This week:

  • I share insights from students on why college has seemed harder for some of them this year.
  • I tell you about a new study of grade-forgiveness policies and ask for your ideas.
  • I point you to stories about teaching you may have missed.
  • I ask for your questions — on any teaching topic — to ask our expert panel during our final session of Talking About Teaching.

A Year Harder Than Last?

For the past couple of months I have been reporting on the problem of student disengagement. Professors told me that they had seen a significant increase in the number of students not showing up to class, not turning in assignments, and generally seeming checked out. Worse, many said, nothing they did — reaching out directly to students, continuing with flexible deadlines, changing up assignments — seemed to have made a dent in the problem.

Do students, the professors wondered, want to be in college right now? Are they so burned out by the past two years that they find it hard to function? Or have the pandemic pivots — such as taking classes on Zoom with cameras off or being encouraged to keep a physical distance from others — left them ill equipped for a traditional classroom experience?

You can read my story to find out more about what professors are saying, and what some think is happening this year.

I also talked to several students. While I wasn’t able to include all of their voices in my story, their experiences brought home what it’s like to live through these tumultuous times as an undergraduate. I wanted to share more of what they told me with you:

Allison Skala is a fifth-year senior at Doane University, a small college in Nebraska. She sees a direct connection between months spent on Zoom and the disengagement she notices sometimes in herself and her classmates. In online classes, it’s easy to hide. And students may have gotten used to that. “It didn’t really feel real,” she told me, “to have class online.”

Going back to campus in the fall, she said, everyone seemed excited. But a few weeks into the semester she noticed that many students had stopped showing up to class. She remembers feeling resentful at times, too, that she’d have to wear a mask in public, and thinking that it was just easier to stay home and catch up later. “We kind of all went back to that Zoom mentality of ‘I don’t want to go to this class. I don’t want to show up.’”

Students zone out in class, too. That frustrates Skala, who says she’s often one of the few students to speak up, both when classes were online and now in person. “I’ll have classmates in my pod, and I’m thinking they’re typing notes, and — lo and behold — they’re studying for another class, or shopping or just staring at their screen,” she said. “They’re there, but their mind is not.”

I also spoke to another Doane student, Maci Lyman, a junior. As I noted in my story, Lyman, a first-generation student from Omaha, had one normal semester of college before the pandemic. She described the nearly five semesters since then as isolating, depressing, and unreal. Doane students, like many across the country, returned to campus in the fall of 2020, but their classes remained largely online.

Lyman talked about how that experience, during her sophomore year, changed her. Students were told to keep their distance from one another. They wore masks outside their dorm rooms. And when she signed on for her morning classes, she would do so in the dark, so as not to wake her roommate. Her lasting memory of that time is lying in bed, camera off, dozing off, and waking up to the sound of her professor’s voice.

“I used to be the student that would raise my hand and try to be involved and be as active with the professor as possible. Then I thought, OK, the professor probably won’t even see me raise my hand [on Zoom], so why bother? There would always be a video lag, too, so what’s the point?” she said. “That little light in me was sort of dying out, and you realize how much easier it was to become an introvert than an extrovert.”

Many people thought this year would be better than last because the markers of normalcy were returning, including in-person classes, clubs, and events. But for students like Lyman and Skala, there was something different about going into a classroom than there was about participating in a club or hanging out with friends in their dorms. It was easier to hide, for one, behind a laptop, phone, or mask. And because some professors were using technology in class, or largely lecturing, the experience still felt somewhat virtual.

But the feeling that what it means to be a student has somehow changed this year encompasses more than that. The fallout from the pandemic has altered how many students see the world, and that may be affecting how they think about being in college.

“I feel like everyone has their guard up about bad things happening again,” said Lyman, “or anticipating that once you get a taste of what it feels like to be happy again, it’s just going to be torn and taken from you again.”

Another student, Camryn Lloyd, a first-year at Northwestern State University, in Louisiana, talked about how she is often one of the few students who speak up in her classes, but because others remain quiet, that makes her feel more self-conscious and introverted.

I also spoke to two of her classmates, Santana Lin-Lewis and Matson Nelson. Each described those early months of the pandemic — when they were still in high school — as isolating and frustrating. And while they largely feel good about being in college, the memories of those months, and the worries the pandemic generated, have stuck with them.

Lin-Lewis, for example, recalled how the pivot to online high school had led her to feel anxious for the first time in her life. “I think it was related to being stuck inside and not being able to hang out with people,” she told me. “Not being able to go up to teachers and saying, What are you asking with this question? Instead I had to email and hope they respond quickly.”

