Are your students struggling this semester?
October 9, 2021 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I teach (at the college level) and my students are doing way worse than usual. Worse than last semester, worse than the height of the pandemic. Is this true of you too? If so, is anything you are doing helping?

The students in my classes are just really struggling. The majority are missing questions that in other semesters the majority got right. Some of it I understand, they are doing less of the homework, using google/chegg/etc. more than in most semesters to answer homework questions, etc. They are totally burned out. I know I am also burned out, but I have good reason to believe my presentation of the material isn't less enthusiastic, etc. They are, to good approximation, being presented with the same material, with the same resources as typical.

I'm wondering both how universal this is, and also if anyone has found any way to get their students more engaged with the material given the current malaise.

Is anyone writing about this?
posted by lab.beetle to Education (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotal, but yes, my high school students are struggling more than usual. They have not adjusted well academically to "normal" school restarting, and both effort and understanding are way below normal.
posted by lysimache at 12:07 PM on October 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know anyone who's writing about this, but I will say that I have never had students that struggled like this, and I have been teaching college students for over a decade. Everyone is just burned out and done. I also think that most professors (especially full profs who are secure and wealthy, and especially the ones who weren't really negatively impacted by the pandemic beyond having to use zoom) are completely checked out and not even paying attention, if our informal conversations at faculty meeting are any indication. So when students do identify a professor where it might be safe to stumble a little bit, I think they really let it show, because many faculty just do not give a fuck about them.

I removed one of their major assignments just to give them less things to do in our course, and I've just been incredibly lenient and understanding about giving extensions. I don't think that people can actually learn under extreme duress anyway, and most college students are under extreme duress. I think that we have to shift what we expect out of college classes right now and that this is a time to model empathy and understanding, because I don't think these students see much, if any, of it. Anyhow, asking my students to do less and being lenient has resulted in better discussions and in better quality work, more on par with their average performance in previous years in the same courses. I don't know how possible that is in your course, but maybe dialing back expectations would help. Solidarity and best of luck.
posted by twelve cent archie at 12:12 PM on October 9, 2021 [41 favorites]

Thank you for asking this question.
I teach at a big state R1 university and therefore always have seen a wide range of student motivation, differences in pre-college privilege coded as differing "ability," etc. What seems to be happening now in my classes is that on one level, there are more students failing tests/missing the same questions that were easy for students in the past, and more dead weight in the room as they clearly have not done the reading, etc. But at the same time some of the class discussions -- the ones about texts focusing on social justice, race and equity -- are more intense, passionate and committed than I've seen in 25 years of teaching. So because of this dissonance between dead space and increased passion I think there are multiple forces impacting the changes we see. On one level, there is indeed an epidemic of depression and anxiety and isolation rooted to a great extent in the pandemic, and I agree it calls for faculty empathy and flexibility. On another level, the change is about what's happened in the world after the murder of George Floyd. The discourse and activist worlds many students participate in are so alive now. And many of the academic topics they used to find interesting just seem unable to compel them as much they did before. I'm in the humanities, as might be evident, so I have some capacity to re-route my topics and discussions into areas that students really feel energized to discuss. When it comes to the politics of power, they are driven to explore ideas in my classes in ways that blow me away now. So on the one hand there is the ennui you describe and on the other hand there is just a change in what they find really important. I remember hearing interviews with Vietnam war era college students talking about how the classroom felt irrelevant when they wanted to be out in the street changing the world. If there is a way your own topic can tap into that energy, you can possibly return to more engaged classroom discussions, even though there are simultaneously a lot of mental health crises draining energy too.
posted by nantucket at 1:01 PM on October 9, 2021 [37 favorites]

Seconding everything from twelve cent archie. They're burned out, I'm burned out, everything is a nightmare, nevermind that substantial numbers of students are in and out of COVID quarantine. So yeah, stuff that people usually do well with isn't sticking this year.

I cut back requirements and assignments. Deadlines? Never heard of her. My primary goal for the semester is to extend enough grace that students have the bandwidth to muddle through the courses where professors are not doing so - as much as I can without abandoning the premise that I should also be teaching them something.

if anyone has found any way to get their students more engaged with the material given the current malaise

A concrete item on this front. I kept weekly "quizzes" in my courses, but by quiz, I really just mean check-ins. They are online, open-note, unscheduled, unlimited time, and extremely short. Hey, did you engage with the two big ideas from this week? Super. Have all the points. Did you do so three weeks late? Super. Have all the points.

