BRCC faculty adjust to students’ changing needs, challenges amid the pandemic

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Dave Urso, a dean of academic affairs at Blue Ridge Community College, came to the school 16 years ago because it was an open admissions institution that sought to meet students where they were. But with the pandemic interrupting new students’ last couple years of high school, the college has had to adjust in myriad ways to keep up with those students’ needs. 

“We stood on the front door and said ‘if you want to learn, we will find a way to teach you and work with you and help you get there,’” Urso said. “If that’s developmental education, if that’s remediation along the way, if that’s extra tutoring, we will do that.”

Now, faculty and staff at BRCC are tasked with figuring out what their students need to succeed, and it’s spurred a reimagining of what higher education looks like.

“Students who have been renormed on what education is and what the minimum benchmark is — to provide the scaffolding to get them to that finish line,” Urso said. “And I think it’s a challenge, but I think we have capable talented people here who can help us get there.”

Urso said before the pandemic, in any given class a professor might have six or seven high-needs students who have so much going on in their homes and personal lives “that they need hand holding, extra attention, support, and a cheerleader.”

“At this point I think that number is probably up to 17 to 18, so in that same group of 25 to 30 students, you’re seeing two and a half to three times as many students who are suddenly in that high need for support, both in terms of technical support — like take the time to go to the writing center or a tutor — but also just in that life support of ‘I’m having a tough week with depression, I’m struggling to find food this week,’” Urso said.

It’s not as if the college is asking faculty to become full-on social workers, but he said instructors are having to take on different roles as they help students with a wider range of challenges in — and sometimes outside — the classroom. 

 “Understanding the conversations that our faculty are being exposed to on a week by week basis, I think is far beyond the scope that the average person would anticipate.”

‘Lost out in cyberspace’

Marlena Jarboe, BRCC’s other academic affairs dean, said one thing she’s seen both in the office and classroom is the need for newer students to communicate earlier and often. She said it’s important they establish contact with their professors, even if it’s just by sending an introductory email to an instructor of an online class.

“A lot of times they’ll shy away from meeting in person. They need to take advantage of the professor’s office hours and understand that time is for them to come in and get some help,” Jarboe said. “And not to be afraid to ask for help. If they need help, more than likely somebody else in the class needs help, and no question is a silly question.”

Jarboe also said online options can be more convenient for students who have jobs or taking care of families. 

“So I think in some ways it makes it a little easier because they can just hop on their phone with the Zoom app or they don’t have to physically drive to campus to make that happen,” she said.

And many instructors have made efforts to personalize classes that might be asynchronous, where students do course work and watch video lessons on their own time instead of during a scheduled class period. 

“We don’t want them to feel like they’re lost out in cyberspace by themselves,” Jarboe said. 

Offering more synchronous online classes also has allowed the college to serve a population they couldn’t reach before, Urso said. Before the pandemic, BRCC primarily offered asynchronous online classes, and in-person, on campus classes. 

“And what we’ve found is that a single parent who gets their kid on the bus in the morning is able to log on and be in class for an hour and a half and not necessarily disrupt their life the same way it would if they had to drive to campus,” Urso said. “We were able to tap into people who access became critically important for, in a really meaningful way because we had this new delivery model that our hand was forced to be able to deliver.”

‘A counterpunch of grace’ 

Jarboe said even with all those different course delivery models, faculty still recommend that students coming directly out of high school “come to campus and take a face-to-face class.”

“Because it takes a lot of maturity and self discipline to go through those asynchronous classes, and again, one size doesn’t fit all, but we usually let people know we have a variety of class offerings on campus and online, both synchronous and asynchronous,” Jarboe said.

She also noted that while there was an initial dip in enrollment from the spring and fall 2020 semesters when Covid first hit, enrollment for Spring 2022 is up 18% from the previous year.

Urso said that their student population lies at two ends of a spectrum: the engaged student who is determined to work hard and get their degree, and the student attending begrudgingly and going through the motions. To him, what the pandemic did was it made people “even more doubled and tripled down into the role they were playing coming in.”

“So the focused student has become even more focused: ‘I can work harder and balance this out with everything else that’s happening in my life,’” Urso said. “But the disengaged student has been provided this golden opportunity to be even more disengaged: ‘I can log into a Zoom, but turn my video off and play Fortnite for the entire class.’”

He said because the bar for minimum effort has dropped during virtual learning, faculty members have been discussing what it means to be an active partner in students’ learning. It often becomes a balancing act of holding students to a high standard of learning, but weighing that with a “counterpunch of grace.”

“I think we’ve all needed grace in our life in the last two years,” Urso said. “How are we making sure we’re giving out as much grace as we’re expecting in return? If you can look at that email or that student meeting or that conversation and say, ‘this student has pure intentions to try to learn this material and better themselves,’ how can you work with them, what resources are on the table and what can you do better or differently to help them get there?”

‘Rigor with the content, but …’

However, that becomes a highly personalized effort and takes lots of time to get there. For those faculty experiencing professional burnout, taking from Friday afternoon to Monday morning off to not check emails means missing critical communication with students who only have the weekend to get schoolwork done.

“As much as the students have changed, faculty are also trying to find their identity and understanding what their work is and why it matters now as well,” Urso said. “So you have both of these changing populations and you still have to rally together to accomplish things but the foundation of that is going to be grace in dealing with people. You have to remember there’s a person behind that student email, there’s a person behind that faculty conversation, and bring them back to that humanity piece.”

Deb Fitzgerald, who is an associate economics professor at Blue Ridge and also is a Harrisonburg school board member, has embraced an educational motto during the pandemic: “Rigor with the content, but mercy with the process.”

