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.
Megan Frederickson, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, made a point of checking in with her students – all 1,933 of them – in the final class of BIO 120 last week.
“I always tell my students their grades are not a measure of their worth as a human being,” Frederickson told U of T News. “They’re so focused on getting high grades and there are so many wonderful students who are not going to be high-achieving in terms of marks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to go on to do amazing things with their lives.”
To help keep students engaged this term, Frederickson delivered lectures from locations across the city, including ravines, museums and the zoo, in a series of pre-recorded videos that could be viewed asynchronously. In her last video, sitting at her kitchen table, she thanked them for their patience and good humour and spoke about how tough the year has been for everyone and how much she hopes to eventually meet them in person.
“I really do hope that you’re taking good care of yourself and your loved ones and your communities – and I really genuinely think that is more important at this moment in time than getting a high grade in BIO 120,” Frederickson says. “So I wish you good luck on your final test. But remember it is just a test.
“It’s not the most important thing in life – or even in your university career.”