Surviving and Thriving in a Changing Academic Environment – Part 2

Co-authored by Dr. Melissa Swisher, Lecturer, Purdue University

Nadworny (4 Sept, 2019) discussed advice for students on how to succeed in college, and we explored those first three tips–to take better notes, use a planner, and take practice tests in a previous blog post. Now that we’ve all survived, and hopefully thrived, in the spring semester of 2020, we are here with Part 2. Just in time for the onset of the summer semester(s), here are the last four tips for student (and teacher) success!

The fourth tip is to not be discouraged by bad grades and to try again. Skinner (1971, pp. 200-201) said, “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” For some students, earning a poor grade on an assessment (or for the semester!) serves as a conditioned punisher and makes everything associated with courses and even academics aversive: attending class, listening to or seeing the instructor, studying, and completing assignments (for example, see Moore & Edwards, 2003). Instead of avoiding the temporarily aversive stimuli, it’s better for a student to change their study strategies, to discuss new strategies with their current instructor and/or classmates, or to try a new instructor, teaching assistant or classroom aide for help. Errors aren’t always bad – scientists regularly learn from their failures before they make progress (Parkes, 10 Jan., 2019); failure with corrective feedback is an opportunity to study again or to study differently to learn the information better (Grimaldi & Karpicke, 2012); and learning with errors can be better than errorless learning (Metcalfe, 2017). There are many resources to help students with their study strategies and time management (for examples, see our previous blog post, Dr. Aubrey Daniels’ blog post, your campus learning center, and The Learning Scientists).

How Instructors Can Help:

Although constructive criticism is a natural part of the learning process, students in the early stages of learning a skill might be more likely to give up than when they have encountered reinforcement contingencies that help to keep that new skill going (compare to Belfiore et al., 2002; Mace et al., 1988; Nevin & Shahan, 2011). Instructors can employ errorless learning strategies with programmed generalization in the classroom (for examples, see Severtson & Carr, 2012; Sidman, 2010; Storm & Robinson, 1973; Touchette & Howard, 1984) that provide many opportunities for students to practice without contacting conditioned punishers. Examples of potentially errorless practice might include performing practice problems in small groups or as a class as well as completing activities for points based on attempts rather than accuracy (somewhat like response-independent reinforcement). Errorless learning might seem less frustrating for students acquiring a new repertoire. Once that new skill has been acquired, points can be assigned for accuracy and producing errors shouldn’t result in students immediately quitting. However, it should be noted that negative behavioral contrast (moving from a denser schedule of reinforcement to a leaner schedule) can produce emotional responding like frustration and suppress ongoing behavior like the amount of effort students put into their assignments (for examples, see Gonzalez & Champlin, 1974; Halliday & Boakes, 1971; Hinson & Staddon, 1978; Keller, 1974; McSweeney & Norman, 1979; Rovee-Collier & Capatides, 1979; Tarbox & Hayes, 2005). That is, when students have received encouragement for every skill attempted with errorless learning and are then required to accurately perform that skill on an exam in which only correct responses are reinforced, the shift can be disruptive for students. Sometimes it is better to allow students to learn with trial-and-error (contingency-shaped behavior) from the beginning, preventing them from developing their own, potentially inaccurate, rules (Cerutti, 1989; Galizio, 1979) from prior experiences with errorless learning. Whatever method is chosen, the instructions to and expectations for student performance and corresponding contingencies must be explicitly stated, accurate, and complete (compare to DeGrandpre & Buskist, 2017; Falcomata et al., 2008; Newman et al., 1995).

