How psychology teachers can model behaviors to support student learning and wellbeing

19 May 2022 1:34 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Amanda Cappon & Lynne N. Kennette (Durham College)

In 2020, the global pandemic (emphasis on global) hit the world. Here we are in 2022, still dealing with the global pandemic. Two weeks to flatten the curve has become 2+ years of global uncertainty, which has necessarily found its way into our classrooms. The role of teaching has changed for us all and has involved numerous instances of pivoting. But the reality is, people prefer routine and predictability; we find comfort in cycles of repetition and being able to plan for the immediate and more distant future. Yet, the pandemic continues to require that we adapt and modify our ways of doing things, because public health orders and institutional policies are constantly changing (and often without much notice). Operating from an internal locus of control can be helpful for both faculty and students because it means successes and failures are rooted in our own abilities rather than these ever-changing external factors (Corey et al., 2018). But that is only part of the solution.

This article seeks to highlight some new (and some perhaps not-so-new) strategies you can model to support student learning and wellbeing while teaching online (though many of our suggestions will also apply to in-person learning). Additionally, we will consider how uncertainty can impact teaching and learning.

Embrace Interruptions

Can you relate to the following? Your three-year old is home from daycare due to a runny nose. You have a 2-hour live class. You set your kid up with snacks and stream a show that you hope will keep their attention long enough for you to teach your class. But, 15 minutes into class, your kid interjects. “I have to poop!” Loudly.

While technology provides us with excellent options for managing self-disclosure when teaching and learning online (see Kennette & Lin, 2021), there are still inevitable pitfalls which we may sometimes encounter. Instances of children and furry friends appearing on screen are becoming the new norm. An online search for “bloopers in online teaching” will confirm this. Yet, as educators, messages of “classroom management” and of “maintaining professionalism” or “minimizing self-disclosure” can conflict with this new reality. And so, an uncontrollable situation (such as a child requiring toileting assistance during a live class) can throw us into a spiral of self-doubt with self-effacing emotions and anxiety. If we take an external locus of control perspective where the situation controls us (see Wang, Bowling & Eschleman, 2010), we may find ourselves wondering why this sort of thing always happens to us. But maybe instead, we can reframe this disruption as a teachable moment for our students.

For example, the toileting scenario above is relevant to the developmental chapter which you may have already taught (or may be teaching soon). After all, toilet training is a complex developmental process (de Carvalho Mrad et al., 2021) whereby the child needs to be attuned to their physiological needs and to be able to communicate that they need help in the bathroom. Similarly, discussing our own physiological response to the stressor (i.e., engaging the sympathetic nervous system) can also relate the at-home interruptions to your course content.

These interruptions also provide you with an opportunity to model for students how to cope with unpredictable stressors. For example, you can acknowledge your own sympathetic arousal and then try deep, slow breaths to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Ultimately, this demonstrates that we all encounter stress and have to find ways to deal with stressors, but also that we can get through it. Students may even appreciate a quick coffee break while you deal with the interruption from your uninvited side-kick!

As another example of embracing online interruptions, you may have furry friends at home who tend to demand your attention the moment you sign on to teach your online class. When a pet appears in your live online class (or even your asynchronous recording) without an invitation, instructors could take advantage of this opportunity to review some classical or operant conditioning concepts and terminology (assuming your pet is conditioned to do something easily demonstrated!). Or perhaps you use the opportunity to model some ways to minimize distractions when they occur such as putting on your headset, or getting closer to the computer to focus your field of vision onto the screen. These at-home interruptions are one of the unique differences we are all experiencing in comparison to the traditional pre-pandemic, in-person classroom. We can choose to panic about these scenarios or embrace them as teachable moments and as opportunities for our students to get to know us a little bit better and to build a stronger rapport (which we know is more challenging in a fully online course).

Include Mindful Moments

Mindfulness has been trending both as a topic of research and in practice in the last decade or so. And for good reason. The notion of being fully present in the moment and “paying attention on purpose” (Williams et al., 2007, p.54) is practically a health requirement these days. Emails, social media notifications, and learning management (LMS) communications are just a few examples of the daily barrage of electronic information that students (and faculty) constantly receive. On top of this, many of us are emotionally and/or cognitively depleted from ongoing decision-making (and revising those decisions as situations change) and from contending with conflicting views on pandemic-related topics such as masking and vaccination. And so, both faculty and students can benefit from the positive psychological and physiological outcomes associated with mindfulness practices (Chiodelli et al., 2000; Zenner et al., 2014). Many teachers at all levels, including K-12 and higher education (Chiodelli et al., 2000; Zenner et al., 2014) have already incorporated mindfulness into their classrooms. But, when educators are faced with external pressures themselves (such as pivoting to emergency online learning), how do they continue to practice/include mindfulness? And more importantly, how can they encourage their students to engage in this wellness practice? Often, self-care and wellness practices are the first to fall off our to-do lists. Here, we share three types of mindfulness practices which can be applied in any teaching context.

