Centering Wellness in Your Course Design and Delivery

While members of the Duke community demonstrated adaptability and empathy during 2020, the challenges and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic have negatively affected the well-being of instructorsstudents and staff at institutions of higher learning across the U.S. — to say the least. This blog addresses challenges related to how instructors can be flexible and supportive, while actively thinking about their own well-being when designing courses.

Professor Ada Palmer of the University of Chicago, who has developed resources on self-care and pedagogy during the pandemic, reminds us, “Teachers are also role-models. It can make a great difference to students if you begin your course by acknowledging the crisis, saying that you too, like them, are not at your best, and encouraging students to prioritize self-care. Periodically mentioning what you yourself are doing for self-care can provide examples, and remind students that feeling stressed and fragile is normal, not a mark of something wrong with them. Revealing your human side in the classroom is an invaluable antidote to impostor syndrome, which students are feeling more acutely than ever.” (1)

Center Wellness as You Design Your Course

As you design your course, keep in mind that what Spring 2021 will look like throughout the semester remains uncertain. Center accessibility in your syllabus design and think about how all to make all aspects of your class accessible.

You can use your syllabus to acknowledge that the classroom looks different during the pandemic. UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Brandon Bayne’s Spring 2020 syllabus that went viral provides us with an example of how to address this moment and its effects on learning. Bayne’s revised syllabus for emergency remote learning plainly states, “Nobody signed up for this.” (2) After setting this tone, the syllabus calls for care and flexibility while acknowledging, “We cannot just do the same thing online.” (3)

Keep in mind the principle that less can be more as you make syllabus design decisions. Consider your own workload capacity and think about how you can combine good pedagogy with care for yourself and students. To reduce you and your students’ workload, you might:

  • Use only a few digital tools that you can explain and use them well;
  • Consider if you would be better served by diving deeper into fewer course materials;
  • Build catch-up days into your syllabus;
  • Use class time for one-on-one check-ins or peer workshopping;
  • Assigning students either teamwork and/or scaffolded larger projects you can grade in chunks; and
  • Create clear rubrics for transparency that simultaneously makes grading easier for yourself and your TAs.

Plan for Emergencies in Advance

Make and share your backup plan before any emergencies occur to reduce stress for you and your students. For instance, tell students that if a synchronous discussion is canceled, they should anticipate an email from you or a discussion forum activity posted at a later time. Review the Guide to Course Delivery to see your options for delivering course content.  If you have co-instructors or teaching assistants, you might be able to coordinate your schedules to lessen disruptions for your students by creating an internal instructional contingency plan.

Should you experience an immediate personal emergency or technical failure in the future that affects your ability to conduct your course, Learning Innovation suggests you:(4)

Step 1: Send an email letting your students know that the planned activity (class, office hours, etc.) will not be happening as scheduled. If you cannot access email but use Sakai, post an Announcement for students to see when they next access Sakai.

Step 2: Explain how the missed content will be made up. Some options include: record a lecture video and post it online, create an activity students can do on their own or in groups, move the content to another scheduled class session or post a Sakai discussion forum topic.

Step 3: Adjust deadlines and due dates. If a technology failure impacts a due date or exam, for example, share the new date. Give students flexibility to make up missed work if the new due date or exam date conflicts with their schedule.

Devote Class Time to Wellness

At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, we published “Handling Increased Stress and Anxiety During COVID Times In the (Virtual & Physical) Classroom” by Tom Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director at DuWell. This post provides tips to create a stress-reducing classroom through course activities. Integrating these into your course throughout the semester can ensure care remains centered in your course. 

As well as devoting specific class time to wellness exercises, you can point students to resources both in class and through course documents, such as your syllabus. Resources might include Duke Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) and DuWell for student wellness support. If you are concerned about a student, DukeReach can direct you to the resources available to help a student in need (DukeReach has a longer list of available resources). In addition to these Duke-specific resources, the Duke Student Government has put together a packet of Remote Mental Health Resources for Students, Faculty, and Staff During COVID-19.

Resources for You

You should also ensure you have the resources you need. The Office for Faculty Advancement has collected a series of coronavirus resources for faculty, including those specifically dedicated to personal well-being. Duke’s Personal Assistance Services (PAS) program is a faculty/employee assistance program that offers services to help resolve personal, work and family problems. 

If you would like to discuss your course design, you can visit Learning Innovation office hours at You can view the most up-to-date schedule for office hours on our Events Calendar. You can also contact us by email  at

Further Resources:

8 Strategies to Prevent Teaching Burnout

Overcoming the ‘busywork’ dilemma

Distracted Minds: Your Classroom Can Be a Retreat in Dark Times

Works Cited:

(1) Ada Palmer, “Designing a Syllabus in a Global Health Epidemic”

(2) Brandon Byane, “Adjusted Syllabus, Spring 2020”

(3) Brandon Byane, “Adjusted Syllabus, Spring 2020”

(4)  See Duke Flexible Teaching FAQs, Instruction Mode: Online or Hybrid, “What do I do when a technology failure prevents me from conducting a planned class activity?” for more.