An Epidemic of Student Disengagement

Beth McMurtrie, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote about a silent epidemic, an epidemic of student disconnection. I, for one, have been struck by the number of students who strike me as profoundly disengaged: who skip class, fail to submit assignments on time, and who seem unmotivated and remain passive in the classroom.

It’s hard not to respond with some level of pique. Given my emotional investment in my courses, it’s easy to feel disrespected, even slighted and insulted. But, of course, it’s not about me.

Empathy rather than annoyance is a much more productive response.

What, we might ask, is going on? McMurtrie’s sources attribute the “stunning” level of disconnection to pandemic-related stress, depression, exhaustion, and trauma – all explanations. After all, whenever we feel psychologically overwhelmed, our ability to focus and engage declines.

All of us know that the pandemic has been terribly tough on K-12 children. But what about emerging adults?

Among the very best studies, by the developmental psychologist Emily Hotez and a team of scholars, found that three-fourths of the college students studied experienced household disruptions and over 90 percent 90% of all students surveyed reported that they or their families or close friends experienced difficulties coping with various stressors. The results are obvious, evident in self-reports of loneliness, social disconnection, and difficulties coping, which have contributed to an attitude of negativity and a sense of pessimism that much of what they are doing is pointless.

More than a few of my students exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many more show symptoms of cognitive detachment, and have disconnected mentally and emotionally from their schoolwork and often their classmates.

Two years of remote learning took their toll not only on students’ mental health, but on their social skills and their ability to adapt to traditional academic expectations. Most 4-year campuses act as if nothing has changed. We still consider 4 or 5 courses a semester a normal load. We still expect students to participate in a host of extracurricular activities.

The result? Many students are suffering from cognitive overload.

Still, I think somethings deeper are going on. I am seeing a lot of self-sabotage, more than in any previous semester.

Mental health explanations diminish our personal responsibility for student detachment, disconnection, distraction, and disengagement. If we have failed to establish a friendly and productive relationship with our students, if our course curriculum is deemed irrelevant, that’s not just the students’ problem. It’s our problem.

We mustn’t respond passively to student distress, and certainly not passive aggressively.

Why are students disengaged? As one K-12 blogger put it, it’s because the students feel

  • No sense of connection.
  • No sense of urgency.
  • That their schoolwork is purposeless.
  • Powerless and lost.

If you’re interested in a literature review of the scholarship on student disengagement, see this scholarly article.

So what can we do to reengage disconnected students?

1. Sell your class.
Students take classes for many reasons, some of which are profoundly disturbing: To meet a requirement or fill a gap in their schedule or balance demanding courses with one that’s easier. You need to explain why your class is relevant, meaningful, and valuable and why attendance and participation in the class activities is important.

2. Discuss the problems of disengagement with your students.
Ask your students what’s going on. Help them articulate their emotions and anxieties. Most important of all, ask for their advice. Make sure to monitor student engagement over the course of the semester, whether through surveys or group discussions or one-on-one conversations.

3. Build personal relationships with individual students.
Reach out proactively to students who are disconnected. Your goal is not to reprove, but, rather, to learn what’s going on and how you can help.

4. Throw disengaged students a lifeline.
Rather than letting unmotivated or disconnected students fail, work with them to come up with a plan that will help them succeed.

5. Give students active roles and responsibilities in running your classes.
Treat students as co-teachers. Let them introduce class sessions. Let them run class discussions. Work with teams of students to develop interesting classroom activities.

6. Build strong social connections among classmates.
Encourage students to work together and develop strong and supportive relationships with one another. Create opportunities for collaborative active learning.

7. Reject the pedagogies that contribute to student disengagement.
Non-stop lecturing and Socratic questioning invariably lead many students to disconnect, while team-based activities and various active learning strategies, including inquiry, problem-solving, case studies, and debates, reengage students. As one report puts it: “Hands on is mind’s on.”

8. Find ways to work with students one-on-one.
If your students are required to complete an end-of-semester research project, divide the project into a series of steps and interact with students undertake as they undertake each stage.

As someone who studies early adulthood development from a historical perspective, I am not at all surprised that the pandemic has triggered some level of trauma in many, perhaps most, of our students.

The key developmental tasks of emerging adulthood – detaching from the natal home, achieving a level of emotional and financial independence, forging an identity and a sense of direction, and forming more intimate interpersonal relationships – have all grown more difficult not only due to the lockdown and the shift to remote learning but a cultural environment in which identity options have proliferated.

The script of young adulthood has grown more diverse and is now far more confusing and fraught than when I was growing up. Lacking any well-defined roadmaps or models, no wonder many undergraduates feel lost.

The common emerging adult coping mechanisms – videogame playing, social media, drugs and alcohol, and, of course, active participation in the digital, online world – can, in certain instances, be profoundly maladaptive and counterproductive, encouraging self-isolation, fueling social anxieties, internalizing external judgments, and clouding one’s sense of priorities.

We can respond to student disengagement with annoyance, frustration, and even anger. Let’s not. Instead, take steps to reengage your undergrads and place them back on the path to success.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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