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Saturday, December 03, 2022

Stressors brought by the COVID-19 quarantine have made classes a struggle for UW-Madison students and professors alike, but also created new recognition of the campus community.  

Zoom-ing through Spring 2020: Students, professors share struggles in adjusting to online class

Rachel Alsbury, a senior graduating in May, was shocked when UW-Madison dropped the bombshell classes would remain online through the end of Spring 2020.

Like many other UW-Madison students, Alsbury went home for spring break only to return to Madison, move all her possessions out of the dorm and head back home for online class. 

When the university made the decision to suspend face-to-face instruction for the second half of spring semester, both professors and students were forced to figure out how to continue teaching, learning and maintain some sense of community while thousands of miles apart.

“I think the biggest issue for me is that we aren’t just dealing with the pandemic,” Alsbury said in an email. “There are all the issues and challenges that came before, combined with the major changes and influences from the pandemic.”    

Challenges and adjustments in teaching, learning

Living at home — where it’s crowded and she has limited space to work — has proved to be stressful for Alsbury.

Professors have had their own challenges too, according to Dr. Christian Castro, director of Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence. 

MTLE is a fellowship program for assistant professors to help them become successful educators. Castro teaches a class of 40 such faculty which went online in March along with all other courses. 

The class format also shifted its focus from teaching course curriculum to becoming a supportive space in the transition to remote instruction.  

“[Professors] talk about how the last week went and issues that they encountered or successes that they had. Troubleshooting together is a great process to talk about addressing teaching challenges,” Castro said. 

At first the problems they addressed were mainly technical ones — like how to record lectures and the pros and cons of Blackboard Collaborate versus Google Meet. Alsbury explained these technical challenges occurred on the student side as well — whether in awkward FaceTime sessions to work on group projects or calling professors on the phone. 

However, as the semester progressed, there was a new emphasis on assessing student learning and staying sane, Castro said.

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Academic flexibility: A new normal 

For Castro’s class, this took the form of using the first 20-30 minutes of their meeting for the professors to share with each other their individual struggles in a safe, supportive environment. 

“Really attending to the mental health of instructors because if you’re not in a good place with yourself, you can’t extend that flexibility and kindness to your students, ” Castro said. 

He emphasized professors are working to normalize the stress — both academic and otherwise — brought on by the past months for both themselves and their students. 

“Some of the biggest struggles have been technological issues during class periods and financial strain,” Alsbury said, recounting the time she thought she’d submitted her paper but the WiFi went down.

Professors are taking glitches like Alsbury’s into consideration in a broader shift towards academic flexibility during COVID-19, according to Castro. 

“The conversation shifted to ‘What does it mean to be fair in this environment?’” Castro said. “These decisions about how to grade students, how to extend flexibility to students, really shifted to a more individualized, case by case basis.” 

Professors are also trying to consider students’ varying levels of social and financial capital, he added.

Alsbury is currently working as a child care provider for essential workers, and said her job has negatively impacted her academics.

“My school time has definitely been interrupted. I am doing my best to balance it, but it is hard,” Alsbury added. 

In addition to losing a significant amount of money she would have received from her campus job as a house fellow in the Chadbourne Learning Community, the shift online also separated Alsbury from a positive work environment.

“I loved my job. I was surrounded by other house fellows and residents … it was a really supportive environment,” she said. 

While she’s begun to adapt to a new normal, Alsbury still finds juggling the number of things she has going on at the same time distracting.

Lost in isolation

Castro acknowledged how the loss of human connection can have a negative influence. 

“There’s something to be said about the spatial nature of a classroom, and how that creates a community no longer present in the virtual space,” he said.

As a result, professors are unable to read the nonverbal cues of their students that help in gauging understanding and engagement. The experience of learning and being together is gone. 

Additionally, both Castro and Alsbury explained how the stress of isolation can lead to mental health struggles, and Alsbury pointed out the lack of mental health resources available to students remotely.

Alsbury said the loss of her normal campus experience has been the hardest part of online school.

“I just miss how independent my life on campus was,” she said. “And since I’m graduating, part of me feels like I am missing out on the opportunity to truly experience closure and end the semester surrounded by the people I have come to know and love over the last four years.”

Amid all the adjustments, Castro said he has noticed “an awareness of the struggles of their fellow human beings” among his assistant professors and their students.

“I wish that we are more proactive, as faculty members, about making ourselves vulnerable with our students,” Castro said, pointing out the often adversarial relationship between students who feel that professors aren’t being fair and professors feeling that students are lazy or don’t want to learn. According to Castro, this has quickly changed.  

“For the [professors] that I’ve supported, their humanity levels and awareness of the struggle of fellow human beings, specifically their students, has gone through the roof in the most positive and heartening way that I’ve seen ever in my career,” Castro said.

Likewise, Alsbury expressed feelings of support from her professors and family and hope in her relationships with her friends.

“I have to be more intentional with reaching out to friends and building on relationships. It can be challenging at times to coordinate, it is comforting to know that just because you aren’t on campus anymore, doesn’t necessarily mean that the community goes away,” Alsbury said.  

“We have such capacity for really coming together in powerful ways that I think we just hadn’t appreciated before,” Castro added. 

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