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Helping students re-engage

While student engagement has been declining for years, the stress of the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier for students to engage. Living in crisis mode for 2+ years has led to widespread burnout and disengagement. People are tired.

Though summer may help restore some of our energy, it’s important to remember that, in many respects, the pandemic has atrophied students’ engagement muscles. As a result, they may need a bit of “PT” – not physical therapy, but pedagogical therapy to rebuild those muscles.

Like physical therapy, pedagogical therapy will take time and involve small, targeted efforts, rather than big, dramatic gestures. Focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of engagement opportunities. Loading courses up with assignments to “compel” engagement may only exacerbate student (and instructor) burnout.

Balancing flexibility and structure

Flexibility helped us navigate the pandemic, but too much flexibility is unsustainable and not particularly good for learning. As you design your re-engagement strategy, remember that students benefit from structure. Clear expectations and well-designed structures can reduce cognitive load, focus students on your learning outcomes, and provide students with opportunities to practice engaging each other.

Before the term begins, reflect on how flexibility might help you and your students succeed. For students, being able to drop a grade or having assignment options can increase motivation and persistence. But overly flexible deadlines may cause work to pile up for a student. For instructors, too much flexibility can lead to constant grading, which reduces your capacity to prep for class or meet with students.

As you plan your course, consider how you might build flexibility into a solid framework. One place you might start is to learn more about Universal Design for Learning, a philosophy that integrates flexibility into course design.

Strategies for re-engaging students

There are many ways to help students re-engage. Don’t burn out trying to do too much at once. Start with the basics and “level up” when you can.

  • Acknowledge that the pandemic has disrupted our ability to engage. Help students understand that rebuilding our engagement muscles will take time.
    • Easy: Talk about the issue with students on the first day and include a short compassionate statement in your syllabus.
    • Level-up: Gamify the concept with a Student Engagement BINGO Card that students can fill during the term.
  • Set expectations and explain why they matter. Help students understand how your expectations benefit them. For example, remind students that engagement helps them learn and develop skills that contribute to career success (PDF).
    • Easy: Explain the importance of your expectations in your syllabus.
    • Level-up: Ask students to reflect on how your expectations align with their academic goals and career aspirations.
  • Be intentional about community-building. Regardless of who your students are (first years or seasoned grad students) or where you’re engaging them (online or in person), design opportunities early in the term for them to connect and invest in the class community.
  • Design collaboration. Creating group work assignments with clear roles can help students understand expectations, re-learn how to interact, and hold each other accountable.
  • Check in with students.
    • Easy: Reframe office hours as “coffee time” and require students to “share a cup” with you at least once during the term.
    • Level up: Analyze your gradebook or Canvas course data to identify students who need additional contact. Learn how to use Canvas to nudge and check in with students.