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The Burden of Alleviating the Burden During a Pandemic: Emotional literacy as a tool for online course design, adaptation, and evaluation

By Petra Robinson, Maja Stojanović / April 2021

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In this article, we share our experiences related to teaching and learning in a 100 percent online, condensed (7-week) graduate-level course during the fall 2020 semester. Notably, during the time of the COVID-19 global pandemic, most, if not all, departmental courses were shifted to online learning formats. Considering the prominent shift to the online learning environment, the purpose of sharing these experiences and insights is to provide practical strategies that have implications for not only teaching and learning practice, but also implications for future research considerations. Specifically, we discuss the important role of non-traditional literacy, emotional literacy, as a mechanism for framing online course design, adaptation, and evaluation. We explore emotional literacy in terms of its necessity in teaching and learning in online contexts during a pandemic, beyond the scope of other obviously important non-traditional literacies, such as those classified as Informational and Technological Literacies in the Critical Literacies Advancement Model (CLAM) [1].

Having over a decade of combined experience teaching in higher and adult education settings, including online formats, we both felt very confident about our abilities to design and deliver instruction online. We were also confident because our previous research specifically focused on teaching diverse adults online [2], understanding faculty perceptions of online learning [3], and discussions on andragogy in the online environment [4]. Interestingly, we thought this practical and theoretical knowledge adequately prepared us to design, develop, and deliver high-quality, engaging, online learning experiences, regardless of the ongoing global pandemic.


The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak created a ripple effect of multiple crises in healthcare, the global economy, and education. “Social distancing” recommendations affected more than 990 million learners due to school and university closures [5] and, in this instance, we focus on the ways in which they have directly impacted the way we teach adults.

Research about the impact of the pandemic on the way we teach and learn is already evident in academic literature [6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. Still, missing from the discourse about changes in teaching and learning caused by COVID-19 are reflective experiences and perspectives of instructors who were already experienced with teaching online, but were still required to make multiple shifts because of the challenges caused by the pandemic.

Based on our experiences teaching online during the pandemic, we posit that regardless of expertise or high levels of competencies in traditional and nontraditional literacies (e.g., digital, media, information), one of the most important literacies required to frame the teaching and learning during a turbulent social context is emotional literacy. We do not presume or suggest that emotional literacy is only required during the pandemic, but given the many detrimental impacts of the pandemic; we argue greater levels of emotional literacy on part of the instructor are necessary. Specifically, we argue the pandemic has blurred the work-life-study balance and created greater psychological pressure on learners. This was particularly relevant as the majority of students enrolled in this course were non-traditional learners with full-time careers. This heightened the responsibility, creating an additional burden for instructors and making it necessary for us to facilitate learning showing extra care for both the learning process and the learners’ well-being. Thus, the situation required a certain level of social and emotional deftness to assist in the learning process while supporting the students through family issues, personal illnesses, job loss, community suffering, and other difficulties they experienced.


Neither emotional literacy (EL) nor emotional intelligence (EQ) are novel concepts and so, it is important to clarify their differences as well as why our preference is to use emotional literacy. Goleman defined emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well ourselves and in our relationships” [11]. The author also described basic social and emotional competencies, namely, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, thus placing focus on one’s own feelings and interactions, with the ultimate aims being negotiation, problem resolution, and problem-solving. EQ has been prized as an important part of the leadership skillset and students’ emotional intelligence has been described as a predictor of success in online learning [12].

On the other hand, Steiner conceptualized emotional literacy as having in mind a person’s overall development and defined it as the ability to “handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and the quality of your life and—equally importantly—the quality of life of the people around you, valuing empathy and understanding of others’ emotions as equal to one’s own [13]. This philosophy aligned with our teaching practices as the vision of our college is to “improve the quality of life across the lifespan” [14]. Additionally, we adopt the concept of “emotional interactivity,” which Steiner describes as the awareness of people’s feelings needed for effective interaction [15]. We use this lens to emphasize that, with the burden placed on students whose social, occupational, and educational lives were distressed, there was a greater challenge for educators to adapt their teaching, using emotional literacy skills, and specifically emotional interactivity, in ways that would allow students to succeed.

