An inevitable fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, student disengagement is very much a reality for educators and institutions in higher education, with poor attendance and those attending not always engaged or geared up for learning. Students, used to hiding behind Zoom, are far less likely to participate than before the pandemic.
“The pandemic seems to have created a ‘fatigue’ amongst students to proactively engage with enrichment activities that are traditionally linked to campus life, students halls or student unions,” observed the “Student Engagement Guidelines: Learning from innovative practices introduced in response to COVID-19” report, a collaboration of 10 UK modern universities.
But, more encouragingly, it also reported we may have turned a corner: “Students’ views on engagement appear to have shifted towards a rising awareness that sole attendance is not sufficient to constitute a robust form of engagement.”
So, what are educators doing to boost engagement?
What are the key principles to ensuring, as much as is possible, learning success?
Address barriers to student engagement early on
To encourage and facilitate attendance, the most successful higher education institutions address obstacles to engagement in their induction programme and then keep a close eye on their students along the way. Obstacles to engagement may include special educational needs, access issues, or technical or digital requirements.
Students may not know about all the help available to them, such as supplementary resources available on VLEs, online lectures, explainer videos with test questions, and discussion forums which often answer “frequently asked questions”, as well as the career and professional development services, counselling services, and financial advice and support.
Successful higher institutions are responding to a shift in students’ expectation due to the pandemic experience which has to be met. Students want to know that flexible learning is an option for certain circumstances and help is available when required.
Outline rules of engagement from the outset
Successful institutions outline expectations early on. Turning up to lectures, seminars, and practicals is just the first step of the learning journey or contract. Mere presence is no guarantee of progress. Learning isn’t osmosis.
Setting out boundaries or rules of engagement, as it were, helps all involved, so students and educators know where they stand with, for instance, the use of devices and their role during lectures. (More of that later.) Explain the dangers of distractions. Frame boundaries – or dos and don’ts – as good learning practice or the best way to learn.
Engagement means embracing human needs
The “Student Engagement Guidelines” report noted: “The pandemic has impacted students’ sense of belonging and increased the need to include both physical (campuses) and virtual spaces (virtual learning environments), as part of learner communities.” Furthermore, “Many students argued that the pandemic has also caused them to feel isolated, often missing out on developing peer group friendships and relationships with academics, triggering an increased demand for mental health and well-being support.”
Live, face-to-face or human-to-human, learning is a good way to address this.
Engagement – the need to interact, get involved and belong – addresses a very human need.
Just look at how people have rushed back to festivals and outdoor events this summer. To that end, the best educators embrace the human quality of in-person teaching, that sense of a shared, collective experience, something unique, not an atomised one experienced at home alone.
Let’s unpack that further.
For engagement it’s 1 part preparation, 3 parts performance
I remember one academic explaining to me that teaching is 1 part preparation, 3 parts performance, comparing the job to acting or theatre. This seems to up the ante, rather, or expect a little much from practitioners, who are also weighed down with research, admin, marking and assessment, and more besides. That said, the best lecturers I remember weren’t necessarily the actors and performers per se; rather, they used several tried-and-trusted tricks to vary the format and pace of the performance.
There was a rhythm to proceedings; they knew the importance of the “hook”; they often started in unpredictable ways: a quick anecdote, mini teasers, multiple choice questions, a quick problem to solve, mini debates. Lectures would then be interlaced with activities and differentiated instruction incorporating video and multimedia.
Audience interaction = student engagement
Engagement is a two-way street and interaction can make all the difference.
Lectures do not need to be – indeed, they should not always be – a one-way transmission of knowledge. This can lead to fatigue, passivity, and not much learning.
Audience interaction, on the other hand, involves learners so that they feel an integral and valued part of the experience, not mere spectators or passive receptacles of knowledge.
How technology helps student engagement
I mentioned devices above. Used thoughtlessly, they can be a huge distraction. Used well, they’re a real boon for engagement and interactivity. In modern lecture halls, students increasingly use several devices simultaneously, for very different but distinct purposes. They might use an iPad to display lecture slides, their smartphone to take pictures, and a laptop to take notes.
Successful institutions anticipate these practices and cater for them. Providing lecture slides, for instance, means students can focus on what lecturers are saying rather than frantically write down every word.
In-lecture survey apps such as Mentimeter and Top Hat quickly collect and visualise student responses, giving educators a quick progress report or snapshot of student learning, as well as instantly involving everyone. Seen live, with countless fingers and thumbs clicking into action at the instructor’s prompt, one gets the impression of a hive of bees or a colony of ants working perfectly in sync.
Taking time out to involve students in this way can very quickly revive flagging attention spans while ensuring everyone is on task and accountable.
Final thoughts – a trapped audience isn’t necessarily an engaged one
Recollecting my own days in higher education, on both sides of the lectern, as both student and academic, I’d underline the point that a trapped audience is not necessarily an attentive one.
We all need to be mindful of the barriers to engagement. We all need to remember it’s not easy being in that lecture theatre being talked at for an hour or a lot longer, in the same seat. Perhaps it’s hot and stuffy, and there’s something interesting to look at out of the window! The best educators take this into consideration. Concentration levels wax and wane. It’s the law of diminishing returns and robust research illustrates the importance of breaks for sustained focus and concentration.
I was always grateful, then, for “comfort breaks” or the opportunity to move about, and it was always good to know when they were coming, like milestones on that long learning journey.
And downtime increases engagement in the long run. We’re not worker ants. We have finite reserves of energy. We all need to pace ourselves.
For more on how Graide is boosting student engagement AND saving academics time, read
‘Overworked academics ‘give away one-third of their time’