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This email is being sent to faculty members who teach undergraduates.

Dear Colleagues, 

We hope that you had the opportunity for restoration over the summer months and that this message finds you well.  As we all prepare for the opening of the fall semester, we write to provide suggested language that you might employ on your syllabi and other course materials. We also hope to partner with you in applying lessons learned from our pandemic experience as we adapt to the new landscape of in-person learning and holistic student support.

Learning from the past academic year
Nationally, the heightened stress and loss of social connectedness during the pandemic were particularly burdensome for traditional, college-aged students. The adverse impacts of isolation and lost relationships are likely to stay with our students even as Duke returns to more typical operations. 

However, one very bright spot from the 2020-21 year is this: faculty went to extraordinary lengths to connect with students and delivered on our primary goal of providing a transformative undergraduate experience. As a result, students expressed deep appreciation for the efforts of our faculty. Data from Trinity College’s Office of Assessment shows that students consistently rated their faculty and academic mentors as a primary source of wellness support, following only friends and family. 
For example:
  • In fall 2020, two-third of students rated their instructors as “available” and “flexible.”
  • Students appreciated and took advantage of new modes for faculty office hours; 64% said that the virtual office hours format worked well in all, or most, of their classes.  
  • Faculty adapted their course delivery and teaching methods to meet students' diverse learning needs. The proportion of students indicating that their learning experience went very well or pretty well increased from 15% in spring 2020 to 55% in fall 2020.
  • In fall 2020, nearly 75% of students said their learning technologies (hardware, software, and peripherals) worked well.  Of those who experienced technical problems, many indicated that their instructors were willing to make flexible accommodations.
Equally remarkable were students’  written comments, many of which lauded faculty empathy and understanding. For example, undergraduate students rated their professors highly on “friendliness,” “check[ing] in on me regularly,” “provid[ing] me a sense of perspective,” and “help[ing] me understand and validate recent experiences."

In short, your flexibility, availability, and adaptability were critical to our students' ability to navigate the myriad challenges of the past year. Thank you for your extraordinary mentorship and outreach.

Carrying These Lessons Forward
In the upcoming academic year, we encourage you to continue to demonstrate the exceptional care you showed your students. Below, please find examples of faculty adaptation in 2020-21 that would be beneficial to continue: 
  • Remain Flexible Where You Can.  We will return to an in-person learning model this fall, and we encourage you to continue flexibly accommodating students, where reasonable, through your in-person coursework.  Colleagues consistently report positive results from crafting flexible policies regarding course attendance, assignment types, and associated deadlines.  As one colleague noted, efforts to grant grace, where appropriate, both supported students' well-being and facilitated richer student learning.
  • Stay Cognizant of Course Materials Costs. Despite Duke’s generous financial aid policies, we are still working to root out “hidden costs” that stretch our students and their families. Financial hardships worsened for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds during the pandemic, and many are still feeling these effects. We suggest reviewing required materials to determine whether you can use lower cost approaches (e.g., online materials, course packs, or prior volume textbooks). In general, we recommend including information about the costs of course materials on your syllabi so that students can make informed choices and seek financial support as necessary. Suggested language is in the syllabus language menu, which is linked below. 
  • Promote Whole-Student Resources. Duke offers many excellent resources to support the academic success and personal well-being of our students. Yet, some students believe these resources are best suited for others or should be used as a last resort. Therefore, we encourage you to review the syllabus menu for language that points students to resources that can be helpful to all of our students. 
  • Frame Office Hours. We’re learning that many students can be intimidated to attend office hours, not fully understanding their utility, and in some cases, believing that attendance signals an academic deficit. Consider strategies such as taking time during class meetings to orient and invite students to your office hours, exploring holding group meetings, and considering offering in-person and virtual appointments.  
  • Create Opportunities for Reflection. Like many in our community, our students are still working to understand and process the lessons and meaning of the pandemic. Nevertheless, students report great interest in reflecting on their experiences, particularly as they consider their academic passions, purpose, and educational goals. Faculty are, of course, in a unique position to offer opportunities for students to contextualize their experiences and apply their learning to their undergraduate education. 
Suggested syllabus language
As in previous semesters, we have curated boilerplate language that you might choose to include in your Fall 2021 syllabi. You are not obligated to use this information, but we have collated the topics and resources that colleagues most commonly request, especially in response to our experiences during the past several semesters.
Fall '21 Syllabus Language Menu
(The above button links to a Duke Box file that is best accessed via desktop. For mobile access, downloading the Duke Box app may be necessary.) 
As we frequently note, nothing is more critical to the university's mission than nurturing the connection between faculty and students. We are most grateful for your continued dedication to this foundational relationship. Thank you for your partnership and for your tireless efforts to support our students, both inside and outside the classroom. Please reach out directly to us if we can provide support or more information.

Be well,

Gary Bennett
Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Global Health, and Medicine
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education  

Mary Pat McMahon
Vice Provost/Vice President of Student Affairs
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