Meditation

Dedicating a short, manageable chunk of time (e.g., 1 minute) at the start of your class (face-to-face, live online, or asynchronously) to complete a mindfulness meditation sets the tone for the learning ahead. It models parasympathetic engagement and provides a hands-on experience for students to feel what we mean when we describe the interaction that exists between our biology and our psychology. This is a concrete way for our lessons to become real for students. This practice can also be used in the middle, or at the end of a class to aid in student “digestion” of whatever you are teaching or to break up some heavy material such as a unit on prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Awareness Through Education

For some faculty, implementing mindful practice may not seem like a natural fit either for themselves or for their class content (e.g., it may not relate to the content as seamlessly in a statistics course). For others, implementing a mindful practice may only be an initial step in this process, with a supplemental step being the addition of a comprehensive course learning outcome requiring their students to also understand the benefits of the practice. We have found that TedTalks are a great option to connect students to the benefits of mindfulness, even if the practice doesn’t directly connect to your course content. Amishi Jha (2017) has an excellent 18-minute TedTalk on taming your wandering mind where she posits that “I think, therefore I am distracted” which demonstrates the importance of understanding that we are all fallible and therefore the need to integrate empathy for ourselves into our practice of mindfulness. This particular TedTalk is especially appropriate for students of psychology because, as a neuroscientist, Jia explains the benefits of mindfulness from this perspective.

Mindful Social Media Breaks

Yup, you read that right- we’re suggesting that you allow breaks so that your students can use social media in the classroom (but in a mindful way). We know that when students- teens and adult learners in particular- are in class, whether online or in person, they are also likely to be logged in to various social media platforms. Since this is the reality, why not roll with it? To embrace the norm of this generation of learners, try the following mindful social media activity. At a point in your lesson when you observe your students to be disconnected from learning, pause whatever you are doing and explain that it’s time for a mindful social media break. Frame this break as a mindful activity, explaining that you have noticed their distraction. In doing this, you’re demonstrating not only your own mindful awareness, but also modeling an appropriate response. Decide on the length of the social media break before you start. Allow students to access their social media platforms, but encourage them to check in with themselves and really focus on their thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they scroll through the posts. Ask them to focus on any physiological sensations (ex. heart rate, breath) that are changing while they scroll through the online content. Students may be able to reflect on (or become aware of) the positive or negative effects that social media has on their physiological or psychological wellbeing. In addition to these benefits, the point of this activity is to demonstrate that mindfulness comes in many forms. Mindfulness really is about purposeful attention. This example helps to integrate purposeful attention into the reality of our students’ lives, rather than trying to compete with or fight against this reality.

Structure and Consistency

Because so many areas of life are stressful and unpredictable (and this was true pre-pandemic), providing consistency for both students and for yourself is important. The strategy we suggest here is to try to create a basic flow to your course delivery which can be kept consistent even if (or when) the delivery mode changes. This consistency will provide some stability. This can include using the same slide background and/or a consistent order to the lesson. For example, each class meeting might look something like this: mindful meditation, review of the previous class, overview of the current class, (mini content chunks, break, practice/review pre-break content, more mini content chunks), time for summary of current class, evaluation-related questions, and finally an exit ticket like the muddiest point (on an online board like Padlet or using Google Docs or Google Forms). In this case, the structure can remain consistent regardless of delivery, and students have clear expectations for what will happen during the class.

With more online teaching and learning occurring, there has been an increase in the promotion of various online tools. Many can add value to your lesson and to student retention or enjoyment of their learning. But, we caution instructors about getting caught up in the excitement of these new tools and to really consider the pedagogical purpose they might serve. It is easy for educators to get carried away in the excitement of using multiple new tools, technologies, and platforms. But for our students, it can feel overwhelming, especially if, in each of their courses, they have to learn multiple new tools/platforms. As instructors, we sometimes feel overwhelmed learning one new tool, so imagine how our students would feel having to become familiar with many simultaneously. To this end, creating a basic structure as we have suggested above and then implementing the consistent use of one or two tech tools, enables flexibility where needed but also provides some much-needed stability in a world which has been full of uncertainty. In this case, simplicity and consistency can be the keys to our students’ success.

Conclusions

In psychology, our instructional skills and course content lend themselves well to many practices which can benefit students during these stressful and uncertain times. Modeling the use of meditation, consistency, and embracing the instances when life interrupts our practice are all ways in which we can better support our students.

References

Chiodelli, R., Mello, L. T. N. D., Jesus, S. N. D., Beneton, E. R., Russel, T., & Andretta, I. (2020). Mindfulness-based interventions in undergraduate students: a systematic review. Journal of American College Health, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2020.1767109

Corey, G., Corey, M. S. & Muratori, M. (2018). I never knew I had a choice: Explorations in personal growth. Cengage Learning.

de Carvalho Mrad, F. C., da Silva, M. E., Lima, E. M., Bessa, A. L., de Bessa Junior, J., Netto, J. M. B., & de Almeida Vasconcelos, M. M. (2021). Toilet training methods in children with normal neuropsychomotor development: A systematic review. Journal of Pediatric Urology, 17(5), 635–643. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpurol.2021.05.010

Jha, A. (March, 2017). How to tame your wandering mind [Video] TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/amishi_jha_how_to_tame_your_wandering_mind

Kennette, L. N., Lin, P. S. (2021). Healthier at home. Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/remote-benefits

Wang, Q., Bowling, N. A., & Eschleman, K. J. (2010). A Meta-Analytic Examination of Work and General Locus of Control. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(4), 761-768. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017707

Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal Z. & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. Guilford Press

Zenner, C., Hermleben-Kurz, S. & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603


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