Higher education requires students to sign COVID-19 waivers, behavior codes, and pledges, and then expels them when they break the rules. Behavioral specialist Jennifer Howell of the University of California – Merced explains to Mortarboard host Daniel Barwick why the push to blame students ignores context and best practices. This transcript has been slightly edited for readability.
Dan: My guest today is Dr. Jennifer Howell, Assistant Professor of Health Psychology at the University of California-Merced. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and her Masters and PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Her research focuses on the intersection of social psychology and health; she’s particularly interested in how processes surrounding the self, for example, defensiveness and social comparison, influence health decision-making and behavior. You can follow her on Twitter @JennyLeeHowell. Professor Howell, I’d like to begin by asking, how is the fall semester going for you?
Howell: It’s going all right. I was actually off in the spring from teaching. I had a teaching course release, so this is my first semester teaching online and it’s been an adventure for sure, very, very interesting to kind of move to a fully online system. So I feel like all of my colleagues had a little bit of a head start. So over the summer, I did a lot of reading and things like that about pedagogy online, and I still feel like it’s a chaotic nightmare every week. Part of the joy of being an academic is getting to interact with students and getting to be in person with them, and getting to kind of see how people are processing the information you’re sharing and things like that. So it’s really tough, I think, but at the same time, everyone’s being very resilient and adaptive, and I admire that. I think like we have a lot of support at my institution for teaching and students have a lot of support for learning. So I think we’re all doing the best with what we have. The adjustments to the pandemic are definitely there, given the fact that I’m sort of having to… I’m recording lectures, flipped my classroom, I’ve always wanted to do it, but now I have to. I do a lot of research, and we do a lot of in-person research. And so we’re trying to move that all online. And so there’s just kind of that extra burden of shifting things and trying to figure out, you know, how do I understand human behavior in an online context? How do I get a snapshot of what humans really would do in person, if I’m in a totally online environment or on Zoom, something like that.
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Dan: Based on your observation, how do you think your students are coping with this?
Howell: I think they’re doing okay. I think that there’s a lot of variation that’s been thrown into their lives. They definitely have you know, the tasks that they’re doing in classes look very different to them. So for some of them they’ve mentioned things like, it feels like they’ve gone back to high school because they’re doing all these in-person activities that when usually they had been listening to lecture. I think that some of them just miss being on campus and around friends and that’s totally understandable. It has to be hard to have moved out and feel like you have developed an identity apart from your family, and then move back in with your parents, which is what a lot of our students have done.
Dan: Some of your work is in the area of health decision-making. Can you tell us a little about what that means?
Howell: Sure. So I’m broadly interested in the social and psychological processes that underlie our health decisions and behaviors pretty broadly. I’ve done research spanning everything from understanding when and why people use sunscreen to understanding HIV testing. I have kind of a focus both on health prevention and health promotion, but broadly, anything that kind of makes us do things related to our health, right? Any factor that influences our health behaviors is what I’m interested in.
Dan: I’d like you to settle a question for us. Of course, those of us following the pandemic, specifically as it relates to higher education, we’re trying to figure out what’s reasonable to ask of students. Have you considered this question? And if so, what kind of guidance can you give us?
Howell: I’m on my campus committee to reopen the campus. We didn’t end up reopening; we thought we were going to have some percentage of students on-campus this summer and then COVID-19 cases locally spiked. And so it made sense to just push everything, mostly everything, online. So I spent the summer thinking about what are the things that we can expect when college students move back? What do we do with students who aren’t necessarily on campus? And I think the answer is we can’t expect them to do anything more than we would expect from everyone else. And I think sometimes there’s this emphasis that college students, maybe as they’re moving back to school, are put on the spot in ways that we wouldn’t put other people on the spot, or rather, they’re asked to engage in, like, socially isolating in a room for two weeks. That can be really tough for them. And I think the other thing is when, when I think about the pandemic and behaviors related to the pandemic, I rarely think that it’s about intentions and really controlled behavior. A lot of what happens is moments arrive and people engage in behavior based on those moments, right? So I’m walking down the hall and I pass my friend and they reach out to give a hug. Do I say no and walk back, or in that moment, does it just feel like, Oh, this is going to be okay. We’re not giving it up.
