Are my Students Engaged? Three Symptoms of Disengaged Students

Engaged students are effective learners. Disengaged students suffer, avoid learning and fall behind.
Studies show that a typical undergraduate student is spending less and less time studying outside of class with each passing year. Student drop-out rates are increasing and students are taking longer to complete their four-year degrees. Therefore, it is imperative for instructors to adopt student engagement techniques to re-engage and motivate their students. Motivated students undertake classroom tasks seriously and find mastering taught skills a valuable exercise.

Determining which students are entertained, engaged or disengaged whilst teaching is often difficult. There are the obvious symptoms of disengaged students such as low attendance rates, disinterest looks on students’ faces or; students performing familiar finger swipes on laptops of cell phones synonymous with viewing social media. However, some symptoms are not always as obvious:

  1. Students aren’t asking questions.

If nobody is asking questions this might show an unmotivated or disengaged group of students. This is evident when you introduce or discuss complicated concepts and you’re met with uninterested or blank stares. This ‘lack of asking questions’ suggests that students aren’t engaging or cognitively processing the concepts or skills being taught.

  1. Students don’t understand what they are doing.

As humans we are motivated by many different reasons. Maslow’s theory of human motivation includes many basic needs an individual will seek to satisfy in order to reach self-actualization. These needs are ranked starting from physiological, safety, love/social to esteem. Every individual may rank or interpret these ‘needs’ differently but they are essentially what drives an individual to perform any action or task. Students may be meeting their needs by studying but they are also looking to their future with an expected outcome (meeting future expected needs). If a student cannot answer a simple question of “why are you here?” then it is safe to say these students are not engaged students and are not motivated to learn.

  1. Poor performance

Poor performance isn’t often attributed to a lack of student engagement. While engagement may vary over the duration of the course, students consistently associate active and continuous engagement in the course with positive extrinsic outcomes such as good assignment or test grades. In other words, their high achievement within the course will have resulted in further engagement. Furthermore, students will actively engage when they maintain a belief that their effort input equates to extrinsic outputs (improved grades/results). Therefore, those who do not believe this are unlikely to engage with the course content.

Instructors work hard to engage their students but often miss the signs of disengagement, especially in a large course. However, once these symptoms are identified, student engagement techniques can be employed to improve student’s success both during their degree and throughout their working career.

– Brook McFarlane

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