From longer holidays to compassion in the classroom: Supporting U of T students during COVID-19

Earning a university degree isn’t easy – and this year the challenge is made more difficult by a global pandemic that has forced students to dramatically alter the way they live, study and socialize.

That’s why University of Toronto President Meric Gertler recently extended the winter break by one week to Jan. 11. for students in first-entry undergraduate divisions and some graduate and professional programs.

“It’s prompted by the fact that we’ve all been under an extraordinary amount of stress for months now, because of the burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a letter to the U of T community.

“The entire leadership team across our three campuses cares deeply about the wellness of each and every one of you. We want to make sure that you’re able to rest and recharge, and to make the most of the upcoming holiday break.”

In light of the added pressure COVID-19 has placed on students, Micah Stickel, acting vice-provost, students, is also calling on faculty to double down on kindness and compassion.

“This is a unique time for everybody,” he told U of T News, adding that the university has been listening closely to students through consultation sessions and surveys.

“The message that we shared with everybody is to focus on care, compassion and flexibility.”

In practical terms, Stickel says that means opening up a pathway for honest communication between students and professors while paying close attention to the demands that students are facing in their lives.

He recommends a healthy balance of large and small assignments so students don’t have to juggle too many bite-size assignments – or worry about a single, large assignment that could make up the bulk of their grade.

Overall, the time spent in class and on work outside a class should be in the ballpark of 10 hours per week, per course, he says.

“That’s our ask, but obviously there’s some flexibility there,” he said. “Generally, the message is to think about students’ experience not just in your own course, but in all the courses that they’re taking.”

Professors across Canada can get tips for supporting student mental health from the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health. And, to ensure that faculty, staff and librarians who support students also take care of their own mental health, U of T offers a wide range of resources and supports.

Since the pandemic began, professors across U of T’s three campuses have also been sharing their experiences with each other online and in webinars organized by the Centre for Teaching and Learning, offering advice on how to re-think assessments and assignments and examples of how to lower stress and improve learning for students.

“The biggest thing that I’m doing differently this year is having a “radical generosity” policy for extensions,” Kathy Liddle, assistant professor, teaching stream, in sociology at U of T Scarborough, told the Centre for Teaching and Learning. “Students can get extensions on anything for any reason, without any documentation and without penalty.

“My decision was based on the fact that my priority is for them to learn the material, but I don’t want to tie the assessment to their ability to turn in something by a particular time. Especially this year. They don’t have to ask for the weekly quiz or the weekly discussion post – I just leave them open and then they catch up as necessary. For assignments, I have them contact their TAs to ask for a specific amount of time so that they are making a specific plan for themselves. But we accept every request.”

Liddle says “the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation from the students has honestly been overwhelming.”

Fiona Rawle, a professor of biology and the associate dean, undergraduate at U of T Mississauga, coined the phrase “the pedagogy of kindness” to describe her teaching method, which also emphasizes communication, compassion and flexibility.

In her biology course of more than 1,000 students, she aims to foster connections within the class and bridge the “divide” between student and teacher.


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