“I try to keep my expectations high for what they actually learn, but try to be a little bit more merciful about things like deadlines,” Fitzgerald said. “Everybody still has to do all the work, but I’m a little more merciful about how they get the work to me.”

With many of her students grappling with their own life issues, Fitzgerald said she’s been more accommodating, and giving students grades that reflect their mastery of the content rather than whether they were able to submit assignments exactly on time or not.

She also said she’s put in a lot of “incompletes” as grades for students at the end of the semester that will soon be changed once they’re able to submit their work. 

Blue Ridge, Eastern Mennonite University and James Madison University have similar rules about issuing incomplete — or “I” letter grades — that can be retroactively changed.

“But it’s all sometime next semester they have a period of time in which they can finish whatever work they didn’t manage to complete during the gameplay of the regular semester,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald added she’s never had as many Zoom office hours meetings on weekends as she has these past two semesters.

“I have students working everywhere from medical facilities in the Valley to the Walmart distribution center. And their hours are not 8 to 4, they work when they need to work,” Fitzgerald said. “So sometimes Sunday at 11 o’clock is when we have Zoom office hours to figure out the problem they had on the last quiz.”

‘Meet the students where they are’

With the pandemic interrupting large parts of recent high school graduates’ final stretch of classes, Fitzgerald, Urso and Jarboe said they all have noticed certain gaps in knowledge from that cohort of students.

Fitzgerald said in her economics class often the quantitative math skills are either rusty or nonexistent, and she’s become accustomed to helping refresh students on some of the basic skills, such as understanding supply and demand or algebraic skills.

“I’ll teach a concept in econ, for example the concept of elasticity, which requires people to remember how to calculate a percentage change,” Fitzgerald said. “And I will always start by, ‘Alright, don’t panic. For those of you who have forgotten, if you’ve voted those brain cells off the island, here’s how you do a percentage change.’”

And she’ll talk for a few minutes, give them two examples, and then they’ll move on to teaching the concept of elasticity.

“And I’ll do that over and over again, just for stuff that you probably picked up in high school, might not have used in a long time, and now I just can’t be sure that they really got it in high school. That’s the problem,” she said. “You have to meet the students where they are, and you don’t really know where they are now. Because you don’t have a really good sense anymore about just what those last two years were like for them. But it’s okay.”

As a teacher in the psychology department, Urso said he often finds himself wondering if he’s woken up as an English teacher when he assigns papers.

“If there are fundamental writing weaknesses in a paper, then I spend so much of my time talking about and coaching up and editing and grading for writing issues, as opposed to being able to dig directly into the content,” Urso said.

He said having weak math skills can have far greater implications for a student entering the nursing program, for instance.

“There are huge differences between the intention to give .5 milliliters of a medication and .05 milliliters of a medication,” Urso said. “If I don’t have strong enough math skills coming in, then the nursing faculty are going to be compelled to teach me that because the stakes are so high. But the time spent teaching that basic skill is time off task from something else that should and could be being taught in the nursing program.”

He said that’s why they count on students to show up with some baseline so that they can hit the ground running with the concepts and constructs that are at the college level.

‘These folks missed something’ 

Jarboe and Fitzgerald also said that the concept of plagiarism has been lost on a lot of students, whether that’s the definition or the implications it holds in terms of academic dishonesty. 

Under the college’s Quality Enhancement Plan, there’s something called a Plagiarism Module, which students who violate the academic honor code have to complete. However, Fitzgerald said they’re working to handle those instances with more of a restorative justice model rather than punitive.

“One of the things our QEP did was try to make the experience of getting caught at academic plagiarism more of a learning experience,” Fitzgerald said. “So if you get nailed by a prof[essor], and plagiarism goes to file, they’ll have a meeting with you, and you’ll have to complete work. And the work is going through a series of assignments in these two [plagiarism] modules. And if you do that you probably still get the grade penalty, but you get restored to good standing.”

Jarboe added that plagiarism is something that’s frequently taught in the classroom and how to avoid it, but faculty  also use the online plagiarism detector that can immediately tell students the percentage of a paper that has come from other published works.

“Our instructors are very proactive in trying to educate the students, in the examples and what that means,” Jarboe said. “But still we do see a handful that’ll just go out to Google and copy and paste, and that’s not okay. And it’s interesting trying to get students to realize what is a good, valid, reliable source.”

She said faculty members do their best to use these infractions as coaching moments, but ultimately it’s up to the professor’s discretion to give a grade penalty or fail a student who is found plagiarizing.

Jarboe said another difference between college and high school that many students might not be prepared for is how there are often fewer assignments each semester but midterm and final exams might count for larger portions of their final grades.

“I would really tell them to make sure that they read the syllabus before each class because the syllabus is the contract between each student and the instructor,” Jarboe said. “That’ll give them all those percentages of how their grade is calculated and also absences.”

They each emphasized that they’re determined to continue identifying the best ways to teach students amid the changing dynamics of education during this age of Covid.

“There are generations that have lived through all kinds of crises and managed to come out the other end of it pretty successfully. We’re just going to have to remember that these folks missed something. They missed something really important in their social and emotional learning. They kind of forgot how to be a student in some ways, and they missed content,” Fitzgerald said.

Jarboe said that they’ll continue to meet students where they are — but students need to communicate with instructors when they’re having trouble. 

“That’s our whole mission as a community college,” Jarboe said. “It’s those that don’t speak out and then struggle and wonder why at the semester that they’re not as successful as they hoped they had been. But we all want them to succeed.”

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