How to Solve the Student-Disengagement Crisis

“Defeated,” “exhausted,” “overwhelmed” — these were typical responses when The Chronicle asked faculty members how their students were faring. Professors reported widespread anxiety, depression, and a lack of motivation in their classrooms. Recent survey data from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health show a rise in students’ reports of their social anxiety and academic worries. Professors, meanwhile, are frustrated by their inability to reach those students. And they’re worn out from trying. “It feels like I’m pouring energy into a void,” as one put it.

The problem of student disengagement is easy enough to identify. Diagnosing what, exactly, is fueling it, and what colleges should do about it, is more of a challenge. So we asked several experts — both faculty members and administrators — about the steps colleges can take to combat such pervasive student disconnection. Here’s what they told us.

Make Authentic Human Connections

By Rebecca A. Glazier

Student disconnection didn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be solved by any single professor’s innovative pedagogy. But there are things we can do at both the individual and the institutional levels to support and engage students. At the individual level, it starts by making authentic human connections.

Decades of research has shown that the best way to ensure that students are successful in college is to help them build relationships — with professors, with mentors, and with peers. Professors are especially critical here. The more positive interactions students have with faculty members, the more likely they are to graduate. When students feel like their professors care about their success and are there to help, they will be more committed and engaged.

That is why flexible deadlines aren’t enough. Building rapport with students doesn’t just happen in the last few weeks of the semester; it begins before the class even starts. A welcome email, a pre-semester survey, or a warm and engaging syllabus are all ways to signal to students that their success matters.

Once class starts, continue to build rapport by bringing students into the course material: Let them vote on case studies, give them a turn at leading the discussion, hold active-learning simulations, or move class outside for an impromptu discussion of current events.

The pandemic has taught students that they can get most of the course content by reading the textbook or watching a recorded lecture. So what is the value of coming to class? It has always been human connection — the give and take of discussion, the knowledge gained through solving a problem together, the fun of exploring an outlandish counterfactual, the sincere inquiry of a spur-of-the-moment question. We need to rediscover the unique advantages of learning together in a shared space. That means connecting with students on a human level. We can’t leave it to those who this kind of work often falls on: women, faculty of color, queer faculty, and first-gen faculty. We need all hands on deck if we are going to overcome this disconnection crisis.

Rebecca A. Glazier is an associate professor of political science in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Respect Priorities

By Tobias Wilson-Bates

Like so many professors this spring, I found myself staring out at a surprisingly large number of empty seats. Absenteeism has increased at every level of schooling since the start of the pandemic. Many professors attribute it to apathy or poor decision making. But in my experience, students, faced with the impossibility of meeting the demands of all their coursework and extracurricular commitments, tend to make the right choices.

As a professor at a college made up of 40-percent first-generation students and a large number of dual-enrollment and nontraditional students, I have not seen academic malaise. Instead I’ve seen students working harder than ever. However, now their work increasingly involves an array of concerns above and beyond what I assign them in class.

First-generation and nontraditional students have always needed to balance a multitude of responsibilities, but never like this. My students are increasingly caring for relatives, taking on extra shifts at work to pay escalating rent and transportation costs, and dealing with personal health issues — both mental and physical. I would tell a student to prioritize all of these matters above meeting a deadline for my class.

Unfortunately too many professors think the answer to student disconnection is to double down on rigor, so they increase mandatory student checkpoints like quizzes and online-learning modules with strict deadlines. This creates a situation where any work that isn’t graded, like reading, becomes deprioritized.

Student Disengagement

The lenient policies I implemented during the pandemic have changed how my students view attendance and deadlines. Flexibility in the classroom is now the only flexible commitment in their lives.

Students have not lost the capability to do meaningful, complex work. They are not generally too burned out, depressed, and dispirited to do the kind of foundational critical inquiry that undergirds a college education. Across the board, though, they are overcommitted to the point that any work assigned to them demands they make a sacrifice or deprioritize a separate, vital part of their lives.

We need to think carefully about how the tasks we assign to students compete with the demands of their schedules. The urgency of re-establishing classroom norms and fully committing to the slower, less-quantifiable aspects of our classes need to be communicated to students in a way that will allow them to calculate how deep learning fits into their crowded lives.

Tobias Wilson-Bates is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Provide Hope

By Kristin Croyle

Seeking a college education is an act of hope. Students invest their time and money in the belief that it will help them change their lives, and maybe even change the world. Students now are struggling to find that hope. They have turned inward, becoming disconnected and disengaged.

There is no magic solution, but there are steps colleges can take that we already know can make a difference.

  • Use best practices in teaching across all the faculty. Too often, we treat excellence in teaching as an optional pursuit for faculty members. Great teaching engages students better than anything else we can do.
  • Make sure students are aware of vital campus services — mental-health care, financial counseling, food banks — and encourage them to take advantage of those services. It is no longer acceptable for us to say, “We try to get the word out, but students just don’t notice.”
  • Look at your student-equity data and redirect resources as needed. We know the pandemic hit low-income students and students of color much harder. How is that affecting your students in terms of recruitment, pass rates, retention, progress to degree, and graduation rates?
  • Provide support to staff and faculty members. They are also disengaged and overwhelmed — and their stress hurts students. Do your faculty and staff members know they have access to mental-health benefits, employee-wellness programs, and employee-assistance programs?

As social interactions start to normalize and our students see more hope for their own futures, we will likely see a shift back to more engagement. But we can’t wait for that to happen. Students, faculty, and staff need us to recognize that there is an emergency now and to act with resolution.

Kristin Croyle is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Require Student Engagement

By Emily Isaacs

Faculty members need to be released from the “super prof” role we have found ourselves attempting to fulfill — mental-health counselor, adviser, academic coach, technical expert. It isn’t working, and we’re burning out.

