Are we Gatekeepers or Groundskeepers? Being a good introductory STEMM instructor in a pandemic and beyond

Jennifer Tsan
University of Chicago
Alice Tarun
St. Lawrence University
Tina Tao
St. Lawrence University
Rachel Renbarger
Western Michigan University
Laura Frost
Florida Gulf Coast University
Laura Frost, Florida Gulf Coast University; Rachel Renbarger, Western Michigan University; Tina Tao, St. Lawrence University; Alice Tarun, St. Lawrence University; and Jennifer Tsan, University of Chicago

published Feb 1, 2022 9:46am

​​Georgia was a confident high school student. Despite the pandemic she continued to earn high marks in her science courses, motivating her to pursue a science major as she began college. She entered her first year at Perpetual University taking introductory biology and chemistry, along with participating in ROTC and community service learning. Although she had many commitments outside the classroom, she believed she could manage all her obligations on her own. But when she began failing quizzes and exams, instead of seeking out resources on campus right away, she put off reviewing her work and intended to address the concerns later. By the end of her first semester, she was facing academic suspension. In her view she felt ashamed for being in this position and couldn't bear to face the issues even though her professors, advisor, and academic support staff reached out to her and offered to help. Although Georgia was able to continue her college studies, she turned away from the science track because she could not envision success in these courses in her future.

Every faculty member knows students like Georgia. Students often blame themselves for failure, even though this is not the case. Some students are unaware of the resources available or think that they are not eligible to use campus services. The past several terms are particularly noteworthy thanks to the on-going pandemic. We have seen even more students in our introductory classes having difficulty being successful. We must all realize that traditional first year students are those whose last "normal" year was their sophomore or junior year of high school! As institutions returned to face-to-face learning this fall, we asked students to re-engage face-to-face which may feel strange to them, even though it's the norm for us. As learning expectations reshift, additional student support is needed while we reassess our own teaching and assessment to benefit our struggling students.

Furthermore, the pandemic has increased inequality in terms of access, opportunities, and achievement of undergraduate students, particularly those from marginalized groups (Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color, disabled students, LGBTQ+ students, neurodivergent students, etc.) (Office of Civil Rights, 2021). Faculty must be prepared to innovate their teaching to decrease inequality in higher education.

What are our students experiencing right now? 

Undergraduate students have been experiencing moderate to severe stress, anxiety, and depression, and these issues are larger for female, rural, and low-income students in particular (Lee et al., 2021). Students in introductory classes experienced these mental health issues as well along with academic issues, such as having a difficult time focusing on their coursework (Kecojevic et al., 2020). Supriya et al. (2021) provides the following observation from an introductory biology course: "...despite receiving higher grades, in-person students reported negative impacts on their learning, interactions with peers and instructors, feeling part of the campus community, and career preparation. Women reported a more negative impact on their learning and career preparation as compared to men." All of this helps to demonstrate that many of our students have large issues that will impact their in-class performance and faculty must be there to help teach them how to succeed.

What can we do? How do we respond? Are we Gatekeepers or Groundskeepers?

Introductory STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) classes are often considered to be gatekeeper courses that students have to pass to be able to continue with a STEMM major. Instead of faculty serving as "gatekeepers" to decide whether a student is worthy of being in STEMM, we propose that faculty should instead function as "groundskeepers," who actively support their students in their educational paths (Montgomery, 2020). Students will thrive in an environment where opportunities for their success are promoted, and barriers that impede their progress are mitigated. As corny as it may sound, our students need more faculty members who act as "groundskeepers," emphasizing grace and kindness, and putting students' needs first. In our experience,  students may quickly  give up on assignments and delay submitting their work. While we may think that our students need a little more "hand-holding" right now, perhaps we can pivot to an asset-based perspective that emphasizes students as adults with agency. Could we build up our students and be the bridge that helps them succeed? Could we help our students persist and build resiliency?

How can we help? 

Let's recognize that a student's challenges are an opportunity to build upon the strengths of their community. Students can be reminded to reconnect to their peers, family, and institutional structures. It is within these communities that they are able to build their persistence. If we can develop a classroom culture that reinforces a sense of belonging and focuses on flexibility and granting grace, that culture can go a long way toward reconnecting our students to their institution. We need to let them know that we value all students in the classroom, not just the ones who are doing well. Below are some of our thoughts on how we can move from a gatekeeper to a groundskeeper.