Image courtesy of conayio under CC0 Public Domain

The fifth tip is for students to take care of themselves and get some sleep. Cognitive psychologists would say that consolidation, or making connections between concepts, occurs while we sleep (Klinzing et al., 2019; Paller & Voss, 2004; Rash & Born, 2013). More parsimoniously, being tired can serve as an unconditioned motivating operation (Dougher & Hackbert, 2000; Michael, 1993; Rispoli et al., 2011). All students will struggle at some point with getting adequate sleep during a typical academic year, and this is especially true for college students (Hershner & Chervin, 2014), and perhaps even more so for all who are students under the current conditions. An establishing operation, like sleep deprivation, serves to evoke behavior related to the reinforcer; that is, students will work to get sleep to the exclusion of other activities (like studying), because it also serves to make a particular consequence even more valuable (that is, sleep). Especially in stressful situations, getting the sleep we need or even Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (whether we can get that sleep or not; Arch et al., 2012; Chase et al., 2013; Zettle, 2003) can help. Once students are rested, they can focus on learning. Part of what prevents students from getting enough sleep is that they don’t keep a consistent schedule (see our previous blog post for tips on how to use a planner to set up a schedule), and will instead pull all-nighters. This is particularly common following procrastination and preceding rapidly approaching deadlines (compare to Kroese et al., 2014; Orzech et al., 2011; Schlarb et al., 2017; Van Eerde & Venus, 2018). Students can plan and keep a regular sleep schedule by building a nightly routine instead of trying to maintain multiple commitments on only four hours of sleep.

How Instructors Can Help:

Instructors can set deadlines for assignments preferably using a single learning management platform and give students a sense of organization and consistency/routine to foster their success (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019). While setting deadlines at 11:59 pm gives additional time to students who have extracurricular activities or who may procrastinate, it may be more helpful for students developing a regular nightly routine if deadlines are set during normal waking hours (between 10 am and 10 pm). If the course is online, assuming that instructors know the time zones from which their students are working, additional flexibility for deadlines could be added. It’s easier for instructors to control the course progress and deadlines when meeting regularly and face-to-face. Instructors often use these meeting times to remind students of forthcoming deadlines, administer quizzes, and collect homework. For online courses or those offered in asynchronous fashion, instructors might send a reminder at the same time each week in an effort to provide similar support to all students. 

Nevertheless, students tend to start working on assignments just before and right up until the deadline unless the assignment has been available for several days. Instructors can release assignments early and give their students plenty of time to plan for and complete them. If students have assignments that require an instructional prompt from the course instructor to get started, instructors might give these prompts to students at the beginning of the semester rather than the week the assignment is due.  Even more importantly, instructors can help students estimate the amount of time they might spend on their work with a task analysis to help students to plan ahead. When designing the course and organizing the syllabus, teachers can use a course workload estimator to determine how much time per week a student might spend on completing assignments. If the course workload estimator predicts that students will have to spend an unreasonable amount of time per week on assignments and work outside regular class hours (potentially more than 3 hours studying outside class for every hour spent in class; but also see Gustafsson, 2013; Paff, 28 Aug., 2017), then the instructor can reduce the amount of reading, the number of homework assignments, the length or number of papers, or the length between exams (more frequent, lower stakes assessments tend to support students’ mastery of new material as opposed to the more commonly used infrequent, high stakes exams; compare to Cole et al., 2008; Davis, 2013; Foss & Pirozzolo, 2017; Roediger et al., 2011; Schrank, 2016 ) to make the course requirements more manageable.

The sixth tip is related to the fifth, and it involves letting go of the stigma around mental health issues. Along with the typical academic stressors, teenagers and young adults may be experiencing the symptoms of psychological disorders for the first time (Burke et al., 1990; Kessler et al., 2005, 2007; Patten, 2017). Students don’t always recognize that these symptoms are indicative of psychological disorders and that there are resources to help them cope with these changes. There have been big strides in the last 20 years in Clinical Behavior Analysis and work with neurotypical populations. Specifically, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been successful in treating anxiety disorders (Arch et al., 2012; Bluett et al., 2014; Eifert et al., 2009), depression (Bohlmeijer et al., 2011; Fledderus et al., 2012; Zettle et al., 2011), and chronic pain (Buhrman et al., 2013; Lin et al., 2019; McCracken & Vowles, 2014; Wetherell et al., 2011). To read more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, visit the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy targets psychological flexibility, which impacts how well we handle stressors. Thankfully more people are asking for help when they experience psychological distress, but less fortunately, college campus mental health services can’t keep up with demand. Telehealth (Langarizadeh et al., 2017) and bibliotherapy services are improving and might be another way to help college students seeking services (Borges, 2019; Herbert et al., 2017; Jeffcoat & Hayes, 2012; Lappalainen et al., 2014; Levin et al., 2014; Muto et al., 2011). If someone needs to reach out while experiencing a mental health crisis, they can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It is also possible to find telehealth services through individual health insurance providers (see also Medrano, 7 Apr., 2020 for additional considerations). Toward that end, Anthony Berrick and Dr. Russ Harris have decided to make their Acceptance and Commitment Therapy app ACT Companion: The Happiness Trap App available for free during the COVID-19 pandemic for the next few months. To try the app for free for three months, type TOGETHER on the subscription page before the end of June 2020. Mental health is just as important as physical health, especially when we’re trying to learn and to achieve contentment.

