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How We Can Support Struggling First-Year Students After Pandemic Disrupted High School Learning

By David Simpson and Annette Finley-Croswhite

Imagine you're 17 and your high school shuts down for a year. As a result, you have to learn online at home, away from teachers, classmates and guidance counselors.

Would you be ready for college after a year like that? In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, many current first-year university students were not, according to media reports.

High school students across the country missed important and anticipated rites of passage like a formal face-to-face graduation and have been left mourning the loss of key developmental milestones tied to the advent of adulthood.

In the Feb. 3 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education's Teaching newsletter, Becky Supiano wrote about the fallout witnessed at one university:

"Last semester, professors teaching first-year students at Bethel University, in Indiana, noticed a troubling pattern. 'Many of our freshmen came to class, but never turned in homework or studied, and then they failed out,' explained Janna McLean, dean of the arts and sciences division, in an email to the newsletter.

"Instructors, McLean added, aren't quite sure what to make of this, but suspect 'it has to do with the fact that many students during the online-teaching part of the pandemic really were just passed along in high school, regardless of what they did.'"

At ODU, we've seen first-year students struggle as well. Lanah Stafford, director of planning and project management with the Office of Academic Success Initiatives and Support, examined data with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment. She expressed concern for first-year students who ended the fall semester of 2021 with a 0.00 GPA, although the number of these students was down from the year before, indicating pandemic strategies put in place have been helpful.

How can we help these learners? For ideas, the Center for Faculty Development reached out to ODU instructors and administrators.

"We have to recognize that we are teaching a group of students who missed out on many formative learning experiences over the last two years and need additional supports to help them succeed at the University," said George Noell, a professor who chairs the Department of Psychology.

His recommendations: "Engagement, get them to class. Crystal-clear expectations and early, frequent feedback. Clear teaching not just around the content, but how to study, how to master the content, and what success looks like. Helping them with time management and study skills."

For Jori Beck, assistant professor of secondary education, relationships are key: "I feel like that is what keeps someone connected to an institution and helps them persevere."

She said the pandemic has ratcheted up trauma and hardship among her students. Now more than ever, she draws on social emotional learning (SEL) strategies such as checking in.

"I had a student whose boyfriend was murdered, another experiencing severe depression, another with suicidal ideation, one who lost a family member to COVID," she said. "If I didn't check in on my students to see how they are doing, or develop relationships with them, I wouldn't be able to get them the support they need to learn."

Jamie Colwell, too, strives to build bonds. She's an associate professor of literacy who chairs the Department of Teaching and Learning.

"In my view, once we've gotten to the point that we identify a struggling freshman, we're a bit late to the game and playing catch-up," she said. "I often argue that instructors underestimate the value of getting to know their students and their students' backgrounds in the first week or so of classes."

During that first week, she asks her students to complete a quick bio that gives her insight into their family life, their goals, interests, extracurricular or work activities, and so on. Research has found that such "aesthetic assessments" are critical to building a classroom that considers the whole student, Colwell said.

"It also builds a connection between instructors and students that helps students feel comfortable speaking up when they are starting to get stressed - as opposed to when they are completely overwhelmed - so that we can work together to help them manage the coursework."

William Johnson, a lecturer in psychology, favors flexibility.

"In my introductory course, I give students lots of time to finish assignments and work with them if they have issues preventing them from attending or meeting deadlines," he said. "Generally, I prioritize understanding and leniency on my part ahead of accountability on the student's part.

"I want to give every student a chance at getting an A in my class, even if they are coming in with less preparation than average."

He said he gained a new perspective after reading Craig Nelson's 2010 chapter "Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor." "Nelson's primary thesis is that by making courses 'hard,' we don't actually end up teaching students better, but instead end up disadvantaging students who might otherwise flourish," Johnson said.

Mary Still, a senior lecturer in psychology, finds that more learners this year are unfamiliar with the typical classroom experience.

Some of them have trouble with self-directed learning. Knowing this, Still reminds her asynchronous online classes about upcoming activities and how much time they will take. Strategies along these lines include daily diaries, notifications to smart devices, and LMS notifications to email.

Some students feel anxious during exams. One approach Still uses in that case is to suggest they take a deep breath when they run into a difficult question. Another is to turn the stress around.

"Reappraising, or reinterpreting, stressors as a challenge to be overcome instead of as a threat to your well-being, happiness or success is one way to manage unavoidable stressors," she said.

And when it's time to prepare for one of those exams, Still doesn't just ask students to test themselves on concepts.

"I discuss the strategy they will take to remember distinctions between complex topics, identify areas they are continuing to struggle with, and make a plan for how to better succeed in the future."

It is important to keep in mind that our current first-year students aren't the same group of learners we worked with in the past. Many have gaps in their knowledge, under-developed study habits, and COVID-related trauma, all situations created by the pandemic through no fault of their own. As instructors, it's important to understand their needs, show compassion, and develop strategies like the ones suggested in this article to put our first-year students on the path to success in their college careers.

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