Emotional Literacy in Action

Going into the fall 2020 semester, we were acutely aware of the increased burden of the global pandemic on our students, especially since online learning by itself already places an emotional burden on the learner [16]. As such, even before the semester started, we approached the situation from a practical and logical standpoint, modifying syllabi to ensure all course assignments were essential for achieving the course outcomes. However, it was not until the semester started that we realized the need for emotional literacy to further support the students would be even greater than what we had anticipated.

At an institutional level, grading policies were updated because of the significant disruption due to the pandemic, but these were only effective for the spring semester, regardless of the continued disruptions in the fall. Therefore, there was less structured support and higher expectations of students notwithstanding the even worsened impacts on the students as more were directly affected by some of the most devastating impacts of the disease. This left us to contemplate the best ways to maintain academic rigor and the structural integrity of the course while avoiding unnecessary activities required of the students. It meant ensuring there was no superfluous content that would place an undue burden in challenging times and, while we considered this at the course design stage, we recognized through student correspondence and inquiries that the proactive changes were not enough.

In order to meet the individualized and group needs of the students, we decided to remove ungraded assignments, such as extra responses in the discussion forums. Traditionally, we would have required students to respond to the instructor’s weekly discussion forum prompts and questions (graded) in addition to a requirement for them to respond to other students’ posts (in their learning community group of approximately five students) with specific word limits, deadlines, and citation number requirements (usually ungraded but required as part of students’ class participation). In this instance, we encouraged them to respond to each other but did not make it a mandatory requirement. The implication of this amendment was that, while the burden was reduced, the number of discussion posts that was organically generated throughout the course was reduced.

While utilizing formative evaluation approaches and opportunities is important in all course design and delivery, because of the stressful time for students, it was especially important during this online course to conduct frequent check-ins with students that resulted in adopting changes throughout the course. During this semester, we saw an unprecedented influx of emails from concerned students listing various stressors that intervened with completing course tasks on schedule. Specifically, in responding to students’ concerns, we did not host any mandatory synchronous meetings to ensure full flexibility offered by asynchronous online learning opportunities and we had more flexible office hours. As a result, several one-on-one meetings with students were hosted during late afternoons or weekends. Additionally, although not typically offered, based on students’ concerns, we included an extra credit opportunity to help alleviate some student anxiety and help build confidence with important content. It served double duty by providing an opportunity to help raise grade performance and to help students master the content. This gesture of good faith, although minor in usual circumstances, signaled support for students experiencing a very challenging time and was well accepted and reflected in a higher-than-average course evaluation.

Implications for Practice

Proactively considering the contexts that can affect the teaching and learning experience can help alleviate unwanted disruption, anxiety, and stress of online learning during turbulent times. Additionally, employing continuous formative evaluation and assessments can be helpful not only for diagnostic purposes but also as a means of informing necessary modification in the teaching and learning activities to ensure student success, satisfaction, and well-being.

As is central to good adult education practice, our focus has been primarily on the student, but these strategies also have implications for facilitators in terms of professional development, which should include opportunities to develop multiple non-traditional literacy skills that extend beyond technological and informational literacies to include other literacies, such as emotional literacy. This, in turn, can strengthen the teaching experience and lead to satisfaction for the facilitator. This satisfaction can have a ripple effect of motivating them to continuously improve their teaching and reduce job-related stress [17], as well as increase commitment and effectiveness.

Importantly, for reflexive praxis, we highlight the practical strategies for course design that worked in this instance and offer these as suggestions to consider when designing and delivering teaching and learning opportunities during difficult times such as during a pandemic:

  • Think about ways of ensuring the course load for students is appropriate considering the learning environment (e.g., in terms of optional readings and ungraded assignments), albeit not at the expense of course integrity and academic rigor.
  • Seek ways to balance activities to keep students engaged while not creating an additional burden on students’ schedules (e.g., modify or substitute activities to increase student interaction and participation).
  • Carve out space for constant communication to allow students to share their experiences and be thoughtful about being extra communicative to help with student isolation during difficult circumstances (e.g., increase the frequency of correspondence with students, not only related to class materials; consider including inspirational or encouraging messages).

We believe these strategies effectively demonstrate emotional literacy by focusing on and empathizing with the learner.