But faculty members are essential to students becoming connected. We do that best through igniting their passion for inquiry and research — and their capacity to persist through challenges. In the past we’ve accomplished that by being a fount of knowledge armed with great materials and well-crafted courses and assignments. Increasingly, however, the spark isn’t lighting. We have to become igniters. We need to lean forward, walk around the room, peer over shoulders, and be intrusive, in both digital and physical spaces. We need to encourage and require student engagement.

Next year’s classrooms will include many struggling learners who have not yet realized that learning is inquiry. They often are smart and knowledgeable but hit the wall quickly, lacking stamina and self-belief. They have become accustomed to thinking that learning happens by showing up. I picture many of my students as having lived in a learning cast, their learning muscles somewhat atrophied, underused, and in need of physical therapy. Here are some therapeutic suggestions:

  • Finalize your course schedule before the semester begins, to avoid constant tinkering and to provide greater stability for your students.
  • Communicate high expectations and the possibility of great success.
  • Provide early and frequent assessments that underscore expectations and the path to success.
  • Ensure that students “do” in every session — write, speak, solve problems, create graphs, etc.
  • Design lessons and activities that have students interact and collaborate frequently.
  • When students “choose not to,” nudge, prompt, and hold the line that doing — engaging, collaborating — is required.
  • Take action when students show disengagement. Draw their attention to their silence, inactivity, and unresponsiveness, and tell them they must do better.
  • Share stories of learning how to learn; ask students to describe experiences with deep learning so they can tap into that experiential knowledge.
  • Demonstrate empathy, and be on the lookout for students who will benefit from an after-class nod, smile, or simple, “Are you OK?,” as they leave the class.
  • Accept the limitations of what a teacher can do. Work reasonable hours and set parameters around your teaching time.

Faculty members need to do what we already knew how to do: create and nurture engaging, active, and social learning spaces.

Emily Isaacs is executive director of the office of faculty advancement at Montclair State University.

Acknowledge That Students Are Struggling

By Elaine M. Hernandez

We are about to complete the fifth semester of teaching during a deadly pandemic that has killed a million people in the United States. Each semester we have faced new hurdles. Why has this one felt the most challenging?

In preparation for the Omicron wave, I embedded flexibility in my courses. I recorded each lecture and posted them online, an approach that proved crucial when many of my 130 students were too sick to attend. But even as the Omicron wave receded, attendance plummeted. For one 50-student course, I was lucky if 12 showed up in person. I know why: Students are struggling.

The root cause, of course, is the pandemic. Physical distancing has been effective at preventing the spread of the virus, but it has had unintended consequences.

One is that our social norms have shifted. While seniors first faced the pandemic during the second semester of their sophomore year in college, freshmen first faced it when they were juniors in high school. Their college experiences are built on a foundation of rules that sometimes change midway through the semester at a time in their lives when peer pressure and acceptance prevail. And controversies about how to behave — whether or not to wear a mask when mandates end — do not spare them.

Facing a dizzying array of pandemic tragedies, social movements, and inequities, and, in many cases, in college for the first time, students have created new norms. Low in-person attendance and disengagement are two of them.

What is the solution? Here are three recommendations.

Create spaces for interactions. In-person classroom interactions are the best way to teach students social norms. Colleges need to continue to be creative about how to foster these interactions while attending to student and faculty needs during Covid waves.

Teach all students about the hidden curriculum. In one of my lectures, I talk frankly about the unspoken and unwritten rules that help students succeed. For example, we discuss how to interact with faculty members or how to develop productive study habits. I end by explaining that it is normal for them to face challenges and that their careers path will not always go as planned. These efforts should be systematic and not burden faculty members.

Focus on equity. Equity is not the same as equality. Striving for equity requires designing systems in response to students’ varying needs. Scrutinize rules to avoid putting minoritized students, low-income students, or those who have been systematically marginalized at a disadvantage. One way to do that is by adopting care-referral systems, which allow faculty members to refer any student to needed services.

Elaine M. Hernandez is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Fight Against Burnout

By Nicole Green

Students are not doing well. They have spent the “best years of their lives” missing milestones in high school and college, like sporting events, parties, proms, and graduations. They have had to adjust to online coursework, isolation, and continuous changes in Covid-19 guidelines, mandates, and regulations. They have gotten the short end of the stick in a critical time of development. They are anxious, grieving, and, in short, burned out.

Burnout consists of three components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Students are emotionally exhausted, which makes motivation or concentration nearly impossible, especially when tasks are hard and require a great deal of mental engagement. Students have also disconnected, and they use depersonalization as a strategy to distance themselves from their work to prevent further emotional fatigue. So during online instruction, they might keep their cameras off. During in-person instruction, they might procrastinate and avoid participating. Unfortunately, these strategies can negatively build on themselves, leaving students feeling even less effective, which then furthers burnout and exhaustion.

Here are some ways we can support our students.

Put their basic needs first. Students should be encouraged to focus on things like getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and engaging in safer social engagements. Students’ schedules have been negatively affected by the pandemic and need to be readjusted to decrease anxiety and disengagement.

Validate their feelings and needs. Many students are not sure if what they are feeling is normal because they were not able to bond with other students when classes were remote. Encouraging students to express their feelings will inspire connection and engagement in and outside of the classroom.

Invest in their mental health. Our families and our country have suffered a great deal of loss, turmoil, and confusion. Some students may need additional support to cope. Urge them to take advantage of counseling and crisis services.

Keep them engaged. Students should be reminded that belonging and community are essential for their well-being. Encourage them to find ways to be active and feel purposeful to avoid feelings of helplessness.

Nicole Green is executive director of counseling and psychological services at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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