Dan: I’ve experienced exactly that. Yeah.
Howell: Yeah, exactly. I think that we’re not giving enough attention to the fact that students are really encountering “momentary” issues. And that’s what’s driving a lot of the spread of things. People have characterized students as having coronavirus parties and things like that, but I think the it’s the “moment;” it’s the somebody came over to my house to drop off a textbook and they said they were going to leave it outside, but now they want to hug me or now they want to come inside and use the restroom. And what do I do in those moments? I think that we really have to pay attention to that, in these moments, different people respond in different ways.
Dan: So what difference is there, if any, in the decisions, say, a traditional-age college student makes, and those that, say, a 50-year-old non-traditional student makes? I ask that because on this podcast, I’ve interviewed students as well, and I do get a very, very different type of response from younger students versus older students.
Howell: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that the math of risk for younger versus older students is very different. A lot of non-traditional and older students have families. Perhaps they’re providing care for more elderly parents. Whereas younger students, a lot of them will live in bubbles. They’ll live only with students their own age or maybe they’ve moved back to the town where the university is and they’re living with their roommates. And I think that those are very different environments, right? Especially when it comes to risk. It is honestly the case that college students are at lower risk of severe complications of COVID-19 than are older adults, and so I think that if you’re a non-traditional student, let’s say that you’re married, you have somebody who’s working in health care, or they’re working as a first responder or they’re working at the grocery store or something like that. You have to worry about transmitting things to them. They’re going to go out into the world in a way that college students, I don’t think have that sense of broader social responsibility as much, because they sort of feel like they’re in their community of college instead of being in the kind of broader local community.
Dan: Let me just ask a follow-up question there. You know, you talked about the different kinds of environments that these different age students would be in. So I’m going to invite you for a moment to be ageist ,and we’ll all forgive you if your answer is ageist. I’m curious: in your research, do you find that if there are two people and one is older, one is younger, but they’re in the same environment, in what ways do they respond differently, or do they respond differently?
Howell: I think that the idea that people of different ages in the same kind of physical environment are also living in the same social environment, might be a kind of flawed assumption in some ways, because a lot of times people living, let’s say members of the same household, like the kids in a household versus parents in a household, or, you know, adult children in a household versus older adults, grandparents in a household, something like that, they are living in very different social worlds. What we do see in health decision-making is that a lot of older adults make decisions that are about kind of prolonging health in a way that maybe people don’t necessarily do when they’re younger. So there’s a lot more attention and seriousness surrounding health as you get older, in part because you are getting sicker. You know, as we age, we get sicker. And so I think that there’s this sense of risk becomes a little bit stronger, as you get older and the kind of sense that “it’s urgent to take care of my health” becomes a little more prevalent.
Dan: So maybe I’m the one actually being ageist, because I always picture if you took a 50-year-old and put them in a dorm room with four other 19-year-olds that the 50-year-old would be sort of the voice of caution and reason when they’re placed in a position where they might do something foolish. But it sounds like you’re saying that might be the case, but it might not necessarily be the case.
Howell: I think that it is generally true, but when you look at things like health-promotion behavior, things like exercise and even diet to some extent, college students sometimes have the advantage. I know there’s this idea of the Freshmen 15, but we do see, for example, levels of physical activity in college students that’s better than most people who are age 50 and decisions around things like heart health and things like that, they look better on paper. I think you’re absolutely right that as we mature, we approach our health and our behavior in a very different way. We do become more cautious, we become more reserved, we become more risk averse. It is true also that our bodies don’t recover as well from illness and from injury as we age. So here’s a good reason for that caution, right? It’s not just that we become somehow wiser the world. It’s also the case that it can have much more dire consequences. The older you get.
Dan: [Laughs] I’ve definitely noticed that about myself.
Howell: [Laughs] Yeah.
Dan: Just this weekend Saint Bonaventure University in New York state suspended 21 students for violating the university’s “Community Compact,” which obligates students to abide by COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Is it reasonable to ask students to commit to these kinds of contractual agreements, which at this point are fairly widespread in the United States in higher education?
