This week:

  • I share the result of one professor’s assignment on student disconnection.
  • I ask whether you think pandemic-era accommodations should continue.
  • I point you to articles and reports on teaching you may have missed.

Student Voices

A few weeks ago I told you about an English instructor at Georgia Gwinnett College who tried something of a Hail Mary pass near the end of the semester. David S. Weiss had read my story documenting widespread disengagement, and thought it might hold the key to reaching his own disconnected students.

For their final project he gave them the option to reflect on their experiences of learning during the pandemic, which resonated with the larger theme of his composition course, “Wrote My Way Out,” in which students read essays by George Orwell and Joan Didion, the play Hamilton, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

That assignment, as it turned out, got a number of his students across the finish line. Almost half the class took up the option, including several who had planned to write their final paper about something else. Most essays, he reported, “demonstrated significant thought, effort, and research.”

As he read over the essays, Weiss wrote, he was struck by how “shell shocked” students were after two difficult years. He broke their difficulties into the following categories:

  • the depersonalizing effects of online learning
  • anxiety and other mental-health issues
  • uncertainty about whether college is worth it
  • issues with teachers and the curriculum
  • difficulty of balancing school with increasing demands of work

“Of all these difficulties, the negative effects of online learning stand out to me the most,” he wrote. “There was an almost universal feeling that a year or more of attending classes online contributed significantly to frustration, poor study habits, deteriorated social skills, and mental-health issues. I personally conclude that online learning, as currently structured, is not a viable alternative to in-person instruction. It is just too damaging to too many students.”
Here are a few of the students’ comments he shared:

I remember feeling a strong frustration with school that I had never felt before. I felt my anxiety arise every time I had to join a class through Zoom. I didn’t like how dead and quiet classes were, and I disliked being called on to answer a question. It felt like I was being punished for others’ lack of motivation. It was really astonishing to see how quickly students who normally spoke and participated became nonexistent. Over a matter of days, I realized that maybe school was pointless. It was like school was draining what little energy I had.

I got too comfortable with putting in half effort in school, I got comfortable with not having to physically go to class, I got too comfortable with not receiving as much work.

Students also wrote about their doubts about the value of college:

If I had to exemplify how a college can try to bring back in their students, I’d have to say it is highly necessary to give us students a WHY.

One professor just repeated what was in the textbook and available online. If I had known that, I wouldn’t be here.

Students are growing less and less dependent on teachers because they have access to so many resources. The internet is making teachers almost obsolete.

And they offered ideas on what had helped them reconnect:

My professors have been trying to come up with ways to get all of us back engaged. They have been trying to ease up the workload to reduce stress, shorten lectures, and have more engaging discussions and content. Support from most of my professors who want to see students get back engaged has really helped.

Embedded in his students’ stories, Weiss said, is “a call to action”:

“We are drained from the same things as the students, including frustration and disillusionment with online learning. But, as educators, it is up to us to try to help them rebound from it as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Weiss is considering how to help his students better connect with the course material in future semesters. He noticed, for example, that some students struggled to relate to Frederick Douglass, and is thinking about incorporating a documentary about the civil-rights leader’s speeches earlier into the semester to help spark students’ interest and make the reading more accessible. He also realized he needed to check in more frequently with students who start to disengage during that section of the class.

“We’ve got to actively try to reach out in meaningful ways to bring them back in,” he wrote, “to let them know we care, and to address their concerns and interests in very targeted ways.”

What’s Next?

You may have read “My College Students Are Not OK,” in The New York Times last week. It generated a lot of attention, both for vividly describing the problems students are facing and for what the author, Jonathan Malesic, who teaches writing at Southern Methodist University, says needs to happen this fall. In short, no more loosened course structures. Pandemic accommodations, he concludes, harmed many students:

“Higher education is now at a turning point. The accommodations for the pandemic can either end or be made permanent. The task won’t be easy, but universities need to help students rebuild their ability to learn. And to do that, everyone involved — students, faculties, administrators, and the public at large — must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.”

I know, from the responses you sent in when I was reporting my story, that faculty members are intensely divided on this subject — and sometimes conflicted. What worked well for some students was a disaster for others.

Now that we’re at the end of the year, tell me: Do you think professors should return to pre-pandemic expectations of their students? Is it time to get rid of optional attendance and participation, flexible deadlines, streamlined content, and recorded classes? Should there still be hybrid and online class options? Tell me why, or why not, and your response may appear in a future newsletter. Write to me, at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

ICYMI

  • In an essay in The Conversation, Michelle Samura writes about how to think about the concept of belonging so that it’s more than just a buzzword in higher education.
  • Interested in socially-just design, in coursework, advising, and other systems? The Gardner Institute is starting a new series on the topic this month.
  • Every Learner Everywhere has released a report on the impact of adaptive learning on student success in foundational courses across several members of the Achieving the Dream network.
  • Six experts weigh in on student disengagement, and how to address it, in this Chronicle advice forum.

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

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