Instructors’ Messages Offered Much-Needed Support to Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Spring 2020 Semester
In the middle of the spring 2020 semester, many courses shifted from face-to-face to online instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both students and instructors faced potentially tumultuous situations, including lack of childcare, unstable internet access, and inadequate space to work or learn from home. What messages from instructors helped students most during this time? In a new article published in NCA’s Communication Education, Renee Kaufmann, Jessalyn I. Vallade, and Brandi N. Frisby address this question and examine memorable messages related to COVID-19 and the effect that the messages had on student learning experiences.
Instructor support can bolster students’ engagement in course content. By communicating care and concern for students’ well-being, instructors can help students feel engaged in both the classroom and the university community. In turn, students generally rate emotionally supportive instructors more highly than those who are less empathetic and responsive. Memorable messages are those that have a lasting impact on their recipients. They typically come from a credible source (such as an instructor), are timely, and are easily recalled by the recipients. In educational contexts, positive memorable messages can influence students’ perceptions and help them adjust to the expectations on university campuses. Memorable messages in college may not always be related to course content, but instead may be related to academic success, post-graduation plans, or similar topics.
Kaufmann, Vallade and Frisby recruited 297 participants from lower-level, in-person Communication courses that shifted to fully online during the Spring 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In two open-ended response questions, students shared a memorable message that they had received from an instructor and how they felt that message had influenced their motivation and learning. Students responded to the survey a few weeks after classes had moved online. Kaufmann, Vallade and Frisby then analyzed the messages to identify themes.
From the survey responses, Kaufmann, Vallade and Frisby identified five main types of messages: emotional support, motivational, solidarity/unifying, compliment/praise, and tangible/informational support.
Emotional support was the most frequently reported message theme. The authors describe an emotional support message as “confirming and/or acknowledg[ing] that students were valuable and meaningful members of the classroom.” For example, one emotional support message identified by a student was, “Remember you are loved, have a great day, and reach out to me if you need anything.” These personal messages affirmed that the instructors supported the students as individuals outside of the academic context.
Motivational messages were the second most commonly reported. These messages were focused on completing tasks or maintaining a positive attitude in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. Motivational messages included, “Always try, even if things aren’t perfect,” “keep pushing,” and “You can only try as best as you can, don’t stress yourself out.” These motivational messages generally were meant to help students stay focused through the end of the semester.
The third message type was solidarity/unifying, which acknowledged the ongoing pandemic and often shared personal details about the instructor’s own struggles. These messages included, “We will get through this together” and other messages that emphasized togetherness. In addition, some students recalled instructors sharing information about their family life and work situation: “he loves his family and his child but is going crazy having to be home all the time taking care of his children.” Overall, Kaufmann, Vallade and Frisby argue that these messages emphasized the collective struggle that students and instructors faced.
The fourth message type was compliments/praise. These messages could be directed to individual students or the class. For example, one student described an instructor who said that “she was very proud of my grade for the semester because she is aware of the issues surrounding my personal life and the amount of stress and issues it has given me.” These messages often acknowledged students’ academic successes within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last message type, tangible/informational support, provided specific advice or direction for the course itself. These messages included statements “encouraging us [students] to ask any questions” or saying that instructors were available to “work with us [students] if we need any accommodation as this time period is chaotic and unexpected.” These messages offered specific support in the academic context in response to the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic.
Students also reported on the impact that these messages had on their learning experience. Kaufmann, Vallade, and Frisby identified four main impact themes: motivation and performance, instructor–student relationship, morale, and confidence. The most frequent response given was that memorable messages affected students’ motivation and performance. For example, one student said, “This message was impactful because it encouraged me to not only try to get my work done in her class but also my other classes.”
Second, some students said that memorable messages affected the instructor–student relationship. These messages typically affected students’ perceptions of how much the instructor cared about the students, as well as how connected students felt to their instructor. For example, for some students, memorable messages made them feel more comfortable with their instructor. One student said that they felt “more like a human being than just a student number” because of what their instructor said.
Third, students said that instructors’ messages affected their morale and well-being. For one student, this meant that the messages “helped me to stay positive and not be so overwhelmed.” Another student found that the messages were helpful in dealing with uncertainty because the messages “calmed my nerves about going online.” Students reported that instructors’ messages affected their morale both in and outside of the classroom.
Finally, some students found that instructor messages affected confidence. Students reported that memorable messages were “a great confidence booster.” Generally, these students felt that by boosting their confidence, the messages helped them navigate the uncertainties of the pandemic classroom.
After further analysis to determine any relationship between specific message types and impacts, Kaufmann, Vallade, and Frisby found that messages of solidarity were associated with improved confidence or morale. Emotional support messages, compliments/praise, and motivational messages were all associated with two types of impacts: instructor-student relationship and motivation and performance. Kaufmann, Vallade, and Frisby conclude that “Ultimately, the [memorable messages] that were most salient were those that were not necessarily tied to the course content but instead sought to support and motivate students on a personal level.”