Can We Talk About It?: Enhancing Student Engagement by Integrating Discussions of COVID-19

Let's discuss bubble represents difficult online conversations about COVID-19 in the classroom

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s guide to student engagement, Cavanagh (2019) emphasizes the importance of connecting course content to the emotional lives of students.  Bundick, et al. (2014) state that a key factor influencing engagement is the degree to which students perceive course content as relevant to current events and their everyday lives. The relevance of a course is enhanced when it helps students understand what has happened in the past, navigate the present, and plan for the future.

Students’ lives have been disrupted in many ways by COVID-19, including alterations in their education, living situation, isolation from peers, financial challenges, and health concerns for themselves and loved ones.  As students return to classes this fall (in-person or online), there are opportunities to increase engagement by facilitating discussions that are relevant to the pandemic and link to their emotional lives.  Instructors can make space for these discussions when they are covering course content that also relates to the pandemic.  Topics related to the pandemic span a range of disciplines (e.g., science, math, economics, communication, psychology, sociology, business, sports management), so there are potential applications in numerous courses. 

Below are a few examples of discussion prompters for selected topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  To elevate the level of the discussion, students can research these topics in advance with encouragement to relate them to the specific focus and content of a given class.  

Consumer behavior

At the beginning of the pandemic, consumers were “panic buying” and stockpiling several products, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, bottled water, canned goods, and other non-perishable items.  What examples do you have of individuals who purchased items at a larger quantity than what is typical?  What are some of the factors that contributed to this panic buying behavior?  What are possible reasons that specific items were stockpiled (e.g., paper products, bottled water), especially those items that seemed unrelated to the nature of COVID-19?  When individuals saw that others were mass purchasing items and they were becoming scarce, how did that impact their buying behavior and desire for these products?  How did scarcity affect the amount that people were willing to pay for these products or the lengths they were willing to go to get them?  What are some possible strategies that could be employed (by businesses, the media, and individuals) to reduce the likelihood of panic buying in the future? 

Physical distancing and home confinement

Various personal reactions to physical distancing, isolation, “safer at home” orders, and quarantine have been reported.  What are some of the specific challenges that individuals faced as a result of these restrictions?  What factors may have contributed to these challenges (e.g., consider less social support, access to technology, change in living situation, impact on employment, loss of meaningful or pleasurable activities)?  Some have suggested that personality traits (e.g., introvert vs. extrovert) may impact the degree to which social distancing is challenging.  What are some personality traits that could make physical distancing or home confinement more or less difficult (see Taylor, 2019)?  The length of the quarantine and uncertainty about an end are possible factors that influence individuals’ reactions to confinement (e.g., some may have had more difficulty in adjusting at the beginning, but did better over time or vice versa).  How did reactions to these restrictions change for individuals over time?  Are you aware of individuals who used the “safer at home” time to learn new skills or to accomplish neglected tasks?  Overall, what are examples of individuals who utilized more or less successful coping strategies during confinement? 


Individuals who demonstrate symptoms associated with an illness that is threatening to the public are often stigmatized or shunned.  For example, as awareness of the pandemic increased, what changes did you observe in people’s reactions to someone who sneezed compared to before the pandemic?  Is there a tendency to assume that anyone who coughs or sneezes has COVID-19?  To what extent were those who tested positive stigmatized or shunned by others?  Due to fears of the virus, individuals may overreact to any symptom they experience that is associated with COVID-19.  Conversely, once an illness is stigmatized, individuals can be reluctant to get tested to avoid confirming that they have the stigmatized condition.  Did individuals tend to blame themselves, others, or both if they thought they had the virus?  What examples do you have of the various scenarios discussed above?  How do the dynamics discussed in this section regarding COVID-19 relate to other stigmatized illnesses or conditions?

Stereotypes and prejudice

Prejudice is often viewed as containing three components: stereotyped beliefs, heightened emotions, and discriminatory actions.  Early reports identified Wuhan City, China as the source of COVID-19. An unfortunate result was that anyone who appeared to be of Asian descent could be viewed as a source of threat.  This mixture of stereotyped beliefs and heightened emotions contributed to Anti-Asian acts of violence and discrimination.  This is similar to what was experienced by those perceived as Middle Eastern following the events of 9/11.  What do these experiences teach us about factors associated with prejudice?  How is prejudice fueled and promoted?  How does the terminology used in the media play a role in prejudice?  What strategies could have been employed to reduce the Anti-Asian prejudice that emerged with the pandemic?

Media and public communication

As a pandemic begins to spread, people need to receive health and safety information in a timely and accurate manner so they can take the necessary precautions. How effective was the media at communicating information about COVID-19 and its health risks?  Was accurate information readily available to the public regarding steps they could take to reduce the risk of viral transmission?  How was this complicated by the novel and unprecedented nature of COVID-19?  Within the last few years the term ‘fake news’ has become more prevalent.  How did possible distrust of the media influence the way individuals processed the recommended safety precautions?  At times, there have been discrepant messages between government representatives and health officials about the seriousness and extent of the virus, as well as safety procedures to follow (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks).  In what ways did the conflicting messages between the two groups influence the public?  What are some possible factors that influence which members of the public are more persuaded by the advice of specific governmental representatives or health officials?  Similarly, what factors contribute to members of the public being dismissive of the advice provided by certain governmental representatives or health officials?

Perception of risk and behavior

The degree to which people perceive their risk of viral contraction often dictates the preventative measure they take. What relationship do you see between the safety precautions taken by individuals and their perception of risk based on factors such as age, profession, location, and health factors?  How did ideas of perceived risk change over time as more was learned about the virus, where it was spreading, and who was most vulnerable?  Rates of COVID-19 declined for a few weeks and then there was a spike in cases among younger people.  What attitudes held by younger people may have contributed to this spike?  Another issue that arose was that an individual could be asymptomatic or have minimal symptoms and still pass on the virus to a more vulnerable person.  How might those with an individualistic mindset interpret the risks differently from those with more of a collectivistic mindset?  Could the degree to which individuals feel connected to their communities impact their decisions regarding safety precautions? 

Instructors are encouraged to consider other discussion topics related to the pandemic that are compatible with their courses.  Before engaging in any of these discussions, instructors can consult with numerous resources in this article and other publications regarding guidelines for conducting difficult conversations in the classroom.  In addition, informing students in advance of potentially sensitive or challenging topics via the syllabus and verbally is recommended.

Dennis Lowe, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and holds the M. Norvel and Helen Young Endowed Chair in Family Life.  

Taylor Lowe, BA, is a graduate student in sociology at California State University, Northridge.  

*Note: This collaboration was facilitated by the COVID-19 “safer at home” orders.


Bundick, M.J., Quaglia, R.J., Corso, M.J., & Haywood, D.E. ( 2014).  Promoting student engagement in the classroom. Teachers College Record, 116, 1-34. 

Cavanagh, S.R.  (2019). How to make your teaching more engaging: Advice guide.  Chronicle of Higher Education.

Taylor, S.  (2019). The psychology of pandemics: Preparing for the next global outbreak of infectious disease. Cambridge Scholars Publisher.