Her academic worries now, as a freshman, sound pretty routine: She is doing well in some classes, struggling in others. An introvert, she isn’t too bothered by how quiet her classes are, but it is strange to see how few people sometimes show up for class. She is regaining her footing, in short, but she’s not quite back to normal. And she shoulders larger worries. Her mother has underlying health problems that put her at risk as long as Covid-19 is a threat. Her dad’s construction job was affected by pandemic-driven shutdowns.

“A lot of me being here at college is all based on scholarships,” she said. “I’m worried about trying to find a job this summer, paying rent next semester. I’m constantly worrying about my mom and how she is doing. Is something going to happen to her? I’m constantly having to worry about my dad’s job — is he going to be stuck at home for a few months without pay?”

So what has made a difference to those students?

Having professors ask how they’re doing, they said, and make them feel as if their voice is important. For Lyman and Skala, one of those people is Kate Marley, a longtime biology professor at Doane.

“When a professor wants to hear your voice, it just means so much more. Rather than have a professor sit there and wait for a response to a question,” said Lyman. “And when they don’t get a response, they answer it for you. Whereas with Kate, she lets you know it’s OK if you don’t know the answer. She just does a good job of letting people know it’s OK to be wrong.”

For Lin-Lewis, Lloyd, and Nelson, Stephanie Masson, who teaches freshman English at Northwestern State, is one of those caring professors. “She tries to get class interactive just to help us figure out that skill of how to talk to people again,” said Lin-Lewis.

I interviewed Masson and Marley for my story. They both stressed the importance of giving students the space simply to talk. “I tell them straight up in class, We are doing this for two reasons,” said Masson. “I will put you in a group with people you don’t know. It’s to practice a skill you learned in class, but it’s also to meet people on campus.”

“It can get a little bit loud when they talk to each other,” she added. “We don’t do it for long periods, but I’m just happy to hear them talking with each other.”

I’m interested to hear more about what faculty members have done to help students through these challenging months. You can fill out this Google form or drop me a line, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com. And thank you to the more than 100 readers who wrote in to share their experiences. I read every entry. I’ll be continuing to write about this issue in the coming months.

Do Institutional Grade-Forgiveness Policies Work?

Could more forgiving or lenient grading policies improve student success? That question prompted a recent working paper by several academics who dove into their impact at one institution, Boise State University, which has changed its policies a couple of times since 1990.

Grade-forgiveness policies, although widely used, are controversial, the authors note. Skeptics worry that students might not try as hard if they know a poor grade can be “forgiven” or replaced by a higher grade if they do better the second time around. Proponents argue that it often takes students a while to figure out college, and the policies encourage them to stick it out, or even take harder courses, if they know they have the chance for a do-over.

Among other things, the authors found that such policies increase the likelihood that students will enroll in STEM courses, particularly among early-stage and academically better-prepared students. But the policies don’t provide an extra boost to women or lower-income students, two underrepresented groups in STEM.

You can find their paper here, and an essay that two of them, Xuan Jiang and Kelly Chen, wrote about the study on the Brown Center Chalkboard, at the Brookings Institution, here.

The paper got me wondering what our readers’ experiences with those policies have been. Does your college offer grade forgiveness, or something similar? If so, do you find that students are more willing to take harder courses, for example, if their grade can be forgiven? Has your college adjusted its policies during the pandemic? I have heard of a couple of institutions that have created summer programs, for example, designed around high-fail gateway courses. If students have failed, or done poorly, in that gateway during the fall or spring of this academic year, and are willing to retake it over the summer to stay on track to graduate, their grade will be forgiven.

Write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and your insights may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • In her latest story, Beckie dives into the “rigor wars,” and how the pandemic has shaped the debate over how professors should challenge their students.
  • In this Chronicle advice essay, Kevin Gannon writes about his own health problems and how they have informed two principles he believes should guide post-pandemic decision making.
  • In this Twitter thread, the teaching coach Barbi Honeycutt crowdsources resources and advice on helping future faculty members overcome shyness.

Final Questions?

Beckie and I have one session left in our Talking About Teaching series, on Friday, April 29. We’ll devote the full hour to asking our panel questions from our audience on any teaching topic. Maybe you’re looking for better ways to run a hybrid classroom, create assessments, or help underprepared students. We’re collecting questions in advance on our registration page here. Or send us an email, at the addresses below.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.