Publication Date

June 3, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • United States


Digital Methods

In early March, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic became the insistent theme of every news feed and conversation, Bergen Community College, like most other schools across the country, began the process of temporarily closing its doors. The suddenness of the decision left many educators and administrators scrambling for quick solutions that would allow classes to continue at a distance through the end of the semester. The haste with which the shift had to be made caused even veteran distance educators to, at times, forgo best practices in favor of providing something immediate for students.

In early April, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that the Bergen Community College campus would be used as a drive-thru testing facility. The college transitioned to online learning shortly after.

In early April, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that the Bergen Community College campus would be used as a drive-thru testing facility. The college transitioned to online learning shortly after. Phil Murphy/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Historians pointed triumphantly to the value of our discipline and inundated our students and colleagues with information about the Black Plague and the 1918 pandemic. But what might normally have been a timely way to involve students in history fell flat as more pressing concerns about daily life and coursework took precedence. Sometimes it is not a matter of making the past more engaging for students, it is a matter of engaging ourselves in the present lives of our students. To that end, I asked my students to share their struggles and their concerns about both their daily lives and their courses, since both would impact their ability to learn and succeed. What follows is a reflection on the experiences of Bergen students and their suggestions for how we can teach more effectively both in times of crisis and under more normal circumstances.

At Bergen, many students already lived with little to no financial security—a situation exacerbated by the shutdown. For some students, like one who works at a pizzeria in town, there are longer hours paired with the anxiety that comes from delivering food during a pandemic. “I’ve taken on extra shifts since many of my coworkers stopped working to protect themselves,” another writes, “so it is difficult for me to get my coursework done after … truly working to my limit.” For many students, working in these essential jobs has become even more necessary because their parents have lost their jobs or fear losing them.

For those students who could remain at home, there was frustration that many professors didn’t understand the challenges they now faced. One parent of three wrote, “my challenges are mostly centered around homeschooling my children. Between Zoom conferences and teleconferences of their schools, feeding them … [and] keeping them busy … the only time I have to focus on college is at night.” Others felt the disparity of their home and economic situations as they tried to manage coursework suddenly all online without their own laptops or strong internet connections. One explained, “not everyone has a good internet connection to handle Zoom meetings and video conferences.” Others faced more personal crises in being forced to stay at home. One student confided, “for many LGBTQ+ students … college can be a major safe space and allows for an outlet to be our true selves and, if you’re like me at least and have a family that isn’t so accepting, well then it’s back in the closet.”

It is a matter of engaging ourselves in the present lives of our students.

All of these pressures are compounded daily by the general anxiety everyone seemed to feel as the news reported death rates climbing, hospitals strained, and grocery shelves cleaned out. Alongside mental health concerns came worries about physical health. Some students shared copies of their positive COVID test results. Others explained that they were home and improving but withdrawing for the semester, adding, “I just wanted you to know I did not step away voluntarily.” Still others—most troubling of all—just stopped logging into email or the learning management system and effectively disappeared.

The number of students who took the time to reply to me indicates the most prevalent, if often unspoken, sense of loss caused by the shift online: students miss the daily assurance that someone cares about them and their success. As one student wrote, “I think when professors check in on their students that shows that we are in this together.” Nearly every student longed for interaction with their instructors and other students. Several lamented the loss of in-person tutoring, the ability to ask professors to clarify assignments, and the camaraderie that develops in the classroom setting. Their frustration with this loss was palpable in each note but was perhaps best expressed by the student who wrote, “I feel like someone has stolen my semester from me.”

In the face of so many challenges how can we best help our students? The solutions they proposed were at times contradictory. Those with additional demands on their time were frustrated by synchronous video conferencing that they felt they had to miss or attend with divided attention. Others, knowing that they needed accountability, suggested such video conferencing be mandatory rather than optional, saying, “for students like me, it is difficult trying to have the motivation to get onto Moodle” without a set schedule. The general ambivalence about a semester without set class meetings and deadlines was summed up nicely by a student who wrote, “this entire semester suddenly feels optional despite the fact that obviously it’s not.”

Students miss the daily assurance that someone cares about them and their success.

In contrast to the best practices in the history classroom that recommend breaking down the traditional research papers into smaller, scaffolded, low-stakes assignments, the students seemed to overwhelmingly favor a few larger assignments that they could work on at their own pace. “In every course there are a lot of questions, exercises and there’s not enough time to handle everything. We have been facing problems in keeping up with deadlines,” a student explained.

Students all agreed on one need: more consistent communication. Some complained of professors who were tardy in responding to email or who seemed to vanish after posting course materials online. Many stressed the loss of communication with their peers and suggested that professors or schools provide forums for students to interact with one another. They all missed a sense of connection and the camaraderie of the classroom.

Not all of these proposals are feasible, but the experiences of these students can give us a sense of what this pandemic has taught them about how they learn and how we might better help them to succeed. As colleges across the country contemplate moving summer and even fall courses online, history educators must meet the needs of their students and find sustainable solutions to the problems of distance learning. Perhaps if we do, our students will no longer feel their semesters have been stolen.

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Sarah Shurts
Sarah Shurts

Bergen Community College