With excitement and anticipation for a “return to normal,” faculty, staff and administrators were especially excited to launch Spring semester 2022. People were vaccinated, students would be attending class with their peers on campus, and extracurricular activities would return to campus. However, it was soon discovered that a return to campus would not mean a return to “normal.”
In addition to the period of “great resignation” and “great retirement,” we soon discovered that a return to campus could be described as the “great student disengagement.” Faculty observed concerning student behaviors that impacted academic success. Students on our campus have been vocal about their desire to remain at home and on MS TEAMS/ZOOM©. Classroom sessions were required to shift and were often a mixed modality (high flex) as students and faculty underwent COVID protocols that required remote attendance. In a curriculum in which all sessions are mandatory (approximately 20 hours each week in a flipped environment), students requested far more absences in the spring semester than ever before. Even when students were physically present in class, blatant disengagement was observed by faculty. Attempts to appeal to students’ sense of responsibility and professionalism had little impact in changing behavior.
In attending the Chairs of Physiology meeting at Experimental Biology (EB), student disengagement was an impactful topic of discussion. Somewhat surprisingly, it quickly became apparent that the environment on our campus was somewhat ubiquitous across all institutions of higher education represented in the room that day. Although we shared similar observations, few potential solutions were offered.
Serendipitously, on the final day of EB meetings, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Beth McMurtrie titled “A Stunning Level of Student Disconnection.” The article shared insight gained from faculty interviews representing a wide range of institutions: community colleges, large public universities, small private colleges, and some highly selective institutions. Ms. McMurtrie shared stories of faculty who described how students’ brains are “shutting off” and limiting their ability to recall information. The article reports that far fewer students show up to class, those who do attend often avoid speaking, and many students openly admit that they do not prepare for class or complete assignments. Faculty commonly described students as defeated, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
Although specific causes of the “great student disengagement” have not been substantiated, many believe it is the after-math of the pandemic. It seems plausible that the learning environment became more individualized and flexible with fluid deadlines and greater accommodations during the pandemic. Thus, a return to normal expectations has been difficult.
It also seems reasonable that amid the more pressing issues of life (deaths within families, financial struggles, spread of disease), students are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and general decline in mental health. Perhaps being absent or disengaging while in class (being on cell phones/computers, frequently leaving the room) are simply avoidance mechanisms that allow the student to cope.
Although post pandemic conditions have brought student disengagement to our awareness, some faculty have seen this coming for years. In a 2020 Perspectives on Medical Education article by Sara Lamb et al. titled “Learning from failure: how eliminating required attendance sparked the beginning of a medical school transformation,” the authors reported low attendance rates, at times as low as 10%, which they attempted to fix with a mandatory attendance policy. However, over the next six years, student dissatisfaction rose due to the inflexible and seemingly patronizing perception of the policy. This led students to strategize ways to subvert the policies while administration spent significant time attempting to enforce them. To address the situation, the school transitioned away from required to “encouraged” and “expected” for learning activities. This yielded both positive and negative results, including but not limited to: increased attendance to non-recorded activities which students deemed beneficial to their learning; reduced attendance to activities that were routinely recorded and posted leading to increased faculty discouragement; reduced administrative burden and tension; and increased student failure rate and feelings of isolation and loneliness. The authors go on to describe efforts to mitigate the negative outcomes including empowering faculty with student engagement data, and training in active learning pedagogies to enhance student engagement.
As the definitions and root causes of student disengagement pre-date COVID and are somewhat ambiguous, finding effective solutions will be difficult. Perhaps the rapid evolution of teaching and learning brought about by COVID now dictates an evolution of the academic experience and the rise of scholarly projects to address both causes and solutions.
Suggestions on solving the disengagement crisis were published by Tobias Wilson-Bates and a host of contributing authors in the Chronicle of Higher Education dated May 11, 2022. Although we will leave it up to the reader to learn more by directly accessing the article, a list of topics is helpful to recognize the variety of approaches:
- Make Authentic Human Connections
- Respect Priorities
- Provide Hope
- Require Student Engagement
- Acknowledge that Students are Struggling
- Fight Against Burnout
Although we rely on faculty to address student disengagement, it is also useful to consider the stressful environment of faculty. In addition to experiencing the same COVID conditions that students experience, faculty are being asked to continue to provide up-to-date content, utilize engaging teaching modalities, become skillful small group facilitators, as well as advise, coach and provide career counseling. It is perhaps not surprising that faculty may also feel stressed, isolated, and burned out, surmising that nothing they do makes much difference – opting instead to remain hopeful that students will bounce back.
Regardless of the learning environment on your campus, it is safe to say that now is the time to come together as faculty, students and administrators to discuss the best path forward. Collectively we can work together to set solutions into motion and gather evidence for our effectiveness. It is time to leverage our shared experiences and lessons learned over the past several years of transitioning away from and back into face-to-face classroom instruction. Such reflection and study will support teaching and learning as we all seek to find a “new normal” that meets the needs of students, faculty, and administration alike.
Lamb, Sara & Chow, Candace & Lindsley, Janet & Stevenson, Adam & Roussel, Danielle & Shaffer, Kerri & Samuelson, Wayne. (2020). Learning from failure: how eliminating required attendance sparked the beginning of a medical school transformation. Perspectives on Medical Education. 9. 10.1007/s40037-020-00615-y.
A Stunning Level of Student Disconnection https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection
How to Solve the Student Disengagement Crisis https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-solve-the-student-disengagement-crisis