Faculty Begin Conversations on Supporting Student Mental Health Amid Higher Course Withdrawals, Incompletes

The Counseling Center waiting room was crowded but quiet this past Tuesday morning. Just after 10 a.m., Executive Director of Student Health and Wellbeing Andrew Oni sat with the Review to discuss the current climate around student mental health.

“On average, almost 25 to 30 percent of [students] utilize the counseling services at Oberlin, which is almost double the rate when we compare with other similar institutions that are within the range of 15 and 20 percent,” Oni said. “That’s what we’ve had consistently for a number of years. Nationally, the rate among colleges and universities is about 11 percent.”

Oni explained that the rate of students seeking counseling services through the institution remained steady for several years before the pandemic. Since March 2020, however, there has been an increase in students requesting services, though at a rate that Oni considers reflective of a nationwide increase in demand for mental health services in general.

President Carmen Twillie Ambar offered the Review additional context for other indicators of academic challenges since the beginning of the pandemic. According to data collected by the College, there has been an overall increase in the number of requests for incompletes, especially emergency incompletes. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of course withdrawals completed for academic reasons. Notably, the number of students of color seeking these forms of recourse has remained largely unchanged as compared to pre-pandemic years. The average GPA in the division of Arts & Sciences also increased slightly. President Ambar further explained that the institution will continue to analyze data around medical leaves, suspensions, and withdrawals to assess if there may be ways to reduce the frequency of these events and simplify the processes surrounding them.

In response to a request to view this data, the Office of the Registrar and Office of Institutional Effectiveness explained that official data on incompletes and withdrawals was not available to them. Associate Dean of Academic Advising and Registrar Trecia Pottinger noted that once the data referenced by President Ambar is analyzed, the findings will be taken to faculty governance to decide how best to respond to the situation. Even though the official data is unavailable, faculty have begun acknowledging the broader academic context of student mental health. A conversation that started during the December 2022 General Faculty meeting culminated this past Wednesday, when faculty engaged in the first of two workshops geared toward starting a conversation on the impact of mental health in classrooms. Angie Roles, associate professor of Biology, collaborated with colleagues to design and facilitate the topics for these workshops.

“In the December ’22 [General Faculty] meeting, a faculty member raised their hand to talk about the fact that they had an extremely high number of incompletes that were requested for the fall semester, and that was concerning,” Roles said. “The person who initially spoke said, ‘What is the College going to do about this?’ Also, this is not just stressful for students, but it’s stressful for me. If I had a class of 40 people and 20 of them had incompletes, that’s a whole lot more work then, too, that I have to do when that work comes in after the semester. … I was positing that the pandemic exacerbated existing issues to the point that they were extremely visible.”

These concerns from the General Faculty were then considered by the General Faculty Council, an executive committee composed of the President, both divisional deans, and an elected cohort of four College and two Conservatory faculty members. President Ambar tasked Roles with creating a way for faculty to share their experiences and strategies in supporting student mental health in academic environments without adding an extra burden to their schedules. The General Faculty is scheduled to gather on the third Wednesday of every month, so the GFC decided to dedicate the Feb. and March 15 sessions to workshops focused on communication and pedagogy, respectively.

“Faculty are seeking a fuller understanding of the impact of mental health challenges on learning, and they are indeed consulting with mental health professionals,” Dean of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka wrote in an email to the Review. “Faculty do not ‘treat’ mental illness or provide therapeutic interventions. Faculty members are working together to remove stigma surrounding mental health and are developing pedagogies that support students as learners.”

The meeting this week took place over Zoom and was divided into nine faculty-facilitated discussion groups, each dealing with a specific topic related to communication: active listening, cultivating a non-judgemental perspective, creating equitable discussion spaces, stereotype threats and microaggressions, recognizing and managing student fear and anxiety, creating a sense of belonging, culturally aware advising, articulating and establishing boundaries, and supporting students in class. The second workshop will take place in person next month.

“The first workshop, I want us to focus on thinking about what we say, how we say it,” Roles said. “So focusing on that interaction and thinking about how we are interacting. Are there modifications that we can make that improve the situation, that contribute to people feeling comfortable, to reducing anxieties, to reducing fears, to giving people agency? I would say, particularly, this workshop requires you to try to be more aware and conscious of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and what the impact might be on someone else. But I don’t feel like they actually require you to go off and redesign your course to be able to do this. The second workshop is gonna be about redesigning elements of your course.”

President Ambar mentioned the possibility of reconsidering current policies around academic assessments and grading, looking broadly at potential approaches to reducing anxiety around midterms and finals. Mostly, she was excited to hear ideas from faculty on what these changes could look like. As it stands, several faculty members employ non-traditional grading policies in their classes, including Roles and fellow GFC members Jennifer Fraser, professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology, and Jan Miyake, division director of Music Theory. Fraser spoke to the Review about her colleagues’ approaches, as well as her use of specifications grading.

“I do specifications grading, and Professor Miyake is experimenting with ungrading,” Fraser said. “These systems cradle students to allow them to take opportunities and risks and to really learn and take accountability by getting rid of that subjective element of the grading system. … I haven’t used regular grading systems since I got tenure [in 2013]. Two years ago, inspired by colleagues, I tried specifications grading. … It’s just spelling out very clearly what the specifications are: What do you have to do to get a D? What do you have to do to get a B? So students can opt in to where they want to engage and where they want to work. It’s no value judgment about your intellect or your ability. It’s about your engagement.”

Reflecting on the first workshop this past week, Fraser observed that the meeting wasn’t as well attended as previous General Faculty meetings. She felt that those in attendance were likely already invested and willing to create time for this conversation. She also noted it was interesting to see who was in the room and who was not, though she acknowledged people may have been busy with other commitments.

“If you’re not open to learning or you’re not open to conversation, then what’s the point?” Fraser said. “I really do think the colleagues who were there … were there because they wanted to participate in this conversation. I know I certainly had some pre-conversations with colleagues and they were concerned it might be a little too preachy — that one group of faculty seemed to be telling other faculty what to do — but instead we hoped it was opening up space for conversation. … Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer for how to get everyone on board with this.”