Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth


By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

As an online college professor, I hear about a lot of stress from some of our students. Most of them have a full-time career in the military or civilian world, and they are married with a few kids.

Start a transportation and logistics degree at American Public University.

In addition, many are thinking about their next career or military retirement. But this pandemic is well underway in our heads as a road sign to pursue a cautionary way of life, and some people have lost their jobs or been furloughed. Consequently, being a student in 2020 has different stress factors.

The Pandemic Stress in Students

Like many professors, we care for any kind of stress that could interfere with a student’s work, including the forum discussion questions that are posed weekly. Sometimes, those forum responses are student opinions of what is going on in the world today or some past crisis, such as the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacting the Gulf of Mexico.

Other student responses might be their review of a paper or article on a topic such as supply chain management processes and its impact from the import taxes on goods. Those types of topics are extremely exciting stuff and keep students fascinated with what their fellow students are writing and commenting about.

There is also the written paper. Some classes have a written assignment due each week, and the deadline is usually by midnight on Sunday. That deadline sometimes causes a late-night stress that turns into a request for sending the paper in Monday.

For online courses at the bachelor’s and master’s level, written papers are a way of life in their classroom. These papers are written with guidance from a grading rubric; students must follow certain rules and formats as they compose their analysis of a certain problem or write about some favorite topic, even a hobby.

The adult learners who take online courses are there to improve their futures; they seek eventual promotion or a new career. They know that the college degree takes time and adds additional stress to their daily living.

Now enter the 2020 pandemic, with the coronavirus that has killed more than 106,000 people in the U.S. at the time of this writing. How stressful is this on our students?

Asking about Student Reactions to the Pandemic in Class

I sent a simple message regarding this pandemic to students in my classes. The message had a dual purpose.

First, I wanted to let them know as a teacher, I was concerned about how this pandemic crisis might be causing them stress, given that they had rigid deadlines to meet for taking college courses. Second, I wanted to know if that stress impacted their ability to perform essential classwork, such as writing the weekly paper.

While this message looked routine, it was actually an unsolicited, very informal and very biased survey. The bias occurred because I mostly teach courses in logistics, supply chain, and reverse logistics, all of which have been impacted by the pandemic.

Most of these students were in the military. The message sent to them was as follows:

“Since this pandemic crisis is underway while we are all working in class, I would like to ask a question. Has this crisis impacted your writing for assignments or forum discussions in any way?

I was contacted by a student who said he spends more time now on writing since he is at home more now. So, any reaction on doing your classwork now that you are in this COVID-19 crisis like the rest of us?”

Student Reactions

The students who work to earn a degree online never cease to surprise me with the variety of their responses to such questions. There were 54 students who replied to my informal survey.

Of those, 11 students said they had not been impacted by the pandemic at all. The responses were “I wouldn’t say my situation has changed all that much,” “I do not have extra time” and “I would have to say no.”

These types of students were very busy and had taken courses for a few years. They had a plan of attack for how to manage their time to do what is needed in the writing department of their course.

But for the other 43 students, the pandemic had had an impact and created stress for them. The stress seemed to be separated into two areas: positive and negative.

On the positive side, students who indicated that they were experiencing stressful conditions at work and home saw this pandemic as giving them more time. Some stated that the current pandemic has provided them with more time to work on forums and assignments since they are at home more.

Similarly, other students said they have been able to focus more on school and complete writing assignments earlier than usual. The current pandemic has given them time to dig a little deeper into some topics than they normally would have.

On the negative side, some students were distracted due to watching the news and doing research on the pandemic and its effects on society. They had increased anxiety and a lack of focus, and they found themselves drifting off during assignments.

A few students stated that their children sucked up most of the time they needed to concentrate on online classwork. With the noise level created by those kids at home during the day, those students attempted most of their classwork at night and during the weekends.

The Survey Resulted in a Better Understanding of Students during This Pandemic

The benefit of the survey was much more than just having a better understanding of what may drive some students to do poorly or even consider dropping a course due to the stresses coming from this pandemic. I was also rewarded by seeing these statements from my students:

  • “I sincerely thank you for reaching out and the concern you have shown with regards to how your students are coping with this terrible issue we all are currently facing.”
  • “Thank you for reaching out. I really look forward to working with you and my classmates!”
  • “Once again, thank you for reaching out and hope you are staying safe.”
  • “Thanks ahead for your flexibility and understanding.”

Flexibility is a particularly important and powerful term during these stressful times for our online students. As teachers, we need to be flexible for papers that come in late and understand why that paper has been rushed and earned a low grade. We also need to give that paper back to students with clear and helpful instructions on how to rewrite that paper to earn a better grade.

As teachers, we are here to bring our students into the next generation of leaders and decision makers. Let’s help them learn proper writing skills by taking more time and show a greater understanding of what they are living through with their families during this COVID-19 pandemic.

We are also here to teach confidence, persistence, perseverance, practice and patience in our students’ writing. As their educational partner, that is our mission.

About the Author           

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.