Incorporate flexible policies. 

Remember, your goals are to have your students learn, not to manage a strict set of policies outlined by your syllabus. Therefore, you can incorporate flexibility into your syllabus, allowing you to  help students succeed even when complicating issues arise. For deadline flexibility, consider a 48-hour window for submission, or provide a no-panic option that allows students an extra day for one assignment per semester. Other faculty have allowed students to drop the lowest quiz or homework grade, to help account for adjusting to a new professor's methods or simply acknowledging we all have difficult days.

Consider your learning goals. 

Learning goals and objectives within the course syllabus can be written in a way to be inclusive towards students, acknowledging the challenges that may appear in the coursework and encouraging students to embrace the challenges and to grow as learners. Including such statements may also invoke a stronger sense of community and belonging for students, particularly those who may feel threatened by their identities or lack of self-belief in their abilities (Baldwin et al., 2020). Our focus should be on students' comprehension of the material yet often grades get assigned based on factors unrelated to the goals of the course. For example, penalizing students' grades for missing class, does not align with students' knowledge of the material. Offering lower stakes assessments at regular intervals can provide the same or better achievement of learning outcomes compared to one or two high-stakes exams.

Promote available resources. 

Transitioning to college this past year has been particularly difficult. Just because many institutions went back to "normal" doesn't mean our students were able to make that same transition successfully. Current first-year students may need extra groundskeeping, where faculty connect students to available resources that help develop them into college students. Learning losses have occurred for various student groups, in various contexts (Donnelly & Patrinos, 2021; Orlov et al., 2020). Helping students learn how to learn becomes more of a faculty's responsibility as we continue to shift from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995). Do a regular check-in to see how your students are doing in terms of comprehending the content and follow-up on students who may be waning on their attendance or interest in class. We can't decouple the basic needs of students from their ability to succeed academically. Students don't often seek out or know about the resources on campus available to help them succeed. Just think how different the outcome might have been if one of Georgia's faculty members had put information about Perpetual's campus supports (academic, financial, and emotional) in their syllabus or mentioned it in class.


As a final note, we should continue these practices throughout the pandemic and after it ends. Groundskeeping can become a teaching philosophy for faculty to utilize for helping all students regardless of situation. It may be hard to know what the students are facing, but interacting with them and finding out what they need will always be a part of good teaching.


  • Baldwin, A., Bunting, B., Daugherty, D., Lewis, L., & Steenbergh, T. (2020). Promoting belonging, growth mindset, and resilience to foster student success. University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-year Experience and Students in Transition.
  • Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning27(6), 12-26.
  • Donnelly, R. & Patrinos, H. A. (2021). Learning loss during Covid-19: An early systematic review. Prospects. Advanced online publication.
  • Kecojevic, A., Basch, C. H., Sullivan, M., & Davi, N. K. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on mental health of undergraduate students in New Jersey, cross-sectional study. PloS One15(9), Article e0239696. 
  • Lee, J., Jeong, H. J., & Kim, S. (2021). Stress, anxiety, and depression among undergraduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic and their use of mental health services. Innovative Higher Education46, 519–538.
  • Montgomery, B. L. (2020). Academic leadership: Gatekeeping or groundskeeping? The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 13(2), 1-15. 
  • Office of Civil Rights. (2021). Education in a pandemic: The disparate impacts of COVID-19 on America's students. 
  • Orlov, G., McKee, D., Berry, J., Boyle, A., DiCiccio, T., Ransom, T.,  Rees-Jones, A., & Stoye, J. (2021). Learning during the COVID-19 pandemic: It is not who you teach, but how you teach (NBER Working Paper No. 28022). National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Supriya, K., Mead, C., Anbar, A. D., Caulkins, J. L., Collins, J. P., Cooper, K. M., LePore, P. C., Lewis, T., Pate, A., Scott, R. A., & Brownell, S. E. (2021). Undergraduate biology students received higher grades during COVID-19 but perceived negative effects on learning. Frontiers in Education, 6, 1-19.       

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