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 is to ask them to express how  their day/week is going by posting an emoji or meme in the Zoom chat. 
      • 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.
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. 
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, …
  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: