OPINION: Faculty must support students outside the classroom

Effren Villanueva/Daily Trojan

For many students, the transition from high school to college is the hallmark of adulthood. However, the excitement of being away from home, thrown into a new environment, also comes with the stress of adapting to more difficult classes and an independent lifestyle. In extreme situations, students may fall into depression or develop anxiety disorders if their stress is not mediated.

While on-campus mental health resources can provide students with support to manage their stress, additional care can come from an unlikely source — professors. This month, researchers from the University of California, Davis, presented findings pointing to positive results from increased faculty engagement. They developed the light-touch intervention system, in which a professor with a class of over 100 students sends individualized emails to students detailing their performance in the class, recommendations on how to improve their work and the professors’ availability for future meetings.

Students who received such emails ended up earning higher grades on exams and performing better in the overall class. Even a quick, simple interaction between a professor and a student can make a noticeable difference in alleviating the academic stress that students experience.

At USC, freshmen often take classes in large, lecture hall-style classrooms, some of which have enrollment numbers in the hundreds. Among these large-scale classes at USC are general chemistry and organic chemistry courses, which are notorious for their difficulty and  high drop rates. For most students, this is a drastic change from smaller high school classrooms that cultivated necessary one-on-one interactions with their teachers.

In many of USC’s larger classes, the only communication that students receive from the professors are mass notifications about exam updates. The only individualized emails are mid-semester alerts to students who are not on track to pass the class. This type of interaction, limited to high-pressure tests and low grades, cultivates a system in which students are only expecting to receive negative feedback from their professors.

In contrast, light-touch intervention ensures that emails are not only personalized to students’ needs, but also include uplifting notes of encouragement. In the UC Davis study on faculty engagement, professors praised students who got high marks on midterms, while they encouraged opportunities for growth and improvement for students who didn’t do as well.

For students who normally decide to drop courses after scoring poorly on exams, light-touch intervention would help them feel that improvement is viable. By providing students with specific ways to do better on upcoming assignments and tests, these emails also foster growth-oriented mindsets, which are indicative of success in the classroom and beyond.

With something as simple as light-touch intervention, professors could reverse the learning environment cultivated in their classrooms from one of negative to positive reinforcement.

While the idea of writing individualized emails might seem unfeasible, professors have the resources to do so. In classes with over 100 students, there are teachers assistants who can help draft or send emails. Professors can use templates that address similar concerns for students who are having the same struggles with the course. The Washington Post estimates that most professors teach nine to 15 hours a week — it is reasonable for them to take some time to email their students.

In addition to promoting improved academic outcomes, personalized contact initiated by professors communicates to students that they care. Numerous psychological studies show that community support is a major factor in easing the transition from high school to college. Community support can come from family, friends, peers and even professors. As seen in the UC Davis study, faculty engagement strengthens a student’s support network.

In the light-touch intervention emails, professors also included a note on their availability to meet with students. Students perceived these teachers to be more approachable and caring, which encouraged them to seek help in office hours when they normally would not have. In response to these emails, students expressed gratitude for the advice and, more importantly, for the professors’ effort in engaging with the students.

“I really appreciate what you’re doing and I do wish more professors do what you are doing,” one student in the study wrote in reply to their professor.

In a highly competitive environment like USC, academic stress runs rampant. To ameliorate mental health issues stemming from this, USC professors should look to adopt engagement techniques similar to light-touch intervention, especially in high volume, lower division classes. As the conversation surrounding University mental health resources continues, the spotlight should turn to the faculty side to see how they can do more to support students.