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This is the first semester in which classes aren't online anymore after the pandemic where I lecture (For information, this is in Brazil, and English is not my mother language). It's been two years of classes being online.

This is the second exam I've given and I keep receiving small written phrases that go on the lines of "Sorry, I can't do it", "I'm anxious", "I don't know" and the like. This has never happened to me before, except in very particular cases, but this time it's simply massive. I estimate about 30% of students sharing something like that. When it happens, I usually tell the student - if I can - to search for help. We have psychologists who are ready to help at our university. In my experience, when I see this kind of message, it's not because they're disappointed at their performance as students but rather they are disappointed with themselves in a broader way.

Obviously, these students must have lost the habit of being examined by presential tests during the pandemic. This class consists of new students of my university, and they probably have had a terrible time over their last two years as students.

So, the question is: how do I approach such a large group of students that seem to be having the same problem, aiming to attend to their mental health and, of course, improve their learning?

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    I've noticed this with my students as well. My courses set them up for success as long as they do their part, but other courses are making them miserable. They have privately come to me to talk about difficulties they are having. I have done my best to be an impartial third party and just listen to them. My area in the US does not have good mental health support, and our campus mental health professionals were completely booked a month-plus out at all times last semester. I couldn't really help so much, but I tried to be there for them. Knowing that you care helps them a lot. Jun 1, 2022 at 18:14
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    As a student, it's nice to see that you take those notes seriously and are trying to help. Many professors (especially in third world countries) just ignore them or joke about them with other professors.
    – justauser
    Jun 1, 2022 at 18:46
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    @justauser yeah, this kind of thing happens around here as well. I think it's terrible.
    – Marra
    Jun 1, 2022 at 19:14

4 Answers 4

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I am answering you from India, though I am from the US.

What you are observing is a world-wide phenomenon, and not something particular to Brazil. Unfortunately, there are probably no good support services available in your place. In the US, the counseling centers at universities are probably very busy. In their absence:

  • It helps a lot knowing that my difficulties as a student are not unique to me. Explaining your observations to all your students in general terms can be quite helpful.
  • Covid has taught us that being part of a learning community is quite valuable. Somewhat inappropriate messages like "I cannot do this" is one of many symptoms that have been lost. Mention this in a letter to your students.
  • Part of your job is certification. You cannot just pass students because of their personal difficulties without creating difficulties for the society later on, when the "Covid generations" lack basic knowledge. Plead for understanding.

I would take these points (and maybe a few other ones that you can get from other answers) and write a short letter to your students. What this does is that it validates their feelings, which helps getting over them. Clearly, in an ideal world, there would be a support structure not involving you that helps students get on track again.

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    +1 for your third point. Although there are genuine cases of students with problems due entirely to covid, the vast majority of students with academic problems will have problems even without covid. Just look at the 70% to 80% cheating rate in absence of severe penalty and it is all clear.
    – user21820
    Jun 2, 2022 at 16:01
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Some of these notes merely express difficulties answering the question (e.g., "Sorry, I can't do it" and "I don't know") and some express broader distress (e.g., "I'm anxious"). Examinations are not a particularly good forum for either of these types of comments, so it might be worth giving a general address to your students in lectures to note some of the issues raised and direct them to appropriate avenues and resources to deal with these problems. It would be worth noting the following:

  • Exam technique: It is not necessary for students to apologise on the exam for not knowing how to answer a question, and it is not necessary for them explicity note their inability to do the question. If the answer is left blank then their inability to do the question will be inferred, and it is not something for which an apology to the lecturer is necessary. Students should just try to stay on task, answer the questions they can, and use any remaining time to review their work for errors.

  • Anxiety and psychological difficulties: For students experiencing anxiety or other psychological difficulties, there is a university counsellor available that can offer advice or psychological assessment and treatment. Look up the available people/facilities at your university and give your students a brief summary of the available services, and how to contact them. As a lecturer, if you wish to do so you may be able to give low-level advice on effective study habits, university progress, etc. (including generalised advice on reducing anxiety and coping with study load), but you can leave it to professional counsellors for larger issues.

  • General advice on putting disappointments in perspective: Encourage your students to be proactive in seeking assistance for any serious problems they are experiencing. With respect to generalised feelings of inadequacy or disappointment, it is worth stressing to students that lack of success in a particular assessment or university course (while it is not nothing) is mererly a diagnosis that they lack competence in that particular skill at this particular time --- it is not an indictment on their broader personnal qualities and it is a deficiency that can be remedied with additional study and practice. Encourage students to put their disappointments in perspective, and consider these alongside the progress they are making. The vast majority of students are making at least some forward progress in their degree program and the skill-growth corresponding with their program of study.

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Would you be willing to float the idea of a whole new course (or module) to address this?

I know of at least one university that teaches a course on professional resilience. It's about the mental health skills that are particularly helpful for the student's subject (which in the linked example is Music). So the exact content should be directed towards the skills most relevant for the subject the student studies, for Music that includes addressing performance anxiety, for many subjects that includes addressing imposter syndrome.

The example module given is optional but very popular, and is always well attended.

It's not a one stop solution, there will be people who need more individual support, but you mentioned that your university already offers this. It is a way great to help many people at once, and foster a culture of mental health awareness.

Yes, it does take time away from the great many other things the students must learn. But as you have seen, without these skill the students are not able to learn efficiently, so overall, it is likely to be a net gain.

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As described by other answers, this issue may have many different factors that contribute to it, but I think there is one more that needs to be considered: these comments are not always complaints. During my undergraduate studies, most student/professor relationships were casual enough that the students felt very comfortable saying "Sorry, I didn't have time to get to this question," or "I got lost on this one," etc, simply because we felt it was more embarrassing to leave a question empty than it was to leave a brief explanatory message. We understood the failing was ours, and asked for no special treatment.

As an educator, my students have been fairly open with me, often giving me the same kind of comments on their work when they leave unanswered questions/problems. When I chat with them to check in, they're often in good mental health and in good standing academically, and explain to me that they just blanked, or were a bit short on time.

And I think this may be a cultural shift with younger generations. So while there are surely many comments that are mental-health-related, it may also be true that some of them are benign. In short: some comments may just be an effort to say "I'm leaving this comment to let you know that I considered the question, but I feel awkward leaving it blank." Whether this is acceptable practice is another question, of course.

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