Helping Students Overcome Obstacles

Contributed by CTL Faculty Associate, Allison Anacker, Psychological Science

We’ve been experiencing an unprecedented number of issues arising in the last two years, and not just COVID cases. Students have been going through personal crises and have physical and mental health challenges at rates we haven’t seen before. It’s hard to know what to do with all the emails and other communications of personal, often distressing information, and requests for flexibility.

Here are a few strategies to help students overcome obstacles they encounter. The goal is to help them navigate their situation and return to class able to move forward with their learning (and to help reduce the burden on you).

1. Be proactive

You can help prepare students for what to do in case of an emergency, and potentially lighten your own load by steering them in the right direction before they come to you for help. Let students in each class know early or mid-way through the semester what they should do in case an emergency arises.

For example, if students must go away suddenly due to a death in the family, they can email or make a phone call to Student Services in their Dean’s Office (see list at end of this post) to communicate the issue instead of contacting each of their instructors in that difficult moment. Student Services can then send out an official request for flexibility for the dates the student will be affected, without the student needing to share personal information directly with their instructors. I also advise students to take this route when they have a medical issue that will affect them for more than one day.

To be prepared and reduce my own work when issues arise, I have a PowerPoint slide with the Student Services website and contact information that I share in each course, and I have boilerplate text I can copy and paste quickly into an email to guide students to this resource if needed. A message about other resources like the tutoring center for developing time management or study skills is helpful for students if they’ve fallen behind but may not have an issue that would be recognized by the Dean’s Office.

2. Be compassionate

First, express your concern and your desire to make sure they have the support they need, such as suggesting they contact Student Services as described above. Then consider what the student will be missing or need flexibility on. Is it critical for the course or for subsequent assessments? If not, it may be reasonable to make them exempt from that. If that is a hard change for you, consider the load a student would bear after missing even a few days, to have to make up work/classes missed and stay on top of upcoming work, all while still recovering physically and/or emotionally; if they can be successful in the class without that burden, let’s make that work! Even when I have reasons not to exempt a student from a particular assignment, I often let struggling students know that it is okay to just ‘let it go’ and take a 0 and move forward. They may not have seen that as a possibility, or it may ease their mind to know you would understand why they would make such a choice.

3. Set appropriate boundaries

We’ve all been carrying plenty of stress and emotional baggage these days. It can be hard not to “take on” some of the emotion of students who are coming to you in distress. Remind students that they don’t need to share personal, especially medical information with you. Along with guarding you from the emotional burden or compassion fatigue, students may benefit from an acknowledgement of their autonomy when you convey that you respect their ability to balance the various factors in their lives and make their own choices about what to prioritize. If you do sense a student is in distress (their emotional/mental state is impacting their ability to function in everyday activities), file a CARE report (link below) and follow up.

By empowering students and guiding them to the proper processes and supports when they experience difficulties, you can help them work through obstacles in their academics and ease your own time and emotional investment in the process. Keep the goal in mind – helping students return to the classroom feeling motivated to continue their learning after a setback and finish strong!

Campus resources

Student Services contacts and websites

About CTL

Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Vermont
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