Together, we can Protect Purdue.

See our FAQs

Supporting Students at a Distance Using Steps to Leaps: Panel Conversation

Held on April 1, 2020 and featuring:

  • Dr. Louis Tay, Associate Professor, Industrial-Organizational Psychology
  • Sandy Monroe, Exec. Director of University Undergraduate Academic Advising
  • Ellen Gundlach, Managing Director, The Data Mine

Session Outcomes
The student experience has drastically changed during the Coronavirus Pandemic. The Steps to Leaps Pillars—Well-being, Leadership and Professional Development, Impact, Networks, and Grit—provide a valuable framework to continue supporting our students at a distance. This panel discussion gives a sense of how others are navigating this new paradigm by incorporating the Steps to Leaps program.

Questions #1: What does well-being mean in a time like this?

Dr. Louis Tay

In light of our extraordinary circumstance, it's helpful to think about well-being from both a physical and a psychological standpoint. Obviously, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it's really important to think about physical well-being. So keeping good hygiene, washing your hands, social distancing, exercising to keep up your immunity, eating healthy.

In terms of psychological well-being, as Boilermakers, we are very achievement and goal-oriented. When we started the spring semester, we didn't say, "Oh, I'm going to be unproductive, and I'm going to be staying at home most of the time." Unfortunately, things change. Many of us are trying to find well-being in terms of finding normalcy amidst the disruptions. How can we, as students, complete our coursework? How can we, as faculty, do research and do our teaching well?

It's important to recognize that we want to be gritty, as one of the pillars would suggest, yet it's so important to be self-compassionate, as well. These are really extraordinary circumstances. We need to recognize that we might not be able to accomplish all that we set out to do, and that is okay. Giving yourself that grace is important. Some of us will be struggling amidst really dark times, given that this virus is going to affect our family members and ourselves in terms of health. It’s also important to find meaning, hope and contentment.

Sandy Monroe

Well-being is being redefined for a lot of our students. Academic advisors are now reaching out to their advisees during this high-demand advising time. They are sharing with their advisees some of the things that they are doing to keep up their own well-being, as the advising community is now working remotely. When they reach out to their students, they are checking in and to asking, “What are you doing, and how are you doing?”

Recently, an advisor sent out a series of emojis and asked the students to identify how they feel by the smile, the frown, or other emoji to get a sense of how they are doing and what they are doing. That's another way to think about well-being, realizing and naming it. It's going to be different, it's going to be fluid. There are things that you can do for a new normality and a sense of well-being. Connections create a sense of community that are important to help people get through these times, especially as it goes on longer and longer.

Ellen Gundlach

I work with a living learning community, and we can no longer live together. We are spread all over the world. Feeling connected is still a very important part of our mission in The Data Mine. It looks a little bit different, but the goal is still very much the same. Because so many people are feeling stressed about themselves, their own health, their family's health, about trying to readjust to courses being completely different, we're spending a lot of time thinking about what are the most important things we want our students to get from our experience? And what can we let go of? Then focusing on doing the most important things really well and effectively, and frequently checking in with the students.

Questions #2: How should we support our students through the grief process?
Related article:

Sandy Monroe

I see students and staff grieving for what was once normal, and for the life that they had prior to Covid-19. I think that's very real. Everything is different. Doesn't mean it's not going to come back. People are unable to see their friends, unable to be with their families. People are not aware of the impact that this time has had on them, until they start to feel this kind of edge of discomfort or unable to name exactly how they're feeling. People talk about being physically and emotionally exhausted, having to figure out how to do things differently, that are not as easily done these days. That's also part of the grieving process.

They're also grieving what would have been happening. Weddings have been canceled, graduations canceled. So there's the grief from losing the anticipated pieces of our lives. And that's constantly changing. We don't know what's going to be happening, and we don't have decisions on matters. We grieve for the loss of the predictable and what we can rely upon. The advising community say that their students are expressing these losses when they're meeting with them, and I know that the advisors are feeling that too.