How Instructors Can Help:

At the very least, instructors can identify-preferably in the syllabus–existing resources for students on campus (or via telehealth), where to find those resources, and how to contact a representative. Although classes might not meet on campus and even if the demand exceeds the availability of existing resources; oftentimes universities offer alternative access and/or remote resources students can use. Moreover, if students are not asking, universities won’t know that they need to expand their mental health resources. 

Even though the information for mental health resources is readily available on campus websites, students who are new to campus or those who haven’t accessed similar resources before might not know as much about their options as faculty and staff do. Instructors could help if they provided a brief note about these services on their syllabi. Students with psychological (and intellectual) disorders are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (or see the more accessible version). And although instructors should not ask for or receive information about a student’s medical history, they can suggest that any students who seem to be experiencing mental health issues consult with the campus disability resource center. Even students who experience sub-clinical levels of anxiety, depression, or lack of motivation can benefit from talking to a licensed professional.

More intrepid instructors can use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the classroom. Kupferschmidt (8 May, 2016) describes how she and her colleagues developed a classroom-based acceptance and commitment protocol. One of Kupferschmidt’s classes received 10 sessions of 10-15 minutes each of acceptance and commitment exercises, and the other class received two sessions of 1.5 hours each of those same exercises. Students in both classes reported decreased test anxiety and increased mindfulness from the first day of class to the last (Kupferschmidt et al., 17 June, 2016). Students preferred the brief and spaced acceptance and commitment exercises to the massed exercises. It is important to note that Kupferschmidt’s acceptance and commitment exercises were supervised by Dr. Wanda Smith, an experienced Acceptance and Commitment Therapist.

Image courtesy of harishs under Public Domain

The seventh tip is to know when to reach out for help. This is true for all factors that affect how students are doing in their classes. Students should be sure to check in with their grades regularly and contact the instructor, teaching assistant, or classroom aide as soon as they notice that they’re not doing as well as they could, or as they would like. Sometimes students need additional practice, different explanations, or new ideas for how to study and unfortunately, it’s often the student who has to make the first move. A university’s center for teaching and learning or active learning center (names for this vary by institution) might also have some additional resources. If course requirements become really difficult over the semester, students might contact their academic advisor or guidance counselor, the office of the dean of students, or visit their disability resource center. If the office of the dean of students can’t alleviate the barriers the student is experiencing, their staff can help students to identify different campus resources. Students may not be aware that they could benefit from official accommodations or realize what accommodations are available to them; the disability resource center can help with that. In particular, accommodations are often recommended for students with learning disabilities, mental health concerns, and acute and chronic medical conditions. Often those accommodations involve some combination of extra time on exams, copies of completed notes, the option to take exams in a distraction-reduced environment, alternative exam formats (on a computer or with someone reading the exam text aloud), larger text on exams and notes, extended assignment deadlines, excused absences from class, etc. Students who are experiencing discrimination on the basis of sex or ethnicity or relationship violence are also entitled to accommodations.

How Instructors Can Help:

Instructors can include information about the aforementioned campus resources (i.e., the disability resource center, the writing center, the guidance counselor or academic advisor, campus police, the local Title IX office) and tell their students if they are mandatory Title IX reporters (but see the more restrictive changes to Title IX which favor the perpetrator rather than the victim). Most faculty and staff are mandatory Title IX reporters, and it’s often difficult to have to tell a student after they have confided confidential information to an instructor that they are obligated to report the incident. Even if reports can be made anonymously on behalf of the student, not all students want to report an incident. Instructors also can abide by the recommended accommodations to help their students have a more equitable classroom experience.

The shift to online courses mid-semester will no doubt have other unintended consequences, but learning how to take notes, using a planner, testing yourself, being determined, taking care of yourself, and asking for help can go a long way to make everything easier on yourself. Use these four and the previously posted three tips to take your seven steps to a successful semester!