The final question on every quiz is just a request for any questions and comments. They have questions! They have comments! They are engaged! On their own time. Even when they are half or entirely asleep in class because everything is a neverending nightmare.

My respones are posted where the whole class can see - so we're having an extended, asynchronous background conversation on the material, and the students too burned out to join in the conversation can still listen in.
posted by pemberkins at 1:10 PM on October 9, 2021 [29 favorites]

I am scheduled to teach a late start class in a few weeks. Given how my summer students really struggled, I'm worried.

I've done what most teachers have done for the last few years. I've been kind and patient and blown up the schedule and tempered the workload. Given that so many students drop or ghost out in online classes right now, I try to connect to them individually early on, so I can text them when they fall behind with gentle reminders and support, since many aren't even checking email anymore. It feels more like high school than college, but I'm not sure what else to do.

My community college students are overwhelmed and tired in the world and are doing their best to survive. I feel like I owe them what I can give them to get through this world on fire.
posted by answergrape at 1:24 PM on October 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yes yes yes. I've not noticed anything quite like this in my 14 years teaching. Frankly, the change in graduate students, who mostly have full time jobs and families, has been the most notable. No requests for meetings, vacant office hours, no response to my feedback on assignments. It's jarring.

As much as I'm pro-mask and pro-vaccine, I honestly think that everyone being masked up in the classroom is harming the dynamic. I can't get as good of a read on my students, and they can't as easily tell when I'm, say, making a sarcastic comment vs. talking about something very important to the topic.

I'm also basically ignoring deadlines and trying to be empathetic. Not sure what more there is to do. I'm curious to see how the course evals pan out.
posted by nixxon at 1:59 PM on October 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

(I work in higher ed but don't teach. One of my daughters is in her first year of teaching and in grad school. I just want to thank all of you, and wish you good luck. The only thing worse than last year is, apparently, this year. Godspeed, y'all.)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:47 PM on October 9, 2021 [9 favorites]

I’m a librarian in higher ed. A professor I work with mentioned she was removing a major assignment from a class she had taugh before (pre-pandemic) to reduce the amount of work students needed to do this term because it was just too mich now.

I taught library instruction sessions to a few groups of honors seniors recently. These are smart, motivated students. I was a bit jarred by the real gaps I saw in their knowledge — not unusual for lower level students, but different than my previous experience with honors seniors.

So, yeah, things are different now.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:17 PM on October 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Another person in higher-ed chiming in to say, yes, the COVID burnout is definitely cumulative. Some things I've done:

1) If you can use it with your LMS, Perusall or Hypothesis are cool tools that let students annotate the same PDF together. This allows students who are too burned out to fully do the reading to at least follow along with their peers comments, and it is waaay better than message board/forum posts. For the most part, students like it.

2) I have a no-questions asked grace period for all assignments (besides the final). I encourage students to aim to turn things in on time, that way if something does come up, they can fall back on the grace period. This also means that even students who may not feel comfortable asking for an extension automatically get one - I think it also signals to students that I'm you know, not evil and generally on their side. I strongly feel this is better than no deadlines - I find no deadlines actually hurts the most vulnerable students, as they just put things off and then get anxiety attacks over how much they've put things off- some structure is good.

3) Some flexibility in which assignments they do. For example, there will be five paper options throughout the class, you need to pick 3 of them to do.

4) I have become more intentional about trying to build a classroom community. One first-day activity I stole from somewhere (sorry, forget the source) is to have students make collages that somehow represent them on the first day of class, and then they have a chance to explain their collage (obviously this only works with smaller classes). I also try to have a lot of group work - students like the rest of us are a bit socially rusty, and I think it's key right now to provide them chances to get to know their peers.

I think the above are helping, but yeah, the burnout is still there.
posted by coffeecat at 5:51 PM on October 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Currently a grad student, not taking classes currently but still definitely burning out. I was hoping that TAing next semester would be better than the last time I TA'd but it seems like that won't be the case.
posted by crossswords at 6:11 PM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I strongly feel this is better than no deadlines - I find no deadlines actually hurts the most vulnerable students, as they just put things off and then get anxiety attacks over how much they've put things off- some structure is good.

