Besides its economic and social disruptions, COVID-19 appears to have shifted the perception about the importance and value of education at least partially off its foundation.
Of course, some foundation-rattling was already underway; the pandemic only intensified it. About one-third of students quit college before their sophomore year, with 40 percent of students dropping out each year. Plus, U.S. college enrollment is down nearly 1 million from its peak of 20.6 million in 2010. Financial pressure plays a significant role, but surveys and broad anecdotal evidence suggest the pandemic also exacerbated the emotional and social pressures bearing down on students.
Dropout and graduation rates can be fuzzy gauges of student success because:
- Many students transfer to other schools, making their performance hard to track.
- More than a third of them attend only part-time, further complicating tracking.
- Many students who dropout eventually re-enroll in the same or different schools, often taking six or more years to earn a degree.
Still, based on student and educator survey responses, today’s students are less emotionally, socially, and intellectually engaged in their education.
Undoubtedly, existing financial pressures (made worse by the pandemic’s economic fallout) have had a broad impact. Poor grades are also a prominent factor in deciding to leave school. However, falling scores later in one’s college career can signal intellectual disillusionment with (and emotional disengagement from) the educational process itself.
For many, quitting is not the wisest economic response after investing so much time and money. The further along in one’s studies a student drops out, the more significant the accumulated debt and the more difficult it is to pay it off. On average, adults with some college but no degree earn $1 less per hour than those with a two-year associate degree and $5 less an hour than those with a bachelor’s. That averages $21,000 less annual pay for college dropouts than for those with a four-year degree. Yet many choose that path, at least partly due to their great disaffection with the education process.
Declining student engagement: As big a problem as rising costs
For many reasons, educators say that many students today are not as fully engaged in their education process as previous generations. Education finance reform would ease some of the pressure, but that’s only one challenge in getting students to re-engage. Educators, therefore, must find new approaches to teaching that will spark the level of engagement needed to see them through to college completion and graduation.
Whether attending class in-person or online, many of today’s students ask, “Why am I doing this? I’m just watching a screen – or an impersonal lecturer in front of a huge class. They don’t know me and certainly don’t really care about me or my education. Why put myself through this if I’m not going to get a good experience from it?”
Somewhere along the way, we educators have failed to sell learners on the higher, long-term value of their educational process. Now it’s up to us to instill that old, true spirit of education among our students again.
Reigniting engagement requires modernizing teaching methods
To start with, we need to abandon the one-size-fits-most model of delivering course materials and knowledge. Instead, we need to present information in various ways to make it digestible by the different types of learners in our classes. Allowing students to choose their preferred learning method encourages them to take deep, personal ownership of their education.
That means shifting the focus from short-term goals like passing the next test to the long-term value of education across a person’s entire educational experience, integrating it into their life.
This shift requires finding new ways — or adapting old ones — of capturing students’ hearts and minds to create renewed excitement about what they’re learning. We can no longer claim the difficulties of online or hybrid classes or having both less motivated and highly prepared students together in the same classrooms as excuses for failing to teach in ways that excite students. In fact, from my professional experience, some of the best classes in terms of student experience and engagement are digital classes; it’s all in how you present.
Educators must learn how to hold personal investment and concern for their students, whether standing in front of a classroom or a camera. We also need to become more connected by making ourselves extraordinarily available to students in person, by phone, on social media, in chat rooms, or on other channels.
Finally, educators must prepare to share their knowledge in different formats to match students’ varied learning styles as advocated in the VARK— visual, audio, written, and kinesthetic — model, with the goal being to create greater “connection.” This model also applies to student assessment. One student may perform best on written, conventional exams, another on oral exams, and still others by demonstrating what they’ve learned in a practicum.
Three steps to creating stronger connections between students and educators
In short, to revitalize students’ engagement with their education so they see it through to the end, we must forge more robust and personalized connections between the learners and educator. And here’s how we do it:
- First, we foster better engagement by delivering educational content through various channels that allow students to consume it in the way most effective for them.
- Next, we utilize digital assessment tools to provide data-driven feedback and insights on how each student is engaging and mastering the material.
- Finally, we analyze the data gathered by those assessments to individualize study plans to help each student focus their learning efforts and identify areas where we need to improve the curricula and materials.
All these actions will help assure learners that educators and their institutions genuinely care about their success as individuals, restoring students’ love of learning and encouraging them to persist through to graduation and carry on to successful, fulfilling careers.
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