‘It Feels Like I’m Pouring Energy Into a Void’

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Recently we asked faculty members to tell us about their experiences with student disengagement in their classes. Many of you responded — so many, in fact, that we were able to include only a small fraction of your replies in an article on the topic we published last week. We wanted to share more of your thoughtful views, so we’ve collected some of them below. Answers have been edited for length and clarity. All responses have been anonymized. For students’ perspective on this issue, see last week’s Teaching newsletter.

Have you seen decreased engagement among your students?

Yes, especially in my large introductory course. I am using a Hy-Flex arrangement to simultaneously teach an in-person section and an online section of the same course. I find that student attendance at the live sessions, either in the classroom or over Zoom, declines rapidly a few weeks into the semester, and the students who do attend the live sessions are extremely passive. My class sessions are organized around participatory activities and Q&A sessions, but often students will just sit and wait for me to say something rather than asking questions themselves.

I’m an undergraduate adviser. I have never had so many students that have gone into academic suspension or dropped courses a couple of weeks into the semester. Some students just disappear and end up failing their classes. I try and reach out to them to see how they are doing personally as well as academically, and many have said they are struggling emotionally and mentally. It is heartbreaking. Before I might see one or two out of 30 having issues; now it is probably half of the students.

Student disengagement is unprecedented. They are increasingly not coming to class, answering instructor emails, completing work for class discussion, and completing formal assignments. Their social skills are nonexistent: They can’t manage to sustain a basic, nonacademic conversation, they don’t make eye contact, and their body language alternates between apathy and disdain. Moreover, when I encourage them to be a contributor to the class learning environment, their behavior is often disrespectful and confrontational. It is a crisis.

Other than the typical dip in energy during the spring semester, I have not seen this. In fact, once students got back in the fall, I noticed that they started participating in class more. This semester, students are very engaged in the classroom. They seem to be doing their assignments and other work. This has been echoed by others in my department. However, I am concerned about the quality of their work. There is less creativity and willingness to strive for the best outcome.

Students seem much less focused and more distracted than before Covid. They cannot see themselves working in the lab for eight hours anymore, so we have shortened the labs to four hours. They seem more angry, more irritated with the teaching assistants, and less sure of themselves. Many are scared to ask questions, and I think they are feeling intimidated by the whole ordeal. They often come across as arrogant or know-it-all but I believe this just hides a deep-seated insecurity.

Have you had to try harder this year to motivate and engage students? If so, which approaches are working?

I’ve had to reach out directly to students much more frequently. I offer to review assignments before they’re due. I’ve added a more progressive final project that asks students to provide updates on progress throughout the semester. I post the most common comments I’ve made on homework in prior semesters, so students can avoid similar pitfalls. I’m dropping the lowest quiz and assignment grade to try to boost overall grades. I even graded final projects on a curve last semester.

Illustration of bored and distracted students in a classroom

Hokyoung Kim for The Chronicle

I ask them when we meet in person, “How is everyone doing?” I never provide only negative feedback; I now also spend a lot more time coming up with positive reinforcements. For example, five years ago, I could say, “Proofread for errors” on a paper, and leave it at that. Now, I use their name, and tell them things like “Overall you’re on the right path here, but proofread a little more to catch small errors and get full points.” I don’t know if it is working. It feels sometimes like I’m begging them to care.

I’m sending out emails constantly to people who haven’t submitted yet, coming up on deadline, or to people afterward encouraging late submissions. I was more upfront during drop/add about how much work the course would require, and provided tutorials on study skills and time management. I’ve liberalized late and re-do 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’s going to be enough to improve retention or success rates.

It feels like I’m pouring energy into a void. With my introductory students, I feel like everything has to be bigger and bolder to get any response from them at all. With my upper-division students who are falling behind, I have sent so many emails checking in with them and reminding them of deadlines, and mostly I don’t get a response. Nothing seems to be working.

I haven’t needed to change my classroom style, but I have needed to show extra compassion, give students more time to complete assignments, and make many more extensions than normal. In some cases I advocate with administrators to get students access to mental-health resources. Students are definitely appreciative of greater flexibility and expressions of support.

If you have spoken to students about these issues, what reasons have they given for not being engaged?

I have spoken to some of them. They are generally feeling overwhelmed by all the stay-at-home and isolation, mask wearing, Covid in the family, etc. They were also really unhappy 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 they are doing team work.

They say everything feels hopeless. They say they are overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. They say it feels as if the world is falling apart and everything is out of control. They are having to work too many hours and are taking too many units. They say they have no time to sleep and take care of themselves. Many also admit to compulsive use of the internet.

I’ve spoken to a few students, one on one, about issues affecting motivation, attendance, and turning in work. Some reasons are related to health issues, either flu or Covid they have experienced, or health issues with family members. Some are facing financial issues related to the rising cost of attendance and housing struggles. These are not new problems, but they seem to be magnified recently.

Have you discussed these challenges with your colleagues or anyone else on campus? If so, has anything come of it? What else should we know to understand what’s happening with students?

One thing my colleagues and I agree on is that we are beyond depleted. We’re anxiously awaiting the return to “normal,” but if the place we’ve been in for the last year is actually the “new normal,” we don’t know how much longer we can sustain this. Many of us don’t even want to talk about it with the administrative folks because we don’t know if we’d be able to make it through that conversation without breaking down. It would be nice to see the university support everyone, rather than expecting employees to sacrifice themselves at all costs for students.

The engagement of the faculty in my department to support the staff on this is minimal. I am generally disappointed by the faculty management’s hands-off approach. It seems they engage only when there is an obvious problem, and that the quality of teaching and mental health of students and staff is just not on their radar. It is all very silo-style. Everyone is doing their thing, and unless people talk one on one, nothing gets communicated.

I need fewer workshops about how to think more about students. I need, instead, more conversations about faculty’s disengagement and exhaustion. Like many others, I am considering leaving my career because of 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 is taking a toll on my well-being, and I’m sure part of this is showing up in the classroom.

I fear it will take some time to bring us all back mentally and emotionally to the campus life we experienced before the pandemic. Administrations can speed this up by devoting time and resources to support all of us. They can also be creative about incorporating what we’ve learned about learning and mental health in the pandemic into a “new normal” campus-community life.

Are there campuswide actions that could be taken to support the grown-ups on campus in their efforts to reach and support students? It feels like so many things are siloed when it’s becoming apparent we’re dealing with a systemic concern that very likely would benefit from some systemic interventions that support everyone.

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