Yes - I have all assignments on a consistent schedule (so they can get into a routine), but students know they can diverge from that schedule when they need to. So they have a schedule, but not grade-based consequences for missing those deadlines. I am also clear on which (few) deadlines affect things down the road - for instance, the deadline for submitting a written draft is set to make sure they get feedback from me in a certain turn-around time to help them revise.
posted by pemberkins at 6:17 PM on October 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I haven't noticed students being _more_ exhausted this year, but that might be because I am less depressed this year and am doing a better job with follow up. I have noticed that my pedagogical approach of lots of smaller assignments seems like it is backfiring for a number of students who just don't have the mental bandwidth for that many moving parts. I had cut out an assignment last fall that I was hopeful about keeping this semester, but not sure I'll be able to do so.

I'm still 80% virtual for my classes. I have offered an in-person option twice for my studio class and once for a different undergrad class. The grad seminar is still 100% virtual, mostly because they work full-time and getting to campus at the height of rush hour is just a miserable time suck.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:24 PM on October 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm a graduate instructor and this is my first semester teaching at the college level. I looked at the syllabus my advisor has been teaching from for years and thought, "Just imagining doing all of this as an undergraduate right now is exhausting me." So I scaled it back. I shortened the quizzes while giving them the same amount of time to complete them, swapped out 1-2 hr assigned videos for 30-40 minute ones or interactive tools/games, replaced several major assignments with a combo of in-class activities and smaller out-of-class activities, and threw in a couple "gimmes" that give you points just for completing them. I gave students options for most of the remaining assignments with different flavors of work required (e.g. one that's more data-oriented vs one that's more using course content to reflect on your own experiences--surprisingly I always get a good mix of either). My goal was not to cut content, but to make it more efficient and easier to show me what they were learning.

My advisor is teaching another section of the class from her original syllabus, and her students have been struggling in the way you describe. Mine have not. I am pretty sure it's not because I'm a better teacher than her (she's a great one, and we're very similar in terms of teaching style and personality). I've actually been really surprised by how well my students have been doing this semester, and I was sort of afraid I'm being too easy of a grader? But then I compared with my advisor on literally identical assignments and nope, she's just getting much worse quality submissions than me. I think students can just provide better quality work when they're not burned out trying to complete twenty different things per week that each take an hour to complete on a good day (and no one has good days right now).

I also have my students in groups, but I'm trying to avoid the worst of group work. They have group chats they're expected to post in three times per module (each module is about 2 weeks) but this isn't big long discussion posts, each post can be a single sentence, it should just be some question or comment or thing you found interesting from the reading/videos. Each group submits to me three questions they'd like answered, and once per module we do an in-class activity where groups work together to research and answer some of those questions (before I answer them myself). They also have group discussions once per module. I think this helps engage socially without having the burden of relying on other people to have time management skills (the idea of waiting on other people to complete group work every two week was giving me hives, this is one of the major assignments I changed to in-class activities). They also get to know each other pretty well because the discussions ask them to reflect on their own experiences in various ways. So that might help too.

Also, nthing no-questions-asked extensions without impacting points. I've also extended the deadline multiple times for everyone when multiple people express last-minute confusion about what's due or how much of X to complete. Assignments are also due at 5pm instead of midnight--but they get an automatic 12 hour grace period, and longer if they reach out and let me know it's going to be late. I'm trying to encourage people not to stay up late working on assignments but allowing them the option if they need it. Even with that I've only had a few people submit late.
posted by brook horse at 6:44 PM on October 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’m not a teacher anymore so I am not speaking from direct experience, but just by the numbers: a not insignificant portion of your students are no doubt actively grieving for loved ones who have died, or who have dealt with the trauma of an extended hospitalization, and every month the proportion of your students coping with that grief and trauma will only grow. It’s not just burnout or malaise. Whatever accommodations you would make for a student who lost a family member before 2020 may be appropriate to apply across the board.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 11:19 PM on October 9, 2021 [10 favorites]

I'm a grad student. I wound up taking all of last year off--I had to withdraw from classes in the fall and just took off the entire spring. I am back but even with taking a reduced course load I am still finding it very difficult. My prof has been great and has extended the deadline on some work but I still find it a struggle; sometimes my brain just doesn't seem to work right, and I can't pull together ideas that would have been challenging but doable before. It's very distressing.
posted by ceejaytee at 6:20 AM on October 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another yes. It's pretty simple, I think - they are struggling with simultaneously having to manage a pandemic (mask, outbreaks, grief) and having to act like there isn't one (my university is 100% in-person and largely pretending it's 2019). In that way, it's worse than last year, when it was all pandemic instead of both.