Normally, we have a session where advisors come in and see each other in person, physically see each other’s faces. It's mainly social, sometimes it's partly giving some updates, but mainly just that notion of seeing your friends and your comrades and colleagues, which is very important. Often I hear people on a Zoom meeting say, "Oh, I miss you." or "I miss seeing you guys." The grieving is real. What you don't necessarily think about as grieving, but it is makes us tired and feel differently than we normally do.

Ellen Gundlach

One thing that I'm missing the most is having my office in a dormitory. I love that. After having been on the academic side of campus for 20 years, I love those casual conversations that I have at 7:00 in the morning, or at 2:00, 3:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when a student just happens to be walking by my office. I miss that more than anything else. I can set up meetings, but that's not the same. So I've been trying every day to send out just a couple emails to students, just out of the blue, just saying, “Hey, I remember we were talking about this before everybody had to go away. What happened with that? How are you doing with that?” I'm trying to get those casual conversations back.

Also, in The Data Mine, we have our students attend four outside events during the semester. We have a big list of over 50 events that the students could choose from, and we have guest speakers who come in. Well, all of our guest speakers canceled once we had this happen. We've had to ask ourselves, “Do we not make the students do their last two outside events?” We decided to keep those, and we're giving them the option of watching TED talks and recorded documentaries, those kinds of things. But yesterday afternoon, we had a live webinar that the students knew would be recorded and that they could watch the link later. I figured that nobody would show up, because they could watch it at 2:00 in the morning if they wanted to, since it was going to be recorded. We had incredible attendance at this event, much more than I expected. I think they just wanted to experience something at the same time, all as a group.

Regarding the grieving experience, I want to read a quote from one of the students’ reflections of watching a TED talk of Elon Musk. It ties into what we're talking about:

“This TED talk was extremely interesting and something I definitely enjoyed listening to, especially with what's going on in the world today. Being able to imagine what the future technologies would look like, was a good reminder that life will go on after the coronavirus is dealt with."

Dr. Louis Tay

I want to echo what Ellen and Sandy mentioned. I think that it's important, speaking from a faculty standpoint, to recognize that grief will come in different stripes. It could be in terms of anxiety, it could be in terms of anger. But there will be many different types of behavioral manifestations of that. Providing space for students to express how they're feeling is important. Sometimes even naming an emotion is cathartic, really helps them get a handle on how they're feeling in order to process what is happening. It could be fear of losing a loved one, because of Covid-19. Grief could be due to a loss of freedoms, even as something as simple as that.

Question #3: How can a faculty member continue to serve as a part of their student’s network at a distance?

Dr. Louis Tay

Regular contact with students through emails or calls is helpful. At the same time, be mindful not to overwhelm students, because we can also do too many check-ins. Make yourself available. For instance, have online office hours with time to chat with students and to do check ins as needed. It's also important to encourage students to keep in touch with each other.

Jenna Rickus, who is the associate vice provost for teaching and learning, has mentioned that there are basically three types of student struggles. International students are perhaps struggling with time differences. As a faculty member, it's important to recognize that and not to have your check-ins during times where it might be 3:00 a.m. in India or China. Some students may not have the technical infrastructure available at home for online learning. They might be having trouble with isolation.

Students who might be in more rural places struggle with obtaining Internet. Jenna shared a story of a student having to drive to Starbucks in order to get WiFi, to access some of the materials. It's really important for faculty members to be aware of students' situations. And in some cases, you might need to call a student, rather than email them, because it might be difficult for them even to be connected through email.

Ellen Gundlach

In The Data Mine, we have over 30 TAs.  I moved all of their office hours online to WebEx, but I asked quite a few of them if they would be willing to move their office hours to evening or even later. Some of our TAs are now on the West Coast or even in other countries, so later office hours works out well for them too. Whenever we have group meetings for our corporate partners projects, we try to move those to an appropriate time for everybody's time zones. Our students are scattered all over the place, and it's very important, but very challenging, to make sure that they all still feel like part of a learning community.

Sandy Monroe

Regarding the technology piece, we are looking through Blackboard to see if there are students who have some connectivity problems. The call center is texting or calling some of those students who have issues with connectivity. It is a very real issue for some of our students.

