Written by Emma Bissell

Many students, frustrated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its toll on their education, give their instructors a hard time and are very critical of everything their instructors do. However, they do so without acknowledging how hard their instructors and advisors are working to adjust to these unprecedented times. The current pandemic has affected the lives of instructors significantly, even if it is in different ways. 

Dr. Pamela Dickrell, an engineering instructor for the Honors Program, explained that the issue is not that instructors cannot motivate themselves as they truly do love teaching, rather the challenge is motivating their students and encouraging engagement despite the awkwardness of virtual learning. With the virtual platform, gestures and non-verbal communication are easy to miss.

“I used to be able to judge by my students’ expressions or body language if they needed help, but that is harder in an online environment,” said Dickrell. 

It is much more difficult to notice someone unmuting or “raising their hand” when looking at a screen of students than it would be to notice confusion in an in-person class, Michael O’Malley, a lecturer and advisor in the Honors Program, explained.

“You really have to learn to operate on a social plane of discussion that is pretty different from in-person interaction,” he emphasized in regards to students engaging in online discussion.

The social barrier of Zoom has proven to be difficult for both students and instructors, but for now, no other alternative is viable. Before getting frustrated, students need to consider that certain social cues, once obvious in person, are impossible to pick up on in Zoom, O’Malley noted. Instructors cannot read the minds of students, and they certainly cannot read social cues if everyone, except one brave student, has their camera off. 

Dr. Kristy Spear, an instructor in the Honors Program and Assistant Director for Honors Experiential Learning, expressed that it is also important to consider that instructors miss social interaction, talking with students before and after class, and brainstorming with faculty members. Before the pandemic, instructors would often drop in and out of each others’ offices to chat or discuss a problem. She expressed that it is much easier to problem-solve when there is open communication between friends and colleagues. 

Dr. Spear explained that it is a lot more difficult to resolve issues and brainstorm because “there is a delay – there are extra steps necessary to find a time to meet, schedule a meeting, and provide context for the meeting request.” Similar to how it is difficult for students to meet privately with their instructors, it is even more difficult for instructors to find a time that also aligns with another instructor’s spare time to discuss anything and fix problems.

Instructors may not always show it, but they also miss engaging with students. Often, engagement outside of the classroom correlates with engagement inside the classroom. At “Zoom University” no one appears to be as approachable as they were before.

“I miss those times when I would arrive at the classroom while there were just a few students who have arrived early, and we would casually talk about whatever – life, football, weather,” reminisced O’Malley.

It is the little things like talking to a student for a few moments after class that help keep instructors motivated and energized throughout the day. No longer can students or instructors stay a few moments after class because they likely have another Zoom in 15 minutes. 

Instructors have used many methods to encourage involvement as it is now essential to foster creativity. These attempts may not always succeed and may cause a heavy workload on the students, but the fact that they are trying to help shows that they care. In her Engineering Design and Society class, Dr. Dickrell has made the effort to encourage creativity and engagement by having an optional extra credit 3D-printed Jack-o’-Lantern contest which allowed students to show their personality and combine it with their newly learned technical skills.

Dickrell works very hard to be flexible and allow opportunities for students to incorporate their own talents in their work. Many students participated in this contest despite it being optional, perhaps suggesting the contest was a successful method of engagement. Many instructors also use break-out rooms to facilitate discussion between students without the presence of the instructor. They do not always work and are sometimes completely silent, but Dickrell hopes they can be used to help facilitate the type of group work that is usually done in person.

All three of the Honors Program instructors acknowledge this is a very difficult time for everyone and that it has become tough to stay positive, motivated, and energized. But there is no time to waste; both students and instructors need to re-evaluate their mindset and get back on track. People have to find a way to motivate themselves to keep pushing. Whether it is taking a “Zoom sabbath” as O’Malley called it, or going “outside for an intentional walk in the evenings,” there has to be something to help each individual. 

Every person is different, but an emphasis needs to be placed on finding something that brings some sort of peace or balance back into life. For Dr. Spear, having some compassion and empathy toward others and toward herself has helped her stay positive. 

“I attempt to stay positive by acknowledging that times are difficult, but like most things in life, this is temporary,” expressed Spear. “I am grateful that we live in a time where we have the technological ability to work and connect with one another while staying safe.”