian wondering why students won’t use the e-resources available because they prefer the library!

  3. Elsie Froment / April 29, 2020 at 13:55

    Institutions should also be aware that they have immune compromised students for whom physical isolation will continue to be a necessity. Going back to the classroom will not be viable fit for everyone.