Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Strategies for Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Instruction: Show Compassion and Awareness

Instructional Continuity

Any one of an array of events can disrupt faculty’s ability to teach courses via on-campus, in-class sessions. Cal Poly’s commitment to students includes making sure that we provide students an opportunity to complete courses despite disruptions, whenever possible. The steady advancement of communication and instructional technologies has greatly enhanced faculty’s opportunities to provide quality virtual learning experiences in these situations. With  planning, training on selected user-friendly technologies, and available mentoring on effective instruction, faculty can be better prepared to continue instruction through many forms of instructional disruptions.

Show Compassion and Awareness

It is important to show compassion for students and their circumstances and to be aware of the differences in how students are experiencing the effects of this situation. Crisis situations tend to deepen existing social inequalities and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Instructors should expect that the situation has had and will have vastly different impacts on our students, their families, and their communities. In addition to being aware of these differences in experiences, it is crucial that instructors point students to resources when they are in need, foster an awareness of their assumptions and biases about students, and extend empathy when responding to student needs during this time. 

Begin by assuming differences in student experiences.

Crises deepen inequalities and students may have very different circumstances from which they are trying to continue with their school work. The Division of Diversity and Innovation at SDSU urges educators to be identity-conscious during this time. They explain that “a critical feature of equity-minded teaching is the acknowledgement that our students are NOT all the same, that they come to us with sometimes vastly different experiences, and those experiences are often tied to their social identities (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, first-gen status, etc.).” It is important to be aware of the potential of this crisis to deepen inequalities between students from different identity groups. 

  • Know that students will have differential access to resources to complete their courses. The University is working hard to ensure that students are appropriately supported during the transition to virtual instruction; resources to direct students to are listed below. It is important, though, to know that students will still have different resources to complete their courses—for example, there will be differences in access to consistent spaces to complete work, some may need assistance with getting the appropriate technology or internet connections to complete their courses, and others may have difficulty meeting their basic needs. Assume that these differences will exist for some students, be compassionate, and know how to connect students to resources. 
  • Be aware that students will have competing responsibilities. For some students, moving to another location to complete their studies may mean taking on additional family or community responsibilities—both financial and caretaking. Think about the specific challenges that student parents may face and those with younger siblings or elders may face. It is important to be aware of these competing responsibilities, but also to know that this focus on kinship and familial bonds is not a deficit, but a form of cultural wealth for many communities of color (Yosso 2005). 
  • Be aware of potential barriers or stressors that students from certain identity groups are more likely to face; do not assume homogeneity of experience. As you read about the COVID-19 pandemic, pay special attention to the ways in which it has differential effects on our students’ communities. For example, it is important to be aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to anti-Asian, anti-Asian American, and anti-Chinese actions and sentiments worldwide and locally. Consider reading about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this recent article on How Asian-American Leaders are Grappling with Xenophobia Amid Coronavirus. Another group that has been greatly affected by the pandemic is our undocumented community; know that the Central Coast Coalition for Undocumented Student Success has created a Quick Guide for the Central Coast on COVID-19. You can also read more about the experiences of those who are undocumented in The Doubled Fears of the Undocumented During the Coronavirus Shutdown. There are many other communities, particularly communities of color, that are marginalized and prone to additional stressors during this time. Do not assume that your students’ experiences of the pandemic are the same as yours and take care to learn about the experiences of communities that are different from your own. 
  • Be mindful of student mental health. It is important to be aware that students may experience increased feelings of anxiety or stress during this time. Be generous in extending compassion and understanding to your students and aware that everyone will cope differently with their situations. For more information on dealing with students in distress visit Campus Health & Wellbeing’s Resources for Faculty and Staff

Make it a practice to check your assumptions about your students. 

In a recent webinar on Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities, Dr. J Luke Wood explained that “The conditions for implicit bias are more present now than ever before” and that bias is more likely to happen in cases where there are not strong relationships between faculty and students.

  • Recognize that you may be more prone to assumptions and bias at this time. This is a stressful situation for all of us and we are more likely to make quick judgements about our students. Be aware of this tendency and develop a practice of checking in with yourself about assumptions that you are making about students.
  • Slow yourself down when you are assessing the behavior or work of your students. When you do find bias and assumptions affecting your assessment of student actions, effort, or work, take a step back to reassess and think through alternative explanations. For example, you may assume that a particular student is not putting in sufficient effort and that is why they are struggling with the coursework. Instead, consider alternate explanations for why that student may be encountering difficulty—maybe the student is putting in significant effort, but in ways that do not lead to success in the course; maybe the student has a number of responsibilities outside of the classroom with family, work, etc.; or maybe your expectations are not as clear as they could be. Try to identify the source of the problem so that you can appropriately support the student. 

Revisit your policies.

Spend some time revisiting the typical policies you include in your syllabus—for example, policies on late work, participation or absences, and extensions. Consider how you might alter your policies to take into account some of the differences in student experiences described above. 

  • Think about how your policies might disadvantage students who are struggling with the current situation. Think through the ways that your policies might be set up to protect students who adhere to them, but that may disadvantage students who are struggling and have difficulty asking for assistance when they truly need it—research suggests that students from lower-income backgrounds and students of color are less likely to seek help when they truly need it (see, for example, Jack 2015). If you will allow for extensions, be very clear about how, when, and for whom you will allow extensions. We recommend that your policies be transparent and clear to students. Additionally, we recommend that you allow for flexibility during this difficult time and that you are prepared to clearly explain to your students how your policies are established to support equity. 

​​​​​​​Create relationships with your students.

In a recent webinar on Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities, Dr. J Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III point out the importance of being relational with our students. The below suggestions stem from the content delivered by Wood and Harris in this webinar; quotes are taken directly from the webinar content. 

  • Show that you care and want your students to succeed. “Demonstrate an ‘authentic investment’ in students’ success—which is one of the most significant predictors of student persistence (Davidson 2015).” Do this by conveying positivity and a belief in student success. Learn things about your students that are not specifically related to them being a student, for example “name; hometown; hobbies and activities; special talents; favorite books, movies, music artists.”
  • Humanize yourself. Wood and Harris suggest that humanizing oneself is a key part of building relationships with students. Learn more about the importance of humanizing the online learning experience through Pacansky-Brock, et al.’s Humanizing Learning and Teaching in Times of Disruption.  
  • Work from an assets-based lens. “Intentionally reject deficit perspectives about students’ intellectual capacities or “fit” for college.” To read more about an assets-based approach that emphasizes cultural wealth, read Yosso's 2005 piece on cultural wealth in communities of color.
  • Communicate positive and validating messages. Wood and Harris suggest that “students must hear: ‘you belong’, ‘you can do the work’, ‘you can succeed’, ‘you have the ability’, ‘you are very intelligent.’”
  • Hold high expectations for performance. More information about setting high expectations and clear paths to reaching those expectations is included below.

Refer students to resources.

Cal Poly has put together many resources to support students during this difficult time. Oftentimes, instructors are a key link in connecting students with these important resources. Familiarize yourself with the resources available to students and help them to access those resources; then follow up, if needed. 

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