This Week:

  • I describe how one professor designed an assignment for students to share ideas on helping deal with disengagement in class.
  • I tell you about another instructor’s prompt to get students talking about their own experiences with disconnection.
  • I point you to studies on teaching that you may have missed.
  • I remind you about our final Talking about Teaching session.

What Students Want

For many students, the second year of pandemic education has been the hardest of all. As I reported recently, many professors have seen record-high levels of disconnection in their classes: students not showing up, doing the assignments, or participating in discussion. Their two big questions, throughout, have been: Why is this happening? And what can be done about it?

Two faculty members who read my story decided to turn those questions over to their students. Specifically, they designed class assignments around the article and asked students to respond. I wanted to share their ideas here because asking students what they want and need is one step toward figuring a way out of this problem.

First up is Eva Zygmunt, a longtime professor of early childhood, youth, and family studies at Ball State University. This semester she is teaching an undergraduate class on grant writing and research methods, and had been searching for a question for students to explore through a research method called “Lego Serious Play,” in which they use personal storytelling and metaphor construction to work toward solutions.

Zygmunt asked students to read the article and respond to this research prompt: “What are the keys to re-engagement?” The students put their ideas into five different categories: content, teaching methods, relationships, and policies that would contribute to re-engagement. And they came up with five broad themes, which Zygmunt outlined for me:

Student Voice: This was the most important theme, Zygmunt said. Students don’t just want to be recipients of information. They want to be active participants in their learning, through things like class discussion and the shaping of the course itself.

Flexibility: Education can’t be one size fits all, students said. The notion that every policy holds true for everyone in every situation is wrong. That might mean continuing some of the pandemic-driven policies of flexibility with attendance and deadlines.

Care: Students want instructors who care about the content of what they’re teaching because that helps students care about learning, Zygmunt said. They also want instructors who are accessible and approachable, who have high expectations of their students and are willing to put in the effort to make sure they succeed.

Variety/Interactivity: Students want a variety of approaches to teaching and learning, with an emphasis on interactive activities and engaging experiences. Information should not be presented in only one way. And they appreciate opportunities to learn from outside experts, including guest lectures and videos.

Relevance: Students want to know: How is this content relevant to me? How can I make meaning of it? How can I connect it to my personal experience?

“This particular moment in time really requires a different kind of teaching if we want students to be fully engaged,” Zygmunt said. The ideas her students outlined match her experience: Get students moving, get them involved, and have some fun doing it. That makes people want to learn.

Zygmunt said that her teaching strategies might not make sense to someone who isn’t steeped in what she terms pedagogies of engagement. But she knows they work.

“I’m not going to lie. Some people might look at my teaching and say, What are you doing building Legos? But students understand,” she said. Her approach is: “What can we do that gets them out of their seats, that they have an experience instead of just being an audience? Then we can bring it back to, OK, what are the principles here?”

Zygmunt noted that faculty are also struggling with burnout. How can you be flexible, accessible, and interactive in your teaching when you’re barely holding it together yourself?

Faculty members “may be in a position where they may not feel particularly cared for right now,” she said. “Teaching into a void is not a good feeling.”

I spoke with a couple of Zygmunt’s students as well, Catherine Grasso and Corbin Harrison. They talked about how motivating it is to come to class when you know that the professor makes clear that they care about your success and value your opinion, to include asking what topics might be most interesting to study. They also discussed how courses that are designed to be interactive, whether through discussion or group activities, are naturally more engaging. “It gets your brain working more rather than just sitting in one spot,” said Grasso.

I asked Zygmunt, too, about one of the common challenges faculty members faced when teaching in person this year: a sea of mostly silent students. What happens if you work hard to foster discussion, but nobody seems to want to engage? She chalked that up in part to habits students learned during the first phase of the pandemic online, when it was easy to disconnect on Zoom. “I think it’s sort of a retraining,’' she said of what might come next. “They’re saying, I want interaction. I crave getting out of my seat. But at the same time they’re not used to that. And they’re uncomfortable with that.”

Zygmunt plans to share her students’ ideas with colleagues and hopes to write about some of them while on sabbatical in the fall. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. It really isn’t,” she said. “But at the same time, there are always moments in time when people are primed to listen and learn.”

Writing About Disengagement

Next up is David S. Weiss, a part-time instructor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is using the article in a composition class with the theme of “Wrote My Way Out.” The final assignment is to produce a research-based essay, podcast, video, or other project that addresses a question or theme around written communication.

After reading my story, Weiss thought his students might find inspiration in it for this final project. In short, he was hoping to connect with his disconnected students by getting them to write about their experiences.

Weiss sent the story to the 25 percent of his students who have so far not begun work on their project, including attending a required one-on-one advisory meeting. He wrote to each of them to say that he noticed they had become disengaged in class and that they were at risk of failing if they did not do well on the project.

“I do understand that it has been difficult to remain engaged in your college classes during Covid, especially while working,” he wrote. Then he pitched the idea of asking if they would like to “write a reaction or response to the article, reflecting on your own experience of how it has been challenging to keep up with schoolwork and stay engaged with classes during the pandemic.”

So far, says Weiss, one student responded to the idea. He also approached other students with the same idea, if he sensed that they did not seem interested in the topic they had come up with. “I’ve had a fair number of takers for that,” he wrote, and he included a video clip of a conversation with one student, Mauricio Reyes, who said the story reflected what he saw and was experiencing.

Reyes, who works in construction while attending college, said to Weiss he thinks that students have slowly lost interest in class because they are intent on catching up on all of the things that got shut down over the past couple years. “They’re just trying to literally enjoy the year and a half they missed,” he said. “I kind of feel like that.”

Have you begun talking to your students more explicitly about the widespread sense of disconnection students are experiencing right now? If so and you’ve come up with some creative ways to tie it into your coursework, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com. Your story may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • The “2022 Educause Horizon Report: Teaching and Learning" edition is out. Experts weigh in on the future of trends and technologies like learning analytics and hybrid-learning spaces.
  • A study by Achieving the Dream on how open educational resources can support equitable teaching looks at their impact within several community colleges.
  • Data from the Student Experience Project, which involved 300 instructors across several campuses and was led by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and a coalition of urban-serving universities, demonstrated how syllabi revisions can increase students’ sense of belonging.

Final Questions

The final session of Talking About Teaching happens at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, April 29. We plan to spend the whole hour on audience questions. You can ask yours here, and the same link will allow you to register for the session and watch previous ones on demand. If you’d rather send a question via email, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com. Hope you can join us!

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.