By Ali Arya, Associate Dean (Planning and Awards), Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and Associate Professor, School of Information Technology

A few years ago, I had a bright and enthusiastic student in one of my first-year classes who was always cheerful and eager to get involved in many academic and extracurricular activities, from volunteering in conferences to planning holiday parties. When I had her again in the fourth year, I noticed that she didn’t have the same attitude. She was quiet, less active and somewhat bitter. When I curiously asked her if everything was OK and what had happened, she said, “You guys did it,” referring to the university.

This encounter, and many other conversations with students, made me wonder how we emotionally affect our students. It is not uncommon to find those who are frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed and disappointed, those who can’t wait to get out, don’t trust us anymore, or have given up any lofty learning ideas and just want a passing grade. There is a strong body of knowledge discussing the affective aspects of education, the role of emotional intelligence, and frameworks, such as social and emotional learning. But it seems that many of these topics are ignored or even unheard of among faculty, as many of us continue to think of learning as a purely cognitive process and our students as learning machines.

We do not perform well if we are not appreciated or don’t have a supportive environment (or even if we are suffering from a domestic problem). Then why would we expect our students to perform well if we are not providing them with an environment in which their emotional needs are acknowledged and addressed? To what level have these needs been considered in the design and implementation of our academic plans and practices?

To answer those questions within the context of our university, and with the help of some colleagues, I conducted a study with both an online survey and in-person interviews with Carleton students. The results and my reflections on them were presented at the 2019 Spring Conference. They were quite eye-opening:

  • More than half of the respondents have experienced stress due to pressure and frustration caused by academic work.
  • More than half reported getting discouraged, losing confidence, and having physical and mental health issues as a result of those experiences. Although, their emotional experiences did encourage them to do better in some cases.
  • Many students are not happy with the way they communicate with the university.
  • It is not uncommon to feel alone, traumatized or burnt-out.
  • The majority of respondents who answered the demographic questions were female (they face more issues, notice them more often, or are willing to talk about them more).

While pampering students or lowering academic standards is not a solution for students’ emotional concerns, these should not be considered a “health problem affecting some students.” We are all emotional beings. Our academic plans and practices, both at the system and individual levels, should be adjusted to take this into account.

An academic environment that addresses the emotional needs of all students will only happen when the institution provides proper guidelines, incentives and support to faculty and staff. But at the individual level, there are many things that we can do to help improve the situation. It starts by acknowledging that we are emotional beings and learning is an emotional process. Some of the practices suggested by faculty can be found in the Spring Conference presentation I mentioned, but more conversation on this subject is necessary.

It is essential for faculty to develop not just our cognitive abilities, but also the emotional ones. As the American poet, singer and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, said: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”