‘Netflix Party’ With Your Psychology Professor?

College students across the country have had several weeks to acclimate to the new reality of online classes. But as many of us are discovering, online learning is completely different to in-person lectures and can be confusing and frustrating.

Melissa Plaufcan, a Penn State psychology professor, has embraced this massive change by prioritizing empathy and communication. She knew that there were going to be challenges with the remote learning, and she wanted to make her class as stress-free as possible.

“The first thing I did was I sent a survey to all 260 of my students and asked them how they were doing,” Plaufcan said. “Most participated, and the majority indicated a very high level of stress.”

Students individually and anonymously responded and provided a variety of reasons for feeling stressed. Plaufcan was sad to discover that her students were feeling this way, so she made sure to acknowledge their stress and show her support.

To reciprocate the openness her students showed her, Plaufcan opened up other aspects of her life to her students, She introduced her daughter and her dogs to her students through Zoom lectures, and became less of a professor and more of a “human being,” as she described the transition.

Plaufcan also recognized that social distancing and staying home can be tough, and it was important to establish a connection within the community she had created. So she started using Netflix Party, a free Google Chrome extension where people can watch the same movie or TV show at the same time and chat from different locations.

“At first I thought, who would want to hang out online with their professor on a Friday night?” Dr. Plaufcan said. “But I sent out the Netflix Party link at 8 p.m., and 10 students clicked and joined me.”

Plaufcan said the class watched the Stanford Prison Experiment, a movie based on the actual infamous experiment ran by Philip Zimbardo. They talked about the ethics of the experiment and had a thoughtful discussion about the events of the film.

Plaufcan decided to host another watch party, but no one showed up. She took this as a good sign, however as that meant that her students were finding ways to occupy their time in other ways.

Plaufcan wants her classroom to be a collaborative space. She knows that all students are different, and says that it’s her job to acknowledge that and work with everyone to create the best possible class.

“I may have lots of learning goals, but I know my students are stressed,” Plaufcan said. “Stress impacts us in so many ways cognitively — our ability to focus, concentrate, remember, and sleep, that I cannot possibly have the same expectations that I would normally have.

“I have slowed my pace, I give lots of reminders, and offer encouragement. I ask them how they prefer to proceed with timelines and give as many options as I can so that we are co-creating the course at this point.”

So what can other professors do to follow in Plaufcan’s footsteps in creating a positive learning environment? Well, her first piece of advice is to help each other. She says that if faculty work together and help each other out during this difficult time, it will have a “snowball effect” for their students.

She also notes that encouraging self-care for students and faculty alike is an important step as well. It is a stressful time and it is important to remember to take care of yourself everyday. That means eating healthy, going on a walk, or doing something other than schoolwork to make sure you are in a healthy mindset.

The biggest piece of advice Plaufcan gave, though, is to be flexible. Courses won’t be able to cover everything on their original syllabus, so don’t be stubborn and stick with the original plan. Also, dedicate time to connect with students. Create discussion boards or talk about life for the first 10 minutes of class to try and connect.

Plaufcan’s efforts to connect with her students have helped her take something positive from a learning environment that can be difficult to navigate.

“I think just acknowledging their struggles and helping them feel seen and heard has helped,” Plaufcan said. “Though the transition has been hard, I feel I have become closer with my students.”

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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