Howell: I think essentially what’s happening at most universities is they’ve kind of extended their honor code or their student code of conduct to include COVID-19 protocols. I think it is reasonable to some extent, but I think we have to educate students about that and make sure they have the capability of making the decision that they want to make, make sure they have the capability of saying, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this. I don’t think I’m going to be able to be on campus and not see my friends or I’m going to be willing to come in and get COVID tested every day” or whatever it is. And I’m not sure actually what St. Bonaventure’s protocols were or what was violated. But I know that an immediate response was if we have some kind of reopening of the campus, we have to have some kind of plan for getting people to comply, and it has to have teeth. There has to be some way of providing consequences. The problem is when these contractual agreements are something that I can commit to in theory, but not in practice. And a lot of the student codes of conduct have been tested and revised over the years. We know how well people are able to adhere to them. COVID-19 protocols are kind of coming out of nowhere and they shift very rapidly. And so I think that holding people to them really, really firmly is hard, and I think it’s difficult for students – it’s problematic in some ways. But at the same time, I think that if you are going to have some kind of policy, it has to have consequences, if you’re going to have a policy that you expect students and faculty and staff to abide by, it has to have some consequence that you get removed from the environment if you violate it. But I think that the problem is that too often, we’re expecting way too much of everybody involved.
Dan: Well, I notice when I talk to students, two themes emerge. So the first is, is that they say that when their school is conveying to them, these expectations, they tend to convey the expectations, but not necessarily the consequences; that is they spend a lot of time on the expectations and very little time on the consequences. And so I think for some students, it seems not to be front and center for them. And then there’s this second theme that emerges, where you get the feeling that the students themselves, that particular student, doesn’t take COVID or the precautions particular seriously. And there’s this underlying assumption that when push comes to shove, neither will the school. And so if the student were to violate the rules, they’re blown away when the school takes a very hard line on it. And they say, “Well, we just weren’t expecting you to, you know, to treat me this harshly.”
Howell: Yeah. I mean, I think that that is a very reasonable reaction. In some ways, if you think about the kind of student code of conduct broadly, there are a lot of possible punishments in place for behaviors throughout your time, including things like underage drinking, you know, smoking on campus, there are a variety of things, plagiarism policies are like that.
Dan: Yes. Actually it very much reminds me of the response that some students have to their school’s plagiarism policies.
Howell: Yes, exactly. I think that it’s a lot of times actually, most students, as they come into college, they have been doing fine most of their life, right? A lot of the kids who are coming to college don’t expect to ever violate the honor code. They don’t expect to ever have themselves punished for anything they’ve done. And they rarely engage in behavior thinking, “Oh, this has a dire and serious consequence.” And so I think that the way that they’re oriented and, you know, maybe different for freshmen, I don’t actually have the data on this, but the way that they’ve oriented towards the school’s forms of punishment, they see people getting away with things a lot, including actually plagiarism. A really good example of this is that plagiarism and cheating actually happen at a rate that’s maybe higher than we would desire, but oftentimes people are given a second chance by their professor, but they’re given a second chance by every one of their professors, because there’s not like kind of a global communication effort. You know, I think that when it comes to something like COVID-19, they’re not necessarily expecting that they’re going to be somebody who violates the ethical code, or they’re going to be somebody who is going to get kind of caught with this and it’s going to have dire consequences, like suspension. I think that it really feels surprising and shocking in some ways. I think if you’re going to have a policy like that, you should absolutely communicate the consequences. But again, in my mind, behavioral willingness – the kind of construct in psychology – behavioral willingness is really what’s driving behaviors that are undermining COVID-19 safety protocols, right? It’s not that people have these plans and the college students are coming back and they’re like, “Oh, I really want to spread COVID-19,” it’s that they’re encountering these instances where they don’t want to say no, because of some kind of social willingness, like they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to make a situation uncomfortable by pushing back somebody who’s trying to hug them. And I think that those sorts of things are very difficult. Or, you know, they, they’re not intending not to go get tested for COVID, it’s just that their day has gotten very busy. And so they think, “Oh, it’s not going to be that big of a deal.” And then they don’t show up and have consequences as a result. I think that it’s just the consequences feel outsized compared to what they’re used to.