I'll share with you what is happening with academic advisors. This is high demand time for academic advising, and we have over 200 academic advisors who are trying to reach out remotely to all of their students. This relates to the Networks pillar of Steps to Leaps. The students' network is reaching out to them to either connect with them by WebEx or Zoom or a phone call or email. They're getting a chance to talk with their academic advisor. And the advisors have a strong rapport with their students.

The advisor is somebody the student trusts and knows. The advisors are trying to do some holistic advising, to check on the well-being of the student, to check on their families, and more. They ask, “What are you doing during this time? What kinds of things are you doing to fill your time?” Some of the advisors, share what they're doing. Saying, "I'm sitting on the couch, while I’m in this meeting with you, and I'm at home." So there's a lot of humanization that may be happening for some of us. And I think it's very good that the connections are occurring as they would in many cases, by having meaningful conversations.

Advisors are interested in knowing if students are having problems with staying connected to the University as well. Although the advisors are very busy at this point, and advising sessions are taking longer, they are making contact with all of the students on campus. Advisors have a regular meeting scheduled every semester with their students as required. So this has turned out to be a very busy time, but also a good time for the University to be able to reach out.

Ellen Gundlach

In The Data Mine, we have been soliciting student feedback and opinions. They have very good ideas for what works and doesn't work for them. We might think that we know, but they're really the experts on this. And so it's a continually evolving model for us.

Question #4: Are there tangible methods you can suggest to help students feel supported? 

Ellen Gundlach

A student who had to fly back to the East Coast, had a plant that he cared about so much that he named it Spike. He was really concerned about what would happen to Spike, while he was gone. So he asked if I would care for it. So I've been taking care of his plant, and I occasionally send him updates on how Spike is doing. I send him pictures of Spike hanging out with my other plants, or enjoying a sunbeam. That's just one way that I'm trying to connect. But regular check- ins, that go beyond, where we try and get into actual conversations and find out “How are things at your house? What's going on with you?”

In addition to all the normal stresses of school, we're getting at least one email a day from a student who had a great internship lined up but is now not able to do their internship. Companies are canceling internships, and we try to be a good sounding board and commiserate with the students. We actively look for other opportunities for the students for the summer. I've heard some students say, "Well, why should we plan for anything right now because you can't count on anything going through, how are we supposed to make plans?"

Dr. Louis Tay

It’s important for faculty to create space and to share, as appropriate, struggles that we might be facing, so that students can connect to those narratives and stories and feel empathized. I teach a graduate seminar. Thankfully, it's a small class. So we're able at the start of class to take 10 minutes to support one another and share ways that we are coping through this challenging time.

The other practical aspect for instructors is to find ways to reduce the workload for students. Think about what's essential that they have to know, versus what is good for them to know. Maybe you could make that optional. Again, there could be very creative ways of going about doing that. Recognizing that students will be going through a lot of different challenges with the transition to moving home or to being by themselves here in the dorms. I think it's hard for them. Recognize that, and make sure that you're not demanding too much from them during this time.

Sandy Monroe

Do things as you normally would, especially in academic advising. We send out campaigns to our students, we send out texts to students and emails and so forth. So keep those initiatives going. Just because we're at a distance doesn't mean that we can't be close.

Question #5: What pieces of this transition have you been concerned about and how have you gotten through those?

Sandy Monroe

One of the things that I'm concerned about is that the longer this goes on, the bigger impact it will have on people's mental health, and also on people's morale. To fortify my own morale, I've been reaching out, making phone calls. I haven't called some of my friends and family for a long time. Often we've communicated online, so phone calls have been important to connect with my community and my family. I worry about the morale and mental health issues that others will also be facing.

Dr. Louis Tay

Nextdoor, the app, has been great in helping to see what our neighbors are doing. People have been finding creative ways to encourage each other as people go for walks and even put teddy bears in the windows or on fences for the kids. There are other ways that students and faculty can engage in that sort of support, obviously while practicing good social distancing. Dropping food at somebody's place, for example. We've received food from our neighbors and friends, who just dropped something by our place, and then said bye from six feet or more. There are different, creative ways that we can show we are still part of the community, we are being cared for.

