RAP ON: Please, Laugh at Me: Letting down our guards to draw students in during difficult times

About the Author: Arianna Stone is a graduate student in the applied cognition area of the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. This is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share  pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format. 

Figure 1 from Literat (2021). Videos
show students overwhelmed by
notifications about online courses.

Turning the calendar over to March 2021 provides a stark reminder that it has been one year of “pandemic times.” Reflecting over the last year and the abrupt switch to Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), both students and teachers have had to make incredible sacrifices and remain agile to keep up with the evolving dynamics of a totally novel situation. Not the least of these sacrifices by a long shot has been the often-intense loneliness that feels as though it has stretched on and on as we continue to physically distance ourselves while trying not to totally lose our social interactions by way of the digital landscape.

It is precisely this digital landscape that our students have been turning to for support and encouragement as they navigate their way through these (and I promise this is the only time I’m going to say it) unprecedented times. Because of the public nature of many social media platforms, we can peek behind the sea of black boxes that we are often teaching to in Zoom meetings and observe the secret lives of students. This is precisely the paradigm Literat (2021) recently took, finding the popular platform Tik Tok has been a way that students are engaging with one another to share their stresses about COVID-19, ERT and distance learning, their home environments, and, yes, their instructors.

What did they do? What did they find?

An example of personalized meme
image macro embedded into lecture

Unsurprisingly, students are feeling incredibly overwhelmed and overworked, even one year out from the beginning of lockdowns and remote learning (Literat, 2021). To examine how young people share their experiences of online learning, Literat used 1,930 Tik Tok videos and conducted a thematic analysis culling posts to hashtags such as #onlinelearning and #onlineclasses.

The results showed themes instructors will find familiar: Perceived increases in workload, lack of motivation, mental health challenges, support seeking, peer-to-peer support, family life made visible, socioeconomic disparities. The finding that plucks at the heartstrings of any empathetic instructor, though, is that students feel unsupported by cold teachers who don’t care about them. Literat (2021) emphasizes flexibility in coursework as well as perspective-taking in her recommendations and she will find no objections from me on that. It got me thinking about other ways that professors could promote positive relationships with their students and ensure that they felt a stronger sense that, at least in the context of remote learning, both instructor and student are really “all in this together.”

What are the Big Takeaway’s for instructors?

Many instructors show trepidation at adopting technologies, like live video streaming on social media platforms, that are more oriented toward entertainment than education (Chen et al., 2021). After seeing the increased student engagement for themselves, many faculty come to enjoy the increased intimacy and relationship-formation capabilities that these resources can offer. I’m not much of a social media star and I shared the feelings of many instructors who worry about looking foolish or losing the respect of their students (Chen et al., 2021) – until I started making meme pictures and Tik Tok videos to share with my students.

(Left, picture I sent out when it was pointed out to me that I had made an error on a graph; Far right, still frame from video I sent out after my electricity came back on after a five-day power outage showing me turning my thermostat up to 90)

Maybe they think I’m a goof – but that’s okay. Teaching and learning during a pandemic is a challenge; empathy-building is a two-way street. I want my students to understand that I’m a human being that they can always feel free to turn to if they need extra help or an extension or just someone to chat with. Communicating with them in a way that is meaningful to them and referential to their favorites in the current popular culture has been demonstrated to be an effective teaching technique (Dietrich et al., 2021), even if you don’t know exactly what Fortnite is or which of the 397 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies is the most recent one. The important thing is that we’re trying to reach out, let our guards down, and draw students in with commiseration, empathy, and even an invitation to go ahead and laugh.


Chen, X., Chen, S., Wang, X., & Huang, Y. (2021). “I was afraid, but now I enjoy being a streamer!”: Understanding the Challenges and Prospects of Using Live Streaming for Online Education. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 4(CSCW3), 237:1-237:32. https://doi.org/10.1145/3432936

Dietrich, N., Jimenez, M., Souto, M., Harrison, A. W., Coudret, C., & Olmos, E. (2021). Using pop-culture to engage students in the classroom. Journal of Chemical Education. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00233

Literat, I. (2021). “Teachers Act Like We’re Robots”: TikTok as a Window Into Youth Experiences of Online Learning During COVID-19. AERA Open, 7, 2332858421995537. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858421995537

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