Consideration for Future Research

Although we share practical experiences and strategies, especially in terms of emotional literacy to help alleviate student burden in learning online during a pandemic, we highlight the following areas that may be considered for future research:

  • Explore the role of emotional literacy in different educational contexts (formal, informal, and non-formal) and diverse cultural settings.
  • Explore the role of emotional literacy in teacher professional development.
  • Explore the ways in which administrators can support faculty in terms of emotional literacy.
  • Investigate other best practices that can be used to effectively guide or coach faculty who teach online to learn how to incorporate emotional literacy into their course design, development, and assessment as well as in classroom management practices.


As indicated in this paper, we illustrate the equally important role of content mastery and socio-emotional support for students to ensure their satisfaction and success in the online classroom. It is important to not assume faculty members will automatically know how to act or communicate online with emotional literacy at the fore. This is the case for those who may already be experienced with online learning, but also for those who are novice online instructors. This has implications for professional development and orientation or training type programs and not just those that focus on pedagogical/andragogical practices that relate to content, but those which can enhance the ability to interpret student emotions and respond accordingly to ensure student well-being.



[1] Robinson, P. A. The Critical Literacies Advancement Model (CLAM): A framework for promoting positive social change. LSU Digital Commons. 2020.

[2] Edwards, M. T. and Robinson, P. A. Baby Boomers and online learning: Exploring experiences in the higher education landscape. In Jared Keengwe, ed., Handbook of Research on Cross-Cultural Online Learning in Higher Education. IGI Global, 2019. 271–290.

[3] Mellieon, H. and Robinson, P. A. The New Norm: Faculty perceptions of condensed online learning. American Journal of Distance Education (2020). DOI: 10.1080/08923647.2020.1847626

[4] Knowles, M., Holton, E. F., Swanson, R., and Robinson, P. A. In press. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (9th ed.), Routledge, New York.

[5] UNESCO. Education: From Disruption to Recovery. 2020.

[6] Oranburg, S. Distance education in the time of Coronavirus: Quick and easy strategies for professors. Duquesne University School of Law Research Paper No. 2020-02. 2020.

[7] Schmidt, S., Hodge, E. M., and Tschida, C. M. How instructors learn to teach online: Considering the past to plan for the future. eLearn Magazine 2020, 10 (2020).

[8] Parthasarathy, S. and Murugesan, S. Overnight transformation to online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons learned. eLearn Magazine 2020, 9 (2020).

[9] Jamieson, M. V. Keeping a learning community and academic integrity intact after a mid-term shift to online learning in chemical engineering design during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Chemical Education 97, 9 (2020), 2768–2772.

[10] Baber, H. Determinants of students’ perceived learning outcome and satisfaction in online learning during the pandemic of COVID-19. Journal of Education and e-Learning Research 7, 3 (2020), 285–292.

[11] Goleman, D. Working with Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Dell, New York, 1998, 316.

[12] Berenson, R., Boyles, G., and Weaver, A. Emotional intelligence as a predictor of success in online learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 9, 2 (2008), 1-17.

[13] Steiner, C. Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart. Personhood Press, 2003.

[14] College of Human Sciences & Education. Mission and Vision. Louisiana State University. 2020

[15] Steiner, C. and Perry, P. Achieving Emotional Literacy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.

[16] O'Regan, K. Emotion and e-learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 7, 3 (2003), 78–92.

[17] Smith, M., and Bourke, S. Teacher stress: Examining a model based on context, workload, and satisfaction. Teacher and Teacher Education 8, 1 (1992), 31–46.


About the Authors

Petra A. Robinson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the School of Leadership & Human Resource Development and Director of Faculty Affairs & Professional Development in the College of Human Sciences & Education at Louisiana State University (LSU). She is also Affiliate Faculty with the African and African American Studies program and a Faculty Fellow with the Office of Academic Affairs and Learning and Teaching Collaborative. Dr. Robinson’s research focuses on issues related to colorism; non-traditional, critical literacies; equity and social justice in higher and adult education; global lifelong learning; and professional development in the academy. She has authored multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and four books.

Maja Stojanović is a doctoral student in the School of Leadership and Human Resource Development and the Graduate Assistant for the Office of Faculty Affairs & Professional Development in the College of Human Sciences & Education at Louisiana State University (LSU). She acquired a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Language, Literature, and Culture from the University of Belgrade, Serbia, and has a background in teaching English to adult learners. Her main research focus is on critical, multilingual literacy and interculturalism. She is also concerned with issues of diversity and globalization in adult education and human resource development.


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