Recovering Student Engagement at Mid-course Time

Student looks stressed while studying

Around the semester midpoint you may be noticing that some of your students are becoming overwhelmed, may lack motivation, or feel disconnected from the class. Sound familiar? Unlike the end-of-semester feedback, when gathering formative feedback on what’s helping or hindering student learning might be too late, mid-term analysis of our teaching and student learning may help motivate students and enhance their learning. Afterall, our frustrations could turn out to be great opportunities for reflection. Below, let me share instructional strategies that I use in my courses (virtual, asynchronous, and in-person) to recover student engagement.

Renewing a sense of connection

I’ve been utilizing mid-semester check-ins for several years now and have noticed that students respond best when I send out informal invitations to reflect on their learning experiences. By informal, I mean posting a short video inviting them to participate in a discussion forum, journal entry, or an anonymous online poll. My rationale here is to not make it a mandatory assignment, but an extra credit opportunity to know more about their current learning experiences.  In the video message, I add that my goal is to make a few learning adjustments specific to their particular needs during the second part of the semester. I specify how I plan to respond once I collect their feedback; for example, adding more clarifications on assignments or identifying themes and concerns.

There are multiple teaching tools such as journals, surveys, reflective assignments, anonymous polls, discussions, small-group reflections, and others that instructors can utilize in order to obtain student feedback. You could also use specific mid-semester exercises to learn about student experiences in your course. While I do not use any rubrics when reviewing their feedback, I make sure I acknowledge my students’ input and respond with solutions in a form of individual comments, short audio clips, or open comments in group discussions.

Adding small activities for engagement

In addition to mid-semester check-in techniques, I try to incorporate at least one low stake active learning strategy instead of direct teaching. We know that it’s important to incorporate small changes in our teaching, such as periodically adding a learning activity in place of a brief lecture. I recommend looking at your current teaching content with a question, “What’s the most important information I want students to learn here?” After I find the answer, I take one topic from the week’s instruction and flip it into an interactive activity where instead of instruction, I offer guidance to students as they engage in exploring the topic. Flower Darby also suggests that, “Whether you are teaching in person, online, or in some hybrid format in 2021-22, intersperse brief lecture segments with productive activities.”

There are many instructional strategies that engage students to become active learners (e.g., reference interviews, counseling inquiry, engaging lectures, classroom discussions, case studies, scenarios, role-play, problem-based learning, inquiry based learning, etc.); as an example, let’s look at teaching with case studies. Case studies are a common teaching strategy. You can use special databases that offer a variety of cases in different disciplines and can be easily incorporated in all modalities of teaching, from in-person to online. In my teaching experience, presenting students with a mix of asynchronous and real-time case studies for debate or reflection goes a long way toward keeping them engaged and connected. Most of the case studies I use in my teaching are fictional by design so that I am able to slightly tweak the scenarios in order to make them more relevant to students’ characteristics. For example, the main characters may be a working parent trying to home-school his children, a migrant worker trying to access state medical services, or a first-generation college student trying to navigate the unspoken rules of the institution. Another idea if you have incorporated ice breakers or introductory activities at the beginning of the semester, is to have a look at the student data— there is usually a lot of information about your students’ contextual factors.

Providing your students with a choice of how they can complete an activity, be it a short reflection, an audio recorded reflection clip, or a small-group discussion post, can be another instructional decision to help increase their knowledge level, course engagement, and confidence in their community of learning. Offering your students a variety of learning activities and finding new ways to connect with them to reflect about their learning experiences can make a huge difference in how students approach midterm burnout situations.

Anna Conway, EdD is a professor and faculty developer at Des Moines Area Community College. Dr. Conway has served as director of Teaching and Learning for seven years at DMACC and is one of the content developers for the Inclusive Stem Teaching Project. Dr. Conway’s current research interests include: student engagement and success in community colleges,  inclusive teaching & equity-minded course design, teaching and learning programming, adjunct faculty professional development.