Sandy Monroe

As great as it is that we're able to take so much of our lives online at this time of isolation, I've found that it's been really important for me to be intentional about taking some time offline. Reading books on the weekend, rather than spending more time in front of the computer, going for a walk every morning. It's important to find some balance for ourselves. We can't be on our computers or phones 24 hours a day, or we're going to get exhausted.

Question #6: What should we say to students who say they aren’t good at online learning?

Dr. Louis Tay

It's important to acknowledge it, embrace it. It's challenging all around. It's a hard transition for students. It's also very hard to transition for instructors trying to move materials online. There can be many distractions at home, for instance. It's helpful to remind students to be proactive, to seek help, especially if they're feeling like they're not getting the materials or resources they need to learn well.

For instructors with large classes, it's helpful to do a check in, perhaps using surveys. It could be as simple as just two questions. For instance, “On a one to five scale, how are you doing with the online learning format?” From poor to excellent. So you can get a sense of where students are. If you have a 200 person class, you might also want to have an additional open-ended response, something to the effect of, “How can I help you learn better?” Or “What resources would you need to help you?”

Ellen Gundlach

When I was teaching statistics, I had a very large service course. I had a traditional large lecture, and hybrid and online sections. I did a research project that compared student performance and student attitudes in those three types of delivery methods. There wasn't much difference in either performance or attitude between those three types of delivery methods. And our idea behind that is that even the traditional courses have so many online components, that there's not all that much difference between the sections. We did find that for the online students, their grades did not necessarily look as much like a bell curve. It was more bimodal, because you had the students who really loved that flexibility; they were self-motivated, and they could do well, with less structure.

Then we had other students who just disappeared. So every semester, I would ask the online students, “What would you recommend to next semester students for how to be successful in this course?” And they said things like, “Treat it as a regular class.” I would say to a student, even though you get to choose a time, decide for yourself, okay, Tuesday at 1:00 pm, that is when I'm going to work on the material for this course. Also make sure you're taking advantage of office hours. Like Louis said, don't hide, don't assume that the problem will just go away if you don't talk about it. It's even more important to make contact with your teacher when everything's online.

Sandy Monroe

And I might add the question, “What about online learning presents a problem for you?” Why is the student saying they aren't good at online learning? If there are internet connectivity issues, the Dean of Students Office can help with that.

Final Thoughts and Comments

Ellen Gundlach

Well, I'm very, very much missing the students every day. As a teacher, I always think it's exciting to kind of declutter your course, clean out your closet, look at what you're trying to teach in an entirely new way. I'm looking forward to seeing what new ideas we have as a result of being forced to teach this way. It doesn't mean we'll want to do it this way forever. But what are we going to learn about our students, what are we going to learn about our goals for the course, and about our own strengths and weaknesses through this process? so I'm choosing to see this as exciting.

Sandy Monroe

Ellen, I'm with you. The brightest part of my day sometimes is when I get a chance to talk with students. They are sorely missed. We do have a few whom I'm in contact with. I want to reiterate that Purdue is moving onward, we're not going to be like this forever. It is going to change, we just don't know when. It's important that we continue to interact with one another and the students in ways that we always have. To have those meaningful conversations, to be humane, to share our sympathy, our empathy, our compassion and kindness, even a little bit more. Also look for ways in which we can be advocates for students and/or others. I think too, like you say, there are many lessons we're going to learn from this time.

Dr. Louis Tay

I completely agree with Sandy and Ellen. It is important to recognize that we are grieving. We are losing a lot of contact with students and colleagues, and the normal rhythms of life. It helps us recognize what's ultimately important to us—it's people. And people are the students and our colleagues, our friends and family. We can use this time to reflect on that. It’s important to think through our fundamental priorities. We are Boilermakers, we will get through this, we are gritty and we are resilient. When you look back, you realize, wow, we went through a lot. And perhaps one way of thinking about it or framing is, “Hey, we will have a great story to tell our kids and grandkids down the road.”

Please share your thoughts:



To join the conversation and learn more,
use the hashtag #PurdueStepstoLeaps on social channels:

FB Logo  Twitter Logo  Instagram Logo