Dan: There’s a lot of administrators who listen to this podcast at schools that have students who have come back. And I’m just curious, based on your research, is it possible to design a compliance framework for college students? And if so, can you tell us a little bit about what you think that framework would look like?
Howell: Sure. When I think about COVID-19 related behaviors, I think about a couple of literatures. One of them is on bystander intervention. So we have a lot of interventions at the college level to prevent sexual assault, for example, and I think that taking the lessons we’ve learned from there and applying them here is really useful. So what do I do when I encounter a situation where somebody is behaving badly, or they’re going to be doing something that could spread the virus? I think that we have good evidence in college students of how to engage them in preventing behaviors that are unwanted, and so I think we can turn to that. And the other literature that I think is really important is the literature on pro-social behavior; recycling and voting and helping people, because a lot of the decisions that people are making have to be made for the broader public and not necessarily for themselves. Because if you’re relying on people just to make decisions because of their risk, either for punishment or for coronavirus, or COVID-19 in general, you’re going to be missing important reasons why they’re engaging in behavior. Instead, if you emphasize things like community, and protecting the community, and keeping campus open more broadly, I think that those are the kinds of things that can really help in general. There’s this idea in psychology of something called “implementation intentions.” The idea is that you sit down, and before you encounter a situation, you decide how you’re going to act in it. So with all of your rational mind and none of these social pressures, you decide if somebody tries to hug me, this is what I’m going to do. Or if I encounter somebody who’s not wearing a mask, this is what I will do. This is what I will say, this is what I will think. And those implementation intentions become much easier if you’ve made plans in advance than if you’re trying to kind of do it on the fly. I think that in higher education, we have a lot of resources for reducing things like roommate conflict, helping people intervene in situations of a possible sexual assault or alcohol poisoning, things like that, and I think that if we take the lessons from that and implement it, and also engage the students as a community. I think that this is not the kind of thing that can come kind of from on high and be put down as a framework, but rather needs some buy-in from students. You know, you need student organizations to be helping to push this. You need students to be on board with it and to feel like it’s reasonable, and to understand what the consequences of inaction are.
So I guess to kind of sum that all up, what I would say is that we need to kind of build trust and community surrounding intervention here. It needs to be this idea that we are in this together and that we all have to do our part to kind of make our community better, which is a really tough thing because on an individual level, it’s not necessarily there. I’ve seen these roommate contracts – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these roommate contracts – they’re actually a very good example of this. A lot of institutions implement those, where there’s sort of an outline of what expected behaviors are. I think that having those for social settings would actually be great, just having resources online and tools online that say, okay, so we’re going to go have a socially distant picnic on the quad, here are four questions you need to ask each other before you go there: Are we wearing masks? Are we hugging each other? Are we sharing food? Things like that. Do you know what I mean? I think that having advanced planning is what’s going to get around a lot of those moments of just willingness and reaction, rather than having good, solid plans in place. If we know that we have expectations for behavior in advance, – if I know with my roommate, you know, roommate contracts, I’m going to have a friend over, this is what you can expect, that friends will wear a mask the entire time, they will use hand sanitizer when they come in the door, whatever that is, making those plans in advance. Having those discussions gets around a lot of those negative social situations, and a lot of those responses that are just about willingness and not kind of pushing something awkward socially. The answer is it’s really complicated, but I don’t think it can come from this kind of dictatorial standpoint where schools tell students how to behave. I think it has to engage students. And I think it has to recognize the realities of the social world that we really need to have students on board and also give them the tools to interact when they may not necessarily have planned out for the kinds of situations that arise.
Dan: Professor Howell, thanks very much for joining me today.
Howell: Absolutely. Thank you.
Dan: My guest today has been Dr. Jennifer Howell, Assistant Professor of Health Psychology at the University of California-Merced. You can follow her on Twitter @JennyLeeHowell.