The first few weeks of class are over, the newness has worn off and now the reality of a new semester, or the first semester, is setting in for faculty and students. The first week or two of a semester is always exciting. We’re all at our best. As faculty, we’ve designed our classes to be engaging and interactive, and our students seem to be fully engaged and learning what they need to. Then, the third and fourth weeks come and reality sets in. It’s at this point faculty should be on the lookout for signs of disengaged students before students start to “ghost” the class.
Students “ghost” a class when they no longer show up for class and stop turning in assignments without letting their faculty know. It’s very rare that students just disappear or ghost a class. They usually disengage before they ghost. Which is why it’s so important to know why students disengage from class, how to identify disengagement, and how to intervene before students become ghosts.
Faculty say students are disengaged when they don’t attend class, arrive on time, or participate in class discussions, they don’t turn assignments in, they avoid making eye contact with the teacher, they don’t take notes during class or utilize office hours, and just don’t seem to care. These actions don’t equate to disengagement. Disengagement is a pattern of behavior that impacts a student’s academic outcomes and is not a personality trait. While we might not understand why a student prefers not to talk in class, if that student regularly attends class and turns in work that reflects they’re learning the material, that student can still be considered engaged. However, a student who used to talk during class and is now silent, or a student who turned in work on time and now turns in work late or not at all, is likely in the process of disengaging.
Why students disengage
Students disengage for a variety of reasons. Some common reasons include that they:
- are no longer interested in the course
- can’t see how what they’re learning can be used in other classes or after college
- find the material too hard
- don’t feel like they belong in college (imposter syndrome)
- don’t want to look stupid in front of their classmates or teachers
- are tired
- are overwhelmed with trying to balance being a college student with being away from home without rules
- have personal/family issues that arise
How to identify disengagement
The signs of disengagement can look different based on the student and their previous work in the class. Ask yourself, is it a pattern or a one-time occurrence? One class of not participating, being quiet, or not turning in an assignment that’s up to their normal level of work might not indicate disengagement. It might mean the student is just having a bad day. However, two or more could indicate a risk of becoming disengaged.
What to do when you suspect a student is disengaging
Intervene immediately. Don’t wait another week or two to see if the student “gets back to normal.” Yes, asking a student about their personal life that’s impacting their academic performance can feel uncomfortable; but many important conversations are uncomfortable. We don’t want the student to feel like we’re being nosey or that they have to disclose something they don’t feel comfortable disclosing. However, from a student’s perspective, it can be nice to know someone is paying attention. Think back to a time when you were struggling, and someone asked if you were okay. They’d noticed you were not yourself and wanted to see what they could do to help. You probably felt valued and appreciated the fact that someone noticed and cared to ask. Your students will likely feel the same way. Approach them with grace and compassion, and ask them if everything is okay. Tell them why you’re asking, such as you noticed they’ve been late to class a few times or they’re not talking in class as much as they used to.
- Talk to the student: You could engage the student in conversation, privately, before or after class if time allows.
- Email the student: Especially if you can’t talk to the student one-on-one, send the student an email telling them you’re concerned about them and the changes you’ve seen in them and their work. In addition to offering help, give them the option to share what’s going on but don’t make it a requirement of your help.
- Call them: It’s amazing how effective a simple phone call checking on your student can be. What if the person that answers the phone is not your student? Simply tell the person that you’re their professor and you’re just checking in with them to see how the semester is going. This does not violate FERPA as long as you don’t disclose information about the student’s performance or grade.
- Drop the student from the class: This works best the first two weeks of class. At my institution, I can drop a student for non-attendance during the first week of class. Dropping a student generates a report to our Advising and Career Development Center staff. A staff member then locates that student to see what challenges they are having and tries to help the student resolve the issues.
- Contact your institution’s advising center or the student’s advisor: If you’ve tried talking with and/or emailing the student and are not getting any response, or the student’s behavior is not changing, contact the advising center or the student’s advisor. There might be issues going on with the student that are larger than just in your class that you don’t know about. Sharing your concerns about your student with other key offices on your campus might reveal patterns with the student’s behavior that perhaps you, as an individual instructor, cannot see. This in turn can help others get your student the assistance and support needed.
While you can solve issues related to your class, you’re not going to be able to solve everything that is causing them to be disengaged. Know that you don’t have to solve their problem. Direct them to an appropriate institution or community service that could help them (e.g., counseling services or academic advising), provide some extensions on assignments or opportunities to redo assignments already turned in, or just listen and empathize. It will mean a lot to the student that you cared enough to ask.
Especially if they stay in your class, in a couple of weeks, check back in with the student. Compliment them on steps they’ve taken to catch-up and get “back to normal,” their “normal.”
There are some strategies you can use to prevent disengagement. You can do this by continuing to foster the sense of a learning community, making course material and assignments relevant to students’ current and future lives, providing multiple formative, low-stakes assessments for you and students to check their learning, communicating with them on a regular schedule, providing quality feedback to allow them to continue doing what they’re doing well and know what they need to do to improve, and demonstrating that you care about them as a person and not just a student.
Give students a reason to show up to class. Make class a place where they apply their readings, deepen their learning, and practice their skills. Students enjoy being engaged, and practicing using their new knowledge and skills also helps them to see how your lessons are applicable to what they’ll do after graduation.
Make sure you have an easy and consistent LMS design. They need to spend their mental power learning and not finding where you put your readings, assignments, recorded lectures, and tests.
No matter how hard you work to keep your students engaged, some will disengage and even ghost your class. The key is to not take it personally. Do your best to let your students know you’re there for them and you want them to succeed, and when life happens, to come to you.
Alicia Pennington is an instructional designer and faculty developer in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Western Kentucky University.