April 17, 2007

Helping your students cope with the Virginia Tech Tragedy

The news of the massacre at Virginia Tech hit close to home for me, as I'm sure it did for many of you. Having both of my children graduate from a Virginia university (U. VA), one of them just last spring, I had the immediate thought that most parents have had -- "That could have been my child."

You might be wondering how to deal with this in your classes today. I'm a member of POD: Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education. Today I received an email from their listserv that may help you decide. This is from Dr. Therese Huston, who is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University (I'm only quoting part of her letter):


For those faculty and faculty developers who are thinking about addressing the tragedy in the days to come, there is [a] resource that might be helpful. Michele DiPietro and I published an article in the most recent edition of To Improve the Academy (2007) that reported on a study examining a) what students said their faculty did following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and b) which faculty actions students found helpful following the attacks.

Of course, the terrorist attacks of 2001 are very different from what happened yesterday - it's hard to know what the events at Virginia Tech might compare to - but the survey results still might shed some insight into what students found more or less helpful in the classroom following an unexpected, horrific, and collective tragedy. DiPietro (2003) has published an earlier study looking at faculty reporting of what they did following the9/11 attacks, which does a great job explaining what faculty found confusing.

Quick summary of Huston & DiPietro's (2007) results (complete reference follows):

- On one campus, in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks of9/11, students reported that only 62% of their professors mentioned the attacks at all; the remaining 38% went on with the course material as though nothing had happened.

- Many students typically found an instructor's complete lack of response frustrating or disappointing. A few students did not care whether their instructors did or said anything, and a few said "doing nothing" was appropriate. But most students wanted their instructors to show some acknowledgement.

- In most cases, students found it *helpful* whenever faculty tried to acknowledge the tragedy in some way (one minute of silence, a short or long discussion, offer to review the material again later, read an inspirational passage, mention counseling services, etc.).

- The only response that was truly *unhelpful* was when faculty" acknowledged that the attacks had occurred but said the class had to go on, with no mention of extra help." Students were often frustrated when faculty said "there is nothing we can do.”

The quantitative data can be found in the paper itself, but the implications for faculty and faculty developers may be most useful here. The following excerpt is taken directly from the TIA article (Huston & DiPietro, 2007, pp.218-220)."Implications for Faculty. The results indicate that from the students¹ perspective, it is best to do something. Students often complained when faculty did not mention the attacks at all, and they expressed gratitude when faculty acknowledged that something awful had occurred. Beyond acknowledging a tragic event, faculty would be well-advised to take the extra step of recognizing that students are distressed and to show some extra support, such as offering to grant extensions for students who request them. Cognitive research informs us that working memory capacity is reduced in times of enhanced stress so students are less capable of learning new material (e.g. Arnsten, 1998).Offering extensions or the opportunity to review the material later is one-way to accommodate students¹ decreased capacity.

It is perhaps a surprising relief to learn that an instructor's response need not be complicated, time-intensive, or even personalized. Responses that require relatively little effort, such as taking a minute of silence or offering to review material later in the course are likely to be viewed as very helpful by most students, so faculty should not feel pressed into redesigning their course. Faculty responses that required high levels of effort were also viewed as helpful, so those who wish to use the lens of their discipline to examine the events surrounding a tragedy are encouraged to do so. A repeated issue that appeared in students¹ comments was that they appreciated when an instructor responded in a unique and humane way, so faculty should not feel pressured to homogenize their responses.

Implications for Faculty Developers

The results suggest that faculty developers can play several roles in the wake of a collective tragedy. First, faculty developers can provide resources and leadership to Deans and Department Chairs. We know that one Dean, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, contacted all of his Department Chairs to encourage faculty to address the attacks and support students. Professors teaching studio courses in the Fine Arts responded more strongly than most of their peers by leading more discussions, by offering more extensions, by offering to talk privately with more students, etc. Although these studio instructors might have been just as proactive and compassionate without their Dean¹s leadership, this is still a valuable reminder for faculty developers; namely, that Deans and Department Chairs are the nexus of faculty action. Connecting Deans and Department Chairs with the findings from this study along with online resources such as those at University of Michigan empowers administrators to help their faculty respond more effectively.

A second implication for faculty developers is that if time and resources are limited, as they are likely to be following a tragedy, it would be strategic to focus on schools or departments that offer a greater number of project courses or large lecture courses. Our results indicate that faculty in these two types of courses were the least likely to mention the attacks, which would suggest that they are the most likely to benefit from guidance on how to respond. Although a full class discussion may not suit these courses, some of the quick, low-effort activities might work well. The third role for faculty developers is to reassure faculty after the fact that their actions were probably helpful to students, even if it was not clear in class. As DiPietro (2003) noted, many faculty were still unclear about whether their responses were helpful several weeks later. The good news is that most students found most instructor responses, with the one noted exception, to be very helpful." (Huston & DiPietro, pp. 218-220)

Complete references:

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 25.Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp.207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.

DiPietro. M. (2003). The day after: Faculty behavior in post-September 11, 2001, classes. In C. M. Wehlburg. and S. Chadwick-Blossey (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 21. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 21-39). Bolton, MA: Anker.

I hope this is helpful for some of you. I've been reading Comfortable with Uncertainty, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist Nun, and finding it very helpful. I'll be writing more about that book in my newsletter on Wednesday.


Addendum: Here is a link to a University of Michigan site that has suggestions for how to handle discussions of the tsuanami, which might be helpful in this situation.

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