Article 5 - Coastal Carolina University
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Challenges of Advising in an Online FormatAggie Obrien-Gayes

Aggie O’Brien-Gayes, director of academic advising; HTC Honors College and Center for Interdisciplinary Studies

As someone who relies on nonverbal communication, there are challenges in an online environment. Emails do not provide the breadth and width of understanding that face-to-face interactions provide. Being three weeks into the online format, there are some lessons learned. Students really do appreciate being able to talk to their advisor. Forwarding the office phone to the home phone (yes, I still have a landline) has been very helpful. Talking with students allows for a little bit of human contact right now and it is easier to answer multiple questions that way. It allows you to talk person to person and share the experiences we are all having. We could not work from home, practice social distancing, and finish the semester with our students without technology, but we have to be aware of the isolation that this new environment can bring to students.  

Being able to discuss emotions and feeling is very important, and phone calls allow the focus to be on emotions, which is appropriate right now. I have been surprised by how many students are calling me and how appreciative they are when that phone is answered, even at night. I have even had a few calls where students ask me if they can just vent? The answer is of course yes. In anxious times, allowing the focus to be on emotions is appropriate and beneficial.

Emails are also crucial now as an advising tool. Not only did this occur right after an extended spring break, but registration was also occurring simultaneously. Email has been a crucial tool for communication. Taking extra time with emails by starting with a few questions has also had a very positive response from students. Taking the time to ask a student how they are, how their family is doing, what their challenges are, and asking how I can help makes a difference.  

Responding to the new Beacon Alert process by saying we are all in this together and sharing our own experiences with students allows them to be validated in terms of their concerns, fears, and challenges. It opens the door to encouraging them to finish the semester strong and to periodically regroup. We all can use a little validation with so much change and so many unknowns occurring at once. For many students, this is the first real crisis of their adult life. They need to know they are not alone.

In the HTC Honors College and Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, we have been communicating even more with students than we normally would, in part to help minimize the feeling of isolation that can be a by product of social distancing and moving to an online environment. The feedback received from students has been quite positive. During the second week, we realized students were struggling a bit in terms of feeling in control and confident about all their classes. Below is the list of tips we pulled with an explanation of why it helps was sent it to all our students:

  1. Stick to a schedule. Routine and structure help reduce stress and help us
    complete assignments.
    a.    In effect, go to class at the same time every day or every other day.
    b.    Why this helps: It keeps us on track much like our pre-pandemic schedules kept us on track.

  2. Find a quiet corner. You do not need a large space. Having a separate working space to call your own helps create boundaries.
    a.    Set up a little table or desk like structure to work from at home.
    b.    Try to avoid your bed or the living room. We are all under a fair amount of stress right now.
    c.    Why this helps: When the mind is under stress, distractions make it even harder to focus.
  3. Discuss boundaries with family members.
    a.    Establish a quiet time for your quiet space.
    b.    Why it helps: A little peace and quiet is good for everyone right now. Fewer distractions help us study and complete assignments.
  4. Limit distractions in your study space. You’re trying to stay focused in a new environment.
    a.    Turn off social media, radios, and TV.
    b.    Why this helps: The average attention span has been declining for years. It takes weeks for new habits and approaches to become effective.
  5. Use resources.
    a.    The Kimbel Library webpages and Google Scholar (look for the available at CCU to the right of the source) can help you complete research.
    b.    Reach out to your professors. The vast majority want to listen and help.
    c.    Reach out to other students in the class via Moodle, email, etc.
    d.    Why this works: In times like this, we need to work smarter because it is a little harder.
  6. Take breaks (probably more breaks). Let’s call it “meaningful mindlessness.”
    a.    A five-minute stretch or get up and walk around the house.
    b.    Dance to a favorite tune (put it on loop for 5-7 minutes).
    c.    Play a game. (Don't forget to set your timer.)
    d.    Why this works: It allows us to breathe, change it up, and refocus.
  7. Break projects down into manageable sections. Thinking about everything we all have to finish before the semester ends is, well, overwhelming. Life is a little more overwhelming than usual right now, but the solution is to be in control of what we can control.
    a.    I cannot do the whole paper right now, but I can complete the title page and the opening and read two articles for it in this study session.
    b.    Why this works: You cannot run a marathon without training yourself to run a mile first. Finishing a few tasks gives us confidence and puts us back in control. In times like these, that is even more important.
  8. Make a Daily Checklist, andactually check things off.
    a.    What you NEED to accomplishthis day.
    b.    What you WANT to accomplish this day.
    c.    Why this works: It creates a positive reinforcement when you can check things off the list.
  9. Give yourself rewards for accomplishments. They don’t need to be be big.
    a.    It could be 10 minutes in the sun or a fresh cup of coffee, tea, chocolate milk, or whatever you’d like.
    b.    Why this works: Creating a positive reinforcement helps us create positive behaviors.
  10. Reach out. If you need a pep talk, call your advisor or mentor and say you need a pep talk.

There are days when students, advisors, and faculty just need to hear we are all in this together. We all need positive reinforcement in regular circumstances that need increases in a pandemic. Students being able to discuss their fears is important. Fear is a reasonable response to an invisible threat. It is an appropriate response to the unknown we are facing. Being able to express that and be heard is valuable to students.

I have been surprised at how tired we are at the end of the day. We are experiencing the effects of the additional stress and anxiety. Being aware of how that impacts our own interactions may be harder to recognize. We can inadvertently project that stress onto others. This could influence our effectiveness in helping students particularly through remote media. By being consciously aware of how we are also impacted and acknowledging it to ourselves, we can accommodate and help each other. That in turn helps us help our students. If ever there was a time for empathy, it is now.

We are all in this together and things will get back to normal, but the new normal may include increased uses of technology and more comfort with appropriate emotional responses.

This too shall pass.