I wish I had an easy answer. Letting up on requirements is all we seem to be doing and that surely has its downsides too.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:41 PM on October 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some of the responses here have reminded me that I've also made a point more lately to figure out why certain students are struggling, and I've found myself encouraging students to take time off or go part-time, and to make clear that this doesn't make them a failure. Like, I've had far too many interactions in the last 18 months that have gone like this:

Me: Hey, I've noticed you haven't turned in any work yet and have missed [x classes] is everything okay? Please let me know if there is any situation I need to be aware of.

Student: Oh yeah, thanks for asking, actually my best friend committed suicide two months ago and my dad lost his job because of the economy, and so I've been working 40hrs a week to help my family, and I'm taking six classes.

I wish that was an exaggeration but it's really not. And with those students, I try to work with them, but I also make a point of encouraging them to realize they are putting way too much pressure on themselves, and especially if they can still get their tuition refunded, there are far worse things than going part-time or taking a semester or two off to prioritize one's mental health.
posted by coffeecat at 12:56 PM on October 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Our daughter is a first year undergrad student, living in a dorm on campus. Her school automatically registers all first years for their course schedule. For reasons passing understanding, they put 17.5 credit hours on our daughter and many of her classmates. This in a program where 15 credit hours would be fully loaded in a typical semester, and 120 hours are required to graduate. (Conspiracy theory: This class yielded a lot bigger than they were expecting, and they're trying to thin the herd a little. I fully believe this is possible, and I also threw up in my mouth a little just writing it out.)

We encouraged our daughter from the jump to drop a class, and in the first full week of classes she bailed out of physics, which weighed in at 5 credit hours including labs. She seems to be doing okay. She reports that her friends and dorm mates are all super stressed.

I'm often reminded of a minister who lived in the Sandy disaster zone in Brooklyn 10 years ago, who said it was her experience that everything and everyone had to run at 50%-75% of their usual capacity for about a year after the storm.

This storm is still overhead. It hasn't even cleared the area yet.

Wishing all of you some chances for real rest as the year plays out.
posted by sockshaveholes at 5:13 PM on October 10, 2021 [3 favorites]


I've basically eliminated late penalties. I have also had lots of success last year and this year with collective learning... basically creating an environment where we can all succeed together, and that time spent helping your classmates learn is time well spent. So they know I'm serious, if everyone in the class gets a 70% or above, I boost everyone's grade so the minimum grade is a B- rather than a C-.

In one class, they absolutely bombed the first exam, so I replaced the second exam with a pretty airy project, and am reteaching the important material using more interactive methods where they 1) get immediate feedback and 2) get points back on the first exam.

We are going to be at least a decade recovering from this.

This year's college freshmen were high school juniors when the pandemic hit. Next year, they will have been sophomores. After that, they will have been freshmen. After that, they were in middle school. Et cetera. When (if?) the pandemic ends, we're going to need at least a year to get over the burnout. And after that, each class year will have missed out on a big—and different—chunk of "normal" school experiences.
posted by BrashTech at 8:32 AM on October 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just closed out my grades for the semester, and the class went better than I expected, all things considered. But I changed my whole approach to comms with students, which I will likely not do again because it was just too labor intensive. But I do have a few ideas to keep some of it going into the spring class in a way that's less nag-y.

I checked in with students every single week, usually on Sunday evenings, with a specific and detailed question. I also followed up when grading if they were missing things, and gave most an opportunity to turn things in a little later. It felt a little mothering at times, which is not my normal style. But maybe a little more nurture and a little less tough love is what's needed in the world right now. Nobody came to office hours, but I just don't feel like students know what to do with office hours these days.

Online classes tend to have high drop rates, but I only lost three students, which is a very low drop rate for a late-start online-only course. And now for some rest.
posted by answergrape at 11:03 PM on December 13, 2021

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