Have you noticed a decrease in student engagement?
Yes, especially in my big introductory class. I use a Hy-Flex arrangement to simultaneously teach an in-person section and an online section of the same course. I find that student participation in live sessions, whether in class or via Zoom, drops rapidly a few weeks into the semester, and students who attend live sessions are extremely passive. My class sessions are organized around participatory activities and question-and-answer sessions, but often the students sit and wait for me to say something rather than ask questions themselves.
I am an undergraduate counselor. I have never had so many students who were suspended or dropped out of classes a few weeks into the semester. Some students disappear and end up failing their classes. I try to contact them to see how they are doing personally and academically, and many have said they are struggling emotionally and mentally. It’s heartbreaking. Before, I could see one or two out of 30 having problems; now it’s probably half of the students.
Student disengagement is unprecedented. Increasingly, they are skipping class, responding to emails from instructors, completing work for class discussion, and completing formal assignments. Their social skills are non-existent: they fail to conduct basic, non-academic conversation, they fail to make eye contact, and their body language alternates between apathy and disdain. Also, when I encourage them to contribute to the classroom learning environment, their behavior is often disrespectful and confrontational. It’s a crisis.
Other than the typical dip in energy during the spring semester, I haven’t seen this. In fact, once the students returned in the fall, I noticed that they started to participate more in class. This semester, students are very engaged in class. They seem to do their homework and other work. This has been picked up by others in my department. However, I am concerned about the quality of their work. There is less creativity and the will to strive for the best outcome.
Students seem much less focused and more distracted than before Covid. They don’t see themselves working in the lab for eight hours anymore, so we’ve reduced the labs to four hours. They seem angrier, more resentful of teaching assistants, and less sure of themselves. Many are afraid to ask questions, and I think they feel intimidated by the whole ordeal. They often come across as arrogant or know-it-all, but I believe that just hides some deep-seated insecurity.
Did you have to redouble your efforts this year to motivate and engage students? If so, what approaches work?
I had to contact students directly much more frequently. I suggest reviewing homework before it’s due. I added a more progressive final project that asks students to provide progress updates throughout the semester. I post the most common comments I made on assignments from previous semesters, so students can avoid similar pitfalls. I am removing the lowest grade from the quiz and assignment to try and improve the overall grades. I even graded final projects on a curve last semester.
I ask them when we meet in person: “How is everyone? » I only ever provide negative feedback; Now I also spend a lot more time finding positive reinforcements. For example, five years ago I could say “read the mistakes” on a piece of paper and leave it at that. Now I use their name and tell them things like “Overall you’re on the right track here, but proofread a bit more to catch small mistakes and get full marks.” I don’t know if it works. Sometimes I feel like I’m begging them to care.
I am constantly emailing people who have not yet submitted, by the deadline, or people who subsequently encourage late submissions. I was more upfront when dropping/adding about how much work the course would require and provided tutorials on study skills and time management. I liberalized late and redone policies. I give a lot of pep talks. This semester I have extended availability for virtual office hours. Students respond warmly to all of this, but I’m not sure it will be enough to improve retention or pass rates.
I feel like I’m pouring energy into a void. With my introductory students, I feel like everything has to be bigger and bolder to get a response from them. With my upper division students falling behind, I’ve sent so many emails to check in with them and remind them of the deadlines, and most of the time I don’t get a response. Nothing seems to work.
I didn’t need to change my class style, but I did need to be more compassionate, give students more time to complete homework, and do a lot more extensions than usual. In some cases, I advocate with administrators for students to have access to mental health resources. Students certainly appreciate more flexibility and expressions of support.
If you spoke to students about these issues, what reasons did they give for not engaging?
I spoke to some of them. They generally feel overwhelmed by all the confinement and isolation, the wearing of masks, the Covid in the family, etc. They were also very upset that we went back online for a month in January and then came back to the lab in February. Some complain that their classmates are not engaged when doing teamwork.
They say everything seems hopeless. They say they are overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. They say it’s like the world is falling apart and everything is spinning out of control. They have to work too many hours and take too many units. They say they don’t have time to sleep and take care of themselves. Many also admit to compulsive Internet use.
I spoke to a few students, individually, about issues affecting motivation, attendance, and handing in work. Some reasons are related to health issues, either the flu or Covid they have experienced, or health issues with family members. Some face financial problems related to the rising cost of attendance and housing difficulties. These problems are not new, but they seem to have been amplified recently.
Have you discussed these challenges with your colleagues or anyone else on campus? If so, did anything come out of it? What else should we know to understand what is going on with students?
One thing my colleagues and I agree on is that we are beyond exhausted. We look forward to a return to ‘normal’, but if where we were last year is in fact the ‘new normal’, we don’t know how long we can sustain it. Many of us don’t even want to talk about it with the administration people because we don’t know if we’d be able to get through this conversation without breaking down. It would be nice to see the university supporting everyone, rather than expecting employees to sacrifice themselves at all costs for the students.
The commitment of faculty in my department to support staff in this regard is minimal. I am generally disappointed with the hands-off approach of the faculty management. It seems they only engage when there is an obvious problem, and the quality of teaching and the mental health of students and staff are just not on their radar. Everything is very silo. Everyone does their thing, and unless people are talking one-on-one, nothing is communicated.
I need fewer workshops on how to think more about students. Instead, I need more conversations about teacher disengagement and burnout. Like many others, I am considering leaving my career due to the constant stresses and expectations placed on faculty and staff, as well as historically low morale at my institution. However, I want to stay because I love what I do and enjoy working with students. This constant tension takes a toll on my well-being, and I’m sure some of that shows up in the classroom.
I’m afraid it will take some time to bring us all mentally and emotionally back to the campus life we knew before the pandemic. Governments can accelerate this by dedicating time and resources to support us all. They can also be creative in incorporating what we have learned about learning and mental health during the pandemic into “new normal” campus-community life.
Are there any campus-wide actions that could be taken to support adults on campus in their efforts to reach and support students? It feels like so much is siled when it becomes clear that we are dealing with a systemic concern that would most likely benefit from some systemic interventions that support everyone.