Teaching Through Emotional Fatigue: Strategies for Student Well-Being

Kyle Vitale, Linda Hasunuma, Cliff Rouder & Janie Egan
Justice and Inclusion

Student mental well-being has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and the public health measures implemented to mitigate it. The prevalence of mental health symptoms is high among college students nationally, as it was prior to the pandemic too. According to an Active Minds survey, nearly 75% of student respondents indicated that their mental health has worsened since the pandemic began. Students reported feeling stress and anxiety, disappointment and sadness, loneliness and isolation, among other concerns.


As the pandemic continues, it is also reasonable to assume that mental health concerns will persist. Most of us are spending more time in front of screens than ever before, and it can be exhausting. This, on top of the stressors of COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election, collective efforts for racial justice, and any other issues that students and their families are facing may result in emotional fatigue, leading students to “check out,” e.g. avoid the camera, miss assignments, or skip class. Sarah Cavanagh also reminds us that anxiety appears to disrupt student performance by hijacking part of one’s working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources to direct to the problem at hand (The Spark of Learning, 184).


Students may deeply appreciate when instructors acknowledge that this context has an impact on academic performance. Huston and DiPietro (2017) found that after major national crises or tragedies, students found it meaningful when faculty acknowledged the crisis or event--even if faculty are not experts on a particular issue. The most recent Active Minds survey also indicates that students are adapting in some key ways like being supportive of others’ mental wellness and feeling optimistic about the future.


Here are seven strategies that can support your students’ well-being and performance:

  • Talk openly about self-care strategies. You don’t need to be an expert, but acknowledging that we are all trying to do our best to take care of ourselves may help students feel less alone in the struggle to find balance. Self-care is about regularly prioritizing our well-being. A basic framework to start with is to build routines around sleep / rest, food, movement, and “you” time (things that help you feel like yourself). For instance, at the beginning of class, ask students to share in the chat box one way that they are taking care of themselves, or one thing that’s helping them feel good about themselves this week. Just as it helps students to encourage self-care, we can also model these practices for students, which in turn ensures that we are taking care of ourselves.
  • Encourage students to access support resources. Normalize help-seeking behaviors and direct students to the university’s virtual services. Check out the campus resource guide in the Student Safety Nest Guide to Support Student Well-Being. The Wellness Resource Center has a schedule of programs to provide students with information and skill-building around mental well-being, as well as alcohol and other drug education, interpersonal violence prevention and sexual health. There are also two recorded programs available for students to access any time. Additionally, Tuttleman Counseling Services is providing comprehensive virtual mental health services to students, including a variety of group opportunities and the Resiliency Resource Center Online. They’ve also created a kit to help students cope with election stress.
  • Be flexible with due dates and instructional methods. If you check in frequently with your students, then you’ll be better able to assess how students are progressing toward completing assignments and projects or assess their readiness to take an exam. Is it possible to move that exam date or project due date back one class period without compromising essential components of the class? Let’s not abandon the high standards and expectations we have for our students, but rather let’s adopt and promote the message that says you are here to help them meet these standards and expectations with compassion and trust. In addition to due dates, you might revisit your instructional methods themselves. Consider carefully a balance of synchronous class time -- e.g. time spent with students practicing skills and discussing concepts -- with asynchronous activities -- e.g. reading, discussion posts, recorded lectures -- that reduce time spent in Zoom sessions.
  • Consider your Zoom camera practices. A variety of factors can lead students to feel uncomfortable with their cameras on, including insecure housing, a need for privacy, poor internet connection, social or virtual fatigue, and more. Forcing these students to be in sight can further exacerbate existing emotional fatigue, whereas being empathetic to alternatives can provide needed rest. Consider a policy that strongly encourages cameras on, invites accomodation for valid exceptions (which need not always be shared), and uses approaches that engage all students regardless of camera. For those students who are regularly on camera, invite them to turn their cameras off periodically, suggest that they move their screens further away, and remind them that they can hide their self-view. For long class sessions, build in some short breaks so students can walk away from Zoom completely.
  • Build in additional check-ins. As multiple stress points assail us all, students will appreciate additional check-ins. Consider opening your next class with the question, “so, how’s everybody doing?”, or reach out individually via email. Remind students of your office hours and offer yourself as a safe individual to discuss stress or workload. Students will also appreciate “landing strips”: moments in class to pause and summarize content, poll student comprehension, and offer extra time to sit and grapple with a particularly difficult concept. At this point in 2020, assume burnout and an immense cognitive load. This extra time recognizes that students may need additional support than might be typical. Consider other strategies too for checking in with your students.
  • Watch for warning signs. If you see a change in behavior (a student who is consistently attending class suddenly stops attending, written work shows troubling themes, erratic behavior in class, sudden emotional outbursts in class), consider speaking with the student privately and, if warranted, referring them to appropriate campus resources (the Care Team, for instance, is available for faculty who may have concerns about students). For immediate help, you can contact Tuttleman Counseling Service or the Temple University Police Department.

These strategies are good teaching for any and all seasons, and we hope you consider adopting or keeping them once the various dust storms settle. That said, they are particularly appropriate now as we all experience emotional fatigue, and showing care for your students will help them find the intrinsic motivation to finish out this term with strength and courage.


Kyle Vitale is Associate Director of Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT). Linda Hasunuma is Assistant Director of the CAT. Cliff Rouder is Pedagogy and Design Specialist at the CAT. Janie Egan is Mental Well-Being Program Coordinator for Temple's Wellness Resource Center.

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