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OU professors address impact of online learning, pandemic, lack of spring break on student mental health

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An illustration of fatigued students in front of screens.

In lieu of a traditional spring break this semester, some OU instructors are incorporating a break into their class schedule, citing increased mental-health-related challenges to online learning. 

Online learning designer and OU educational psychology teacher and research assistant Murat Turk said while the stress of moving to an emergency remote learning system has caused extra complications for students, the switch also affects instructors.

“I have some friends (who, at the beginning) were extremely stressed out and anxious about what they're going to do because they have never taught online,” Turk said. “(Online instruction) takes a lot of time and a certain period of design. The lack of preparation to teach online (due to the pandemic) is the core challenge faced by faculty.” 

Turk said one solution to dealing with mental health in the absence of a spring break is for professors to work in a break when designing their course. 

“(Instructors) don't have to look for a university decision — they can give certain short breaks in their course schedule,” Turk said. “Faculty should also create such opportunities, especially for this semester, where there is no official spring break, by making certain accommodations and modifications in our course schedule to create relaxation space for students.” 

Laura Gibbs, an online general education instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences, said even though students have been succeeding in her classes, she recognizes the issues in mental health that come along with a national pandemic, especially in light of OU’s decision to cut traditional spring break in favor of an extended winter break. 

“I was very disappointed to see that the university considers two random days off as the equivalent of spring break this semester,” Gibbs said. “It's a pandemic — we need more of a break, not less, but less is what we have been given.” 

Due to the absence of a spring break, Gibbs said she decided to give her students two break weeks from the asynchronous class to use at any time. She said, however, students are still reporting high levels of stress. 

“Students have been doing an optional anonymous ‘stress check’ in my classes, and every week I see students who are suffering from serious stress,” Gibbs said. “The university has not done a good job of checking in with students, faculty and staff about the challenges we face — doing a survey is easy, but it's like the administration really does not want to hear from people (about) what's actually going on in our lives.” 

Stephnee Hiserodt, a staff counselor and licensed clinical social worker at the OU University Counseling Center, said the effects of isolation have a large impact on mental health.

“Humans, whether they're introverted or extroverted, are social creatures,” Hiserodt said. “I've seen isolation affect relationships with roommates and partners. Even for ones that prefer living alone and are more introverted, the isolation has really taken a toll on mental health.”

The impact isolation has on mental health is shown in increased feelings of depression and anxiety, Hiserodt said. 

“People are not used to this type of isolation,” Hiserodt said. “And you think ‘Oh, if I got to stay home for the day, there's a million things I would want to do.’ But when it's day after day, after day, after day, it really becomes hard. That isolation leads to burnout, and boredom, and increased loneliness, depression and anxiety.” 

COVID-19 has brought such an increase of stress upon students that OU’s UCC decided to hire three new counselors to their staff, Hiserodt said.

Turk also said although some studies suggest online learning is as effective as in-person instruction, the emergency remote instruction techniques brought on by the pandemic led to underprepared professors and disengaged students. 

“In an online learning environment, you don't have the immediate instructor presence, you don't have the immediate instructor support, you don't have the immediate peer support (and) you don't have the immediate peer presence,” Turk said. “So these are some inherent challenges of online education.”

Gibbs said, as a long-term online instructor, changing the class structure can alleviate some of the challenges associated with an online format.

“Students have a lot of flexibility to choose when they do the work for class (in the online format),” Gibbs said in an email to the Daily. “So, for students who are dealing with pandemic complications, maybe having to self-isolate or quarantine, the flexible online course schedule accommodates all that. I've been incredibly impressed in all three of our pandemic semesters at how willing the students are to manage all the chaos in their lives while still doing excellent work for class, working hard on their class projects.”

Gibbs suggested the way courses are graded needs to change to better accommodate students experiencing pandemic stress. 

“I'm a proponent of a practice called un-grading, which has been gathering a lot of momentum lately, in part I think because the pandemic has exposed the unfairness of grading in even more dramatic ways than before,” Gibbs said. “Pass or no pass (grading) is a great alternative and one that is very appropriate in the pandemic. There were literally hundreds of schools which implemented P/NP grading in Spring of 2020 as a response to the pandemic.” 

Pass/no pass grading allows for students to mentally adjust to the stress isolation brings, Gibbs said. 

“Nothing is the same during the pandemic, and trying to pretend things are the same is actually harmful for everybody involved,” Gibbs said. “During the pandemic, P/NP is exactly the kind of flexible grading alternative that can help to alleviate at least some of the pandemic's impact on education right now.” 

Hiserodt said the absence of a spring break needs to be met by students, faculty and staff with what she described as a “self-care lifestyle,” meaning taking the time to eat healthy, watch a movie, read a book or relax in other ways. 

“When we're in this COVID world, we really have to think about (self-care) as a lifestyle, which means that when you are looking at your schedule, you're carving out space that you can use intentionally for (self-care) activities, Hiserodt said.

One of the keys to emergency remote learning and online learning in general, Turk said, is to simply communicate and engage with students.  

“We need to acknowledge that this is a very stressful period for students, Turk said. “Contact your students, check in to see how they are doing not only in terms of coursework but also as human beings. They want to talk about (what) is going on in their lives, and if they need some flexibility in terms of the course requirements … don't be hesitant to do that. It's not bad teaching — you are making accommodations to make your students' lives much more comfortable, especially during this stressful time.” 

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