Responding to Students Struggling to Engage

Are your students struggling with focus and turning in assignments? Does it feel like the active learning strategies you adopted aren’t working well as they used to? Is course attendance lower than you’d hoped? You are not alone. As the Chronicle for Higher Education notes, “Professors are reporting record numbers of students stressed, checked out, and unsure of their future.”

Why might we be seeing an increase in student disengagement?

Karen Ray Costa uses an analogy to explain that disengagement, like other ways people protect themselves from trauma, can be considered a “normal response to abnormal circumstances.”: 

“If you’re teaching and [your] building catches on fire and your students are all running out of the door, and you stop and say ‘Why aren’t you focusing on my lecture? Why aren’t you focusing on this group activity?’ […] 

It feels like we’re blaming students for running from a burning building, for focusing on their very survival. And I would add, we are then putting a pressure on faculty and staff to put out a fire with their pedagogy. Whether you’re in the classroom or teaching outside of the classroom in a tutoring center or a library, it seems that there is this energy of what teaching strategies can you use to stop students running from this burning building. And again, we’ve got these students whose very fundamental human rights are being stripped from them, and a huge increase in eco-anxiety […] And we wonder why students are not interested in the upcoming exam. I think students are interested in the realities of their lives, and that higher ed is going to have to figure out how to speak to the realities of our lives.” (Source: Tea for Teaching Podcast)

What strategies can help you respond?

Show care

Because many students feel burnt out, are having trouble balancing schoolwork and other tasks, and are often experiencing intense emotions about local/global events, showing that your class does not occur in a vacuum can, paradoxically, help highlight the relevance of your course and increase engagement. 

There are many, many strategies for doing so. Some focus more purely about students' well-being, and some highlight connections based on your course material. The questions below from the University of Michigan can help students reflect on their self-care needs:

  • Proactive: What can I do every day/week that supports my well-being?
  • Reactive: What can I do in the moment when I’m feeling anxiety or panic?
  • Individual: What can I do myself?
  • Communal: When do I need to ask for help? When is connection what I really need? Who is one person I can reach out to?

You might also invite students to share some facets of their reflection with their peers through a quick community-building activity. Some examples include: 

  • "Happy/crappy/got your back": in larger or smaller groups, invite students to share one thing that's making them happy (or one small victory they had that week), one thing that they are struggling with, and one way that others can support them. 
  • Mutual support: GW’s Dr. Michelle Kelso gives students a strip of paper, and says, "Someone in our class is going through a hard time. What would you write to them?" Students write on the strip and put it in a bag, then they each draw someone else's paper, read it, and take the words of encouragement with them. 

Set some community norms

Talking to students and building some shared ideas about what engagement looks like can help them stay invested--and give you something to point to when participation flags (e.g., "we agreed that this is what a good discussion looks like. How can we get back to this point?") Questions you could ask include:

  • What does a scholarly discussion look like?
  • What helps you participate in class? What barriers do you face? How can we as a group address these barriers?
  • What does engagement look like?

Reinforce effective learning strategies like focusing, reflecting, and synthesizing

Students whose education has been disrupted by the uncertainty of the pandemic and the shift between different learning modes may need extra support to build or rebuild their academic skills. Some strategies to support student growth and manage distraction include: 

  • Build in a brief "check your phone break" for 2-3 minutes in-between chunks of your lesson plan. If students know a brief break is coming up every half hour or so, they might feel more able to focus during the non-break times. 
  • Reinforce effective ways to do the work of the class. Ask yourself, “What does learning look like in my discipline?” and build in strategies for practicing those skills.
    • For example, instead of taking for granted that students know how to annotate a scholarly article, break down what to read for, what clues to look for in how the author structures their argument, and what kinds of notes to take.
  • Encourage students to share strategies that worked for them. For example: "What did your studying look like for this exam? Where did it help you? What might you do differently next time?”
  • Use small-group work with a clear structure. Students tend to feel more accountable to their peers than to the instructor, so structures that allow them to talk about material amongst themselves before sharing out can be helpful. When structuring small groups, always have a clear task: something students are supposed to do, and something you will ask them to report back. 
    • For ideas on ways to have students report out from group work, see this continuum.

Explore discussion protocols

Discussion protocols are more formalized, though not necessarily complicated, structures that can help organize and energize a class discussion, shift the dynamics to encourage participation from different students, and make class feel more interactive and exciting. This active learning design tool can help you identify protocols suited to your courses. 

Be clear about objectives

Students often report that even if they are enjoying class, they are not always clear about what they should be taking away from it. How do students know they learned what they were supposed to learn? In addition to sharing semester- or unit-level objectives, share daily ones. Listing some takeaways that students should know or be able to do at the end of class can help them ensure that they are on track--and tying those takeaways to specific activities will help incentivize engagement by showing why the activities matter and how they fit into the larger picture.

Gather actionable feedback

What is resonating with students? What changes might help them learn better? Provide multiple opportunities for students to check in about the course, such as:

  • Ending class with an “exit ticket.” In addition to questions that reinforce material and invite students to share questions and interests, you can ask, “Is there anything about this class or your experience in it that you’d like to call my attention to?” 
  • An anonymous feedback form built in Google Forms and linked in Blackboard that students can access at any time (adjust the settings to be notified of new responses via email)
  • A mid-semester student feedback session and/or classroom observation. GW’s Faculty Development team can facilitate conversations with students about engagement and lend our own insights