November 17, 2020

Fostering connection and practicing kindness

Hasina Samji has learned to adapt her teaching for the online environment.

For Hasina Samji, an assistant professor in health sciences, the past eight months have been about learning to provide a positive course experience for students within the constraints of the online environment.

While preparing to teach her HSCI 432: Seminar in Epidemiology this fall, she debated whether or not to deliver lectures synchronously. Her worry was that students in different time zones or with poor internet access might have difficulty connecting.

“Ultimately, with a smaller group (about 45 students), I decided to see if I could recreate important features of in-person instruction—like getting to connect with peers—and shift gears if it didn't seem like synchronous instruction [was] working well from the students' perspective.”

Halfway through the semester, synchronous delivery seems to be working, but Samji acknowledges that there are aspects of the in-person experience she misses.

No Halloween treats this year

“There is no substitute for the give and take between me and students, and for students within the class. I particularly miss getting to know the students outside of strict class parameters; for instance, learning about their interests, career plans and challenges as well. My students are often on the cusp of graduation, and I usually provide a lot more career guidance. 

“Similarly, I bring in guest lecturers from applied public health settings—this year we've had three guest lecturers from the BC Centre for Disease Control—and they usually also share their career trajectories to provide context for students. That interaction is missing this year. 

“I also didn't get to buy students Halloween treats like I usually do. And though we haven't discussed it, I imagine the students are feeling the Zoom fatigue we all are. Participation through the chat has been working relatively well—and possibly better for people who prefer not to speak up in front of a larger class.”

Practicing gratitude and granting extensions

Samji has been participating in a Well-being in Learning Environments pilot organized by SFU Health Promotion and the Institute for the Study of Learning and Teaching in the Disciplines (ISTLD). The pilot incorporates activities like weekly check-ins designed to support student well-being as well as qualitative interviews (scheduled for later in the semester) that will ask students about “what worked and what didn't.”

She is convinced that the effort to ask students how they are coping is important: “I think a lot of students' struggling is unfortunately behind closed doors, or computer screens in this case.”

Samji herself has relied on a variety of coping mechanisms.

“Conversations with my peers are helpful, and knowing that others are struggling with the same issues. I do my best to practice gratitude—shifting my focus from seeing roadblocks or frustrations to a more positive frame of mind—but this is an ongoing challenge. I will say, though, that I'm lucky to have my family around. I feel for students and others who are isolated/alone.”

Ultimately, the past eight months have taught her the importance of compassion.

“I laughingly shared with [ISTLD director] Sheri Fabian recently that I'm giving out extensions left, right and centre. Indeed, if students approach me for an extension, I often give even more time than they ask for. We are all struggling with unanticipated anxieties and challenges; let's be kind to each other if we can.”