In the last few years, more people have experienced psychological and physical trauma than ever before. According to the World Health Organization, “there has been a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in the last decade.” And the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a host of traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, food and housing insecurity, growing unemployment, and social isolation, as well as their physical and emotional knock-on effects.
College students have experienced a significant increase in trauma-related symptoms since the beginning of the pandemic. A recent article published in BMC Psychology, “Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of US College Students,” includes a survey that revealed increased anxiety (60.8%), feeling of loneliness (54.1%), and depression (59.8%) among college students between ages 18-24 as they neared the ends of their programs. Over 60% found it more difficult to complete the semester at home, and it was particularly difficult for the 34.1% of students who had strained family relationships.
As a preface to the survey results, the authors write, “The sudden change in students’ learning environment, the quality of their education, and other circumstances caused students to face unique challenges, adversely impacting their mental health. The loss of internships, on-campus jobs, and other opportunities also contributed to the stress and declining mental health of students.”
While it’s clear that many college students are struggling as a result of the pandemic, it can be difficult for educators to know how to support them academically. Trauma-informed pedagogy and assessment can help.
What Is Trauma?
According to the UCI Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation, “[t]rauma is not an event itself, but the body’s protective response to an event or series of events that is experienced as harmful or life-threatening.” The effects of trauma can be both physical and emotional, and the results are often long-lasting.
How Does Trauma Affect Learning?
In Season 2, Episode 3 of the Pedagogo podcast, Dr. Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, Director of Inclusive Teaching Practices at the University of Denver, explains the effects of trauma on brain function:
It’s really important to understand that trauma is impacting specific areas of the brain. It’s affecting the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. So, whenever there’s a traumatic stress, what we see is that there are actual changes to these areas of the brain. Cognitive impact, whether mild or severe, makes it harder to learn new things or new concepts, and it doesn’t help [students] with their critical thinking skills.
These fundamental changes to the brain are important to keep in mind when designing a course, creating assessments, or writing lesson plans.
What Is Trauma-Informed Pedagogy and Assessment?
Trauma-informed pedagogy is crucial to ensure all students have an equitable chance at academic success, no matter their circumstances. According to Dr. Iturbe-LaGrave, “Trauma-informed pedagogy is taking into consideration that trauma in itself is a response to deeply distressing and disturbing events that are overwhelming our students’ ability to cope.” Though educators can’t change or erase the traumatic event, they can make an effort to mitigate trauma’s effects on learning.
“Trauma-informed assessment is ultimately about the relationship, about open communication, and recognizing the student,” says Dr. Divya Bheda, Director of Education and Assessment at ExamSoft. Dr. Bheda points to three essential aspects of trauma-informed assessment. The first is a simple “check-in,” just asking students how they are and what’s going on. The second is understanding that students have lives beyond being a student. Finally, instructors and exam creators need to be mindful of students’ situations when writing exam items to ensure they are not triggering.
Flexibility is key when teaching in a trauma-informed way. Educators must be willing to adjust deadlines, assignment formats, assessments, as well as class participation and absence policies.
What Can Educators Do to Ensure Students Succeed Despite Trauma?
There are options and resources for educators to support students who are experiencing trauma. Here are a few simple strategies to get started:
When it comes to deadlines and even assignments, be flexible. Remember, it’s important to consider what a student has going on outside of school. For example, a student may be working more to make up for a lost job in the family. And depending on a student’s circumstances, some assignments may need to be adjusted to avoid a trigger response.
Predictability and Consistency
While flexibility is important, so is consistency. Jessica Minahan, writing for ASCD, notes: “Not knowing what is coming next can put anyone on high alert, especially traumatized students.” Use a clearly written, well-outlined syllabus and preview changes with students before they happen.
Be aware of resources available to your students, like institution-provided health and counseling services. Have that contact information ready, or consider including it in your syllabus. Some schools have laptop loaner programs, which are particularly helpful when classes go remote.
What Role Do Assessments Play in Trauma-Informed Teaching?
Assessment is just one of many tools in an educator’s toolkit. Exams are more than a measure of student learning; instructors can use them to provide early remediation, which helps keep students engaged and on track.
Dr. Iturbe-LaGrave suggests including a “check-in” question on assessments. One short answer or multiple-choice question — not graded — that gives the student an opportunity to share their experience outside of the classroom or their feelings about the exam content works well for both formative and summative assessments. Check-in questions on formative exams can help educators develop immediate strategies to support students. Such questions on summative assessments can reveal trends over time and guide educators in refining teaching strategies or rewriting exam items.
When writing an assessment, Dr. Iturbe-LaGrave advises educators to “avoid romanticizing trauma narratives in subject content.” While trauma is ever-present in narrative — and even necessary — a romanticized discussion can unnecessarily trigger students who have been through similar situations.
How ExamSoft Can Help
The ExamSoft platform allows instructors and exam creators to customize questions with a “check-in” format on any exam. The category-tagging feature can separate those nongraded questions from the course content questions and provide a report to instructors to see how students are actually doing outside of the classroom.
Because exams administered through ExamSoft are fully customizable, exam writers can revise exam items to avoid triggering students and increase equitability and inclusion. Instructors can grade assessments with rubrics to maintain objectivity.
ExamSoft also offers a host of sources, such as blogs, eBooks, videos, webinars, and podcast episodes, that addresses equity, inclusion, and many other assessment and pedagogy-related subjects.
Schedule a demo today to learn more.
World Health Organization: Mental Health
Pedagogo: Trauma-Informed Pedagogy: The Role of Assessment in Deep Insights and Learning
BMC Psychology: Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of US College Students
UCI Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation: Trauma-Informed Pedagogy