Belonging, connection and ‘culture of overload’ challenge student success during pandemic

Belonging, connection and ‘culture of overload’ challenge student success during pandemic
Monday, April 12, 2021

In December 2020 and January 2021, the Division of Student Affairs hosted two virtual Student Feedback Sessions to give undergraduates a space to share personal, open-ended feedback on their holistic UNC Charlotte experience as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stemming from conversations in the Student Success Working Group, this multidivisional initiative empowered faculty and staff to hear students’ experiences, feedback and opportunities for the spring 2021 semester.

“In planning meetings with Academic Affairs, we realized that students were being surveyed about specific experiences they were having, such as remote learning or student involvement, but we had not stopped to ask students how they were doing overall,” said Emily Wheeler, director for the Office of New Student and Family Services. “In creating the Student Feedback Sessions, we were better able to understand the full impact that the pandemic has had on our students, which helps faculty, staff and University administrators to make decisions that better support our students.”  

Ninety-five students participated between the two, one-hour sessions. In each session, students were welcomed and provided the purpose of the event prior to moving into smaller breakout rooms. Each breakout room was facilitated by one Student Affairs staff member, as well as one colleague from another University division. Twenty-eight faculty, staff and administrators facilitated the Student Feedback Sessions, took notes and shared actionable items for spring 2021.

“Students were asked about three primary topics — belonging and connection to campus, academics and the impact of COVID-19 on their UNC Charlotte experience,” Wheeler said. “These discussion topics were chosen to give us as University administrators better insight into what our students are experiencing during this unprecedented time.”

While the sessions uncovered numerous important findings related to the student experience, key takeaways related to belonging and connection and academics are identified here with recommendations from the Student Success Working Group on how faculty and staff can more effectively support students moving forward.

During the sessions and under the theme of belonging and connection, students expressed: 

  • Feelings of disconnection from peers, campus and community
  • Deteriorating mental health due to the absence of close community, informal conversations, involvement and traditional experiences
  • Tension between managing academic responsibilities and getting involved in student engagement experiences

They also noted the power of connection through academic courses, as synchronous courses and compassionate faculty allowed students to feel connected and supported in meaningful ways. 

“This disconnection was more profound for first year students, with one student saying, ‘new students were coming in already estranged from campus,’ as they have not experienced any of the traditional collegiate milestones in traditionally in-person ways,” Wheeler said.

To support students, the Student Success Working Group found that faculty and staff should provide students with flexibility to meet goals, proactively disrupt the “culture of overload” when possible and give students an outlet to share their experiences. It is also recommended that faculty and staff lean into social media to create community by offering downloadable graphics, engaging students with Zoom backgrounds, names and tools and consider giveaways that spotlight students on social media. 

“In building or sustaining relationships with peers, students shared the importance of technology and social media such as Instagram, GroupMe, WeChat and others that allow students to communicate directly or in groups,” Wheeler said. “Students often leveraged these tools, including informal and unaffiliated campus channels, to build connections with others. They also spoke highly of faculty who encouraged students to engage via social media and technology platforms as a course tool, as it enhanced their learning and social connections.”

The most common academic experience that students shared reflected a “culture of overload,” where they felt that the workloads assigned in online learning environments perpetuated an expectation that all waking hours needed to be spent on academics.

“This perception was exhausting for students and made them feel like they couldn’t be involved in non-academic opportunities as they had no time or energy to invest elsewhere,” Wheeler said.

Within this culture, students shared stories of new assignments being given within the week due, assignments not on the syllabus being added via email or announcement and other important due dates or deadlines not being added to the Canvas calendar function, making it challenging for students to successfully manage their calendars and time.

“From an exam perspective, students shared that online exams lasted much longer, as faculty didn’t face the same time constraints in a virtual environment as they might in face-to-face instruction,” Wheeler said. “Additionally, students reflected that there were more exams in each course, as they were easier to build and deploy than in face-to-face environments, which added stress and burden.”

Students also had polarized experiences with faculty and found that faculty were either highly compassionate and understanding of the complexities of navigating online learning within the current context of the pandemic, or they were unempathetic and dismissive of the challenges students faced. They also reflected the perception that faculty equated strict policies with high course quality but shared that the courses they were most successful in were those with compassionate faculty. Finally, students articulated that they had to work much harder to get grades that were comparable to previous semesters, and that once their grades started to slip it was almost impossible to recover. 

The Student Success Working Group recommends that faculty and staff can more effectively support students by: 

  • Utilizing the recommended practices and resources from the Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Adding synchronous course sessions to help students feel more engaged
  • Having students create a group chat and set boundaries around the use of that tool within the course
  • Considering the necessity of each assignment, quiz, test, project, etc.
  • Recognizing the broader impact of assignments on students’ capacity to get involved, sustain jobs and support their families
  • Asking students what they need and be willing to listen and adapt
  • Bringing non-academic departments into classes to support students’ holistic development
  • Offering faculty workshops on belonging, engagement and equity
  • Connecting students with support resources before grades are irreparable 

“These sessions gave us a real opportunity to not just understand what students need, but to also make quick decisions and changes that will help students be successful,” Wheeler said. “The pandemic has taught us that we are all managing more complex demands than ever before, and students shared important insights on how we can use compassion and flexibility to remove barriers to success, rather than creating more.”

For more information on these findings, visit New Student and Family Services.