Some critical thoughts on the crisis of student engagement

Over recent months a conversation has begun to take place about a crisis in student engagement within universities. From twitter conversations, through to conversations between colleagues and thought pieces in professional magazines there’s a growing sense that something has shifted in how many students are relating to university education. In a recent article this was described as a ‘stunning’ level of disengagement manifested in a significant rate of non-attendance but also a difficulty in intellectually engaging when they are presented. Other issues which were raised by respondents to the article included avoiding speaking, difficulties remembering what they learned and struggling with tests. As the biologist Kate Marley described it to the journalist Beth McMurtrie:

In addition to two years of shifting among online, hybrid, and in-person classes, many students have suffered deaths in their families, financial insecurity, or other pandemic-related trauma. That adds up to a lot of stress and exhaustion.

I found this a usefully concise formulation because it plausibly identifies the two most significant causes (educational instability and pandemic-related trauma) in a way which opens up the question of how they might be interacting. It suggests the accommodations made during the pandemic (“flexible attendance policies and fluid deadlines” are cited in the article) might now be difficult to (successfully) roll back, particularly when many students are grappling with the psychological and emotional fallout of an extraordinarily difficult two years. But worryingly the respondents who contributed experiences to the piece suggest that it’s younger students who are struggling the most.

Freshmen and sophomores, wrote Ashley Shannon, chair of the English department at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, are “by and large tragically underprepared to meet the challenges of university life — both academically and in terms of ‘adulting,’” such as understanding the consequences of missing a lot of class. “It’s not all their fault, by a long shot! I feel for them. But it’s a problem, and it’s going to have a significant ripple effect.

Students seem to have lost their sense of connection with the university and university community, and their sense of purpose in attending,” said Stephanie Masson, who teaches English at Northwestern State University, in Louisiana. After two or more years of masking, they feel as if it’s not OK to get close and talk to someone. “It’s almost like they just prefer to sit in their little cone of silence.

While not wanting to deny issues might have occurred as a result of the pandemic or to be overly critical of these respondents, it’s striking how these explanations draw upon widespread concerns about the declining social skills of young people which long predate the pandemic. They’ve lost the ability to focus, they’ve lost the ability to connect, they’ve lost the ability to meet expectations. These are familiar tropes from the pile of popular books about digital distraction I’ve read over the last decade or so. Books I’ve read because I do think there are problems emerging at the interface between everyday life and the digital technologies we depend upon. I’m just wary of framing these in generational terms, for reasons I wrote about at length in this article.

How do we find ways to talk and think about difficulties which contemporary students are facing without drawing upon this rhetoric of an incompletely socialised younger generation? Is it possible to distinguish between technical/institutional factors relating to communication, delivery and assessment and the mental health implications of the suffering the pandemic has brought with it? In practice these are likely to play out in complex ways and understanding this complexity seems essential for formulating response to what is being experienced by many educators as a pervasive challenge.

This section made me think about the relationship between social presence in online learning (or rather its frequent absence in emergency remote teaching) and student disengagement. How does the feeling that everything is ‘virtual’ (not completely real, with few stakes, emotionally distant from others) make disengagement more likely:

As she returned to the classroom, Lyman found that many professors had come to rely more heavily on technology, such as asking everyone to get online to do an activity. Nor do many of her courses have group activities or discussions, which has the effect of making them still seem virtual. “I want so badly to be active in my classroom, but everything just still feels, like, fake almost.”

To what extent is that sense of virtuality carried with students whose early experiences of tertiary education were defined by it? I thought this was a powerful line of inquiry but one which should be made reflexive in order to ask how does moving from emergency remote teaching back into classrooms lead to a crisis of confidence in instructors? The article touches on the parallel story about teachers (“It’s hard to find the line between being supportive of struggling students and just giving up entirely on academic rigor”) but doesn’t really link the two sets of concerns in any systematic way:

Croyle, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, believes that the continual pivots in instruction have led students to develop habits that may no longer work now that they are back in classrooms. That feeling of ineffectualness has led to a more existential anxiety — specifically, a loss of confidence in themselves and their futures. A psychologist by training, Croyle is quick to say that those are her working theories, not hard facts. But she thinks that being a young adult today is challenging in ways that people of other ages may not understand.

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