Course Design Tips to Help Decrease Student Stress

Student stress has been a major concern on college campuses for many years. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased both levels of stress we and our students experience, but has also helped us re-examine how learning can be disrupted when students are experiencing anxiety, depression, and mental health-related disability. We know that stress at high levels can negatively impact cognition, specifically memory and information processing (Sandi and Pinelo-Nava, 2007).

As we at CTAL continue to strive to meet the ever-changing needs of both instructors and students, we believe it is important to employ strategies that aim at decreasing some of the stress our students experience related to learning in a university classroom. Below are some easy-to-implement tips to consider in the design of your courses.

Establish a welcoming learning community
  1. Connect with your students early and often. This is always good advice.
      • Prior to the 1st day of class, consider sending a welcome e-mail that introduces yourself as a person.
      • Additionally, you might include a welcome video on your Canvas site.
      • Importantly, let your students know that you care about their success in your course. Stay in touch with your students throughout the semester with weekly class messages (e-mail, a written or video announcement in Canvas,…). 
  2. Greet students or call on students by their preferred names and pronouns.
      • Reference students by name when highlighting work they have done well (for example: “Sally mentioned an interesting benefit of x in her submission; I loved Jay’s approach to solving this dilemma).
      • Create a welcoming space for trans and non-binary students by respecting the pronouns they share in their introductions or listed in email signatures. If you’re comfortable, include your own pronouns in your introduction to help normalize sharing (for example: My name is Dr. John Smith and I use he/him/his pronouns).
  3. Begin class with a check-in. 
      • One way to do this online is to ask them to express how their day/week is going by posting an emoji or meme in the Zoom chat. For face-to-face courses, you can use a polling tool such as Poll Everywhere.
      • If you prefer a low-tech option for your in-person courses, you can offer students a few moments at the beginning of class to write down a few sentences about how they are feeling. If you sense there are challenging issues in the air, have students keep their comments anonymous and collect these so that you can get a better sense of what is going on.  
      • You might also open with an icebreaker (a good example is to use a “This or That”, such as “Would you rather do laundry or dishes?”). Icebreakers can help lighten the mood, and also serve as a way for students to learn about each other. 
  4. Provide opportunities for students to connect with each other. 
      • Ask students to create a video introduction of themselves at the beginning of the semester
      • If the class meets synchronously online, allow a few minutes for students to join a breakout group in Zoom to chat about a non-course related topic. Zoom now offers the option for participants to select the breakout room they want to join. So consider themes your students might be interested in.
      • For in-person instruction, consider low- or no-stakes group discussion opportunities such as: small-group review of recently taken class notes, a think-pair-share discussion, or small-group student hours. 
Share expectations at the beginning of the semester
  1. Provide an overview of what a typical week or module looks like in your course. For example: “You can expect a reading to be posted by Mondays and a quiz to be posted by Thursdays”. This helps students prepare for your course as well as balance their effort towards other courses.
  2. Let students know how long they might expect to receive feedback from you on an assignment. 
  3. Let students know a typical timeframe to expect to hear back from you when they have a question. For example: “I typically respond to emails within 24-48 hours”. [this may also be in your syllabus, but is helpful to verbalize in class].
Be flexible when possible
  1. Is there more than 1 way for students to meet the learning outcomes for your course?
      • Allowing students a choice in how they will demonstrate their learning is a Universal Design of Learning (UDL) principle that addresses potential barriers to learning for all students. Learn more about this in our SPOT-ON’s module on equity and access considerations.
  2. Are there low-stakes assessments, homework, or quizzes where the lowest grade can be dropped?
      • As events unfold at different rates for individual students and faculty alike, it may be helpful for students to know that they can drop a quiz that may coincide with a particularly stressful moment within the semester.  
  3. Is there flexibility in due dates? Can students provide input on deadlines at the beginning of the semester?
      • Sometimes deadlines need to be rigid, but if there is flexibility, can due dates be negotiated? Please consider your own schedule and ability to handle last minute requests, as well. 
  4. Can you plan for flexibility in how you use your in-class time?
      • You may have weeks in your semester where you plan for students to work in groups on a project, but due to illnesses or absences, not all students are present during those days. This can lead to stress and frustration for everyone. Develop some alternative plans for how to meaningfully use your in-class time in these unexpected circumstances. This could be as simple as setting aside time for written reflections on the learning process, or more complicated like offering students a structured research task that can be completed either independently or with other students. 
Include a syllabus statement on mental wellbeing

By sharing expectations and resources, you can help reduce barriers between students and support services. Your statement can convey the importance of mental health and its link to student success. Using proactive messaging helps normalize the need to seek help. Sample language is now available on the UD Syllabus template.

Model preventive strategies and coping skills in class
  1. Clear communication helps reduce anxiety.
      • When students understand what is expected of them, they can focus on meeting those expectations (and learning!).
      • Using a well-designed rubric will not only help your students, but will also reward you with ease of grading. Learn more about rubric design and view some examples.
  2. Help students with their time management
      • Provide estimates of time needed to complete learning activities, watch videos, read articles, …
      • Break down large assignments into smaller chunks so that students can more easily see how to plan their time each week.
      • Encourage students to complete the Office of Academic Enrichment’s Time Management workshop (online, and self-paced).
      • Provide frequent reminders of due dates in multiple formats: Canvas announcements, in-class announcements, etc. 
      • For projects or learning activities that span several weeks, check in each week to let students know how far along they should be in their progress. Provide support during student hours for those who may be behind. 
  3. Begin class with a mindful activity.
      • Dedicating a few minutes at the start of class can help set the stage for the planned learning activities. This could be a guided meditation; an opportunity to reflect on an image or quote; listen to music; or perform a simple breathing exercise.
      • Encourage students to disconnect from their devices and tune in to the mindful activity.
      • Learn more about mindful activities.
Consider your personal wellbeing

Establish boundaries and communicate them clearly to your students. By doing so, it not only communicates your boundaries, but it also models good practice to your students that boundaries are important for self care.

    • Decide on a time to “turn off” your work email, chats or other notifications.
    • Explicitly include the times you’ll respond to messages in your email signature, syllabus and/or an out of office message.
    • Try a “digital detox” after long days of screen time. Put away your devices and get outside or get creative to give yourself time to recoup.

Identify signs and symptoms of burnout. Have a recovery plan.

    • New physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, fatigue and/or emotional changes like feeling detached, unmotivated or irritable can all be signs of chronic work-related stress
    • Check-in with yourself often and ask your network of friends, family and colleagues to alert you to changes in your behavior
    • Be realistic about your goals for the semester and give yourself grace if things don’t go as planned.
    • Learn more about burnout prevention and recovery with no-cost courses from LinkedIn Learning

Ask for help when you need it.

    • A wide range of resources that support the wellbeing of faculty and staff are available through UD’s Employee Health and Wellbeing team
    • If feelings of burnout or helplessness won’t seem to go away, please utilize mental health resources like the 24/7 confidential counseling line available through our Employee Assistance Program, ComPsych: 877-527-4742
    • Email to learn more, talk directly or brainstorm on ways to keep our campus wellbeing agenda moving forward

Additional Resources: