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Role of Faculty

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Cornell University
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Professors, lecturers, instructors, teaching assistants, and lab supervisors are all in unique positions to notice and respond to students in distress due to the inherent, ongoing nature of their relationships with students. Weekly, bi- or tri-weekly classes, sections and labs are places where changes in personality or patterns of behavior can be most easily detected. It is precisely for these reasons that faculty members can be effective “eyes and ears” in our campus community, noticing and responding to students in the early stages of situational and/or other emotional distress.

Faculty members are not expected to take on the role of therapist or counselor. However, as integral members of the campus community and important partners in the University’s commitment to overall student welfare, faculty members can help notice, approach and/or refer students in distress. There are strong systems in place which make up a comprehensive network of support for a struggling student or for a faculty member seeking consultation or collaboration regarding a struggling student. Faculty members should contact their school's/college's Advising/Student Services office at the first sign of a distressed (or distressing) student.

Strategies used by current Cornell faculty

  1. Provide clear expectations from the first day of class. Include information about what the students can expect from the professor/instructor and what the professor/instructor expects from the student.
  2. Build flexibility into the course. For example, if you give four exams during the semester, reassure students that only three will count toward their grade, and they can choose which three. 
  3. Establish a formalized mechanism through which students can appeal project/paper deadlines or ask for an exam makeup. For example, rather than setting a make-up exam date and time at the beginning of the semester, provide the make-up exam based on the group of students who have communicated (through the formalized mechanism) that a make-up date is needed.
  4. Maximize flexibility in office hours and consultation. Consider location, time of day/night, TA availability, "virtual meeting places," use of e-mail, etc.
  5. Use humor to reduce stress. Try adding cartoons into written exams. 
  6. Consider un-timed exams. While this is vital for students with some learning disabilities, it can also reduce tension for mainstream students. 
  7. Ask students to research and submit exam questions. This not only facilitates class learning and encourages active engagement in the course, but also creates a sense of faculty/student collaboration. 
  8. Keep students well-informed of their level of course performance throughout the semester. As the add/drop deadline approaches, it can help decrease students’ stress level to know whether or not they are doing well enough to stay in a course.
  9. Learn student names whenever possible. There are many ways to do this. Consider taking pictures the first day of class or give students a first assignment, due on the second class, to bring in a photo of themselves doing something they enjoy. 
  10. Foster community between and among students and faculty within a department: build in group work to decrease individual competition; schedule field trips or outings; provide a home-cooked meal at your place; initiate discussions in the dining halls; highlight activities of students outside the classroom (athletics, performances, volunteerism, articles in news or other media, awards).
  11. Create early warning systems to recognize when a student is in distress. Consider factors such as absenteeism, decline in academic performance, gut feeling that something might be “wrong." Check in with faculty and advising staff to discuss students of concern, share information, and make a plan for checking in with the students to ascertain what supports might be needed to help them get back on track.  
  12. Make grading process as transparent as possible. Mean grading seems to increase the sense of competition among students.  

A Faculty Handbook

"Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress" (pdf) is a comprehensive resource developed for Cornell faculty. Learn more