Are your first-year students disengaging? Here’s how to get them back on board

From creating distinct spaces on your VLE to discuss first-year study to checking in with absentees, Katherine Mansfield provides tips for re-engaging students

Katherine Mansfield's avatar
13 May 2022
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University student staying in bed and disengaging

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University of Westminster

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What does ‘student engagement’ mean to you? And you? And you?
Head in the clouds. Student engagement is used almost universally in HE, but no one seems to agree on what it actually means.

The transition from secondary to tertiary education is often more than a little challenging. First-year undergraduates must navigate unexplored territory, create new social circles, become financially and academically independent and adjust to a new way of life. No mean feat when you think about it.   

Plus, in the UK at least, the current academic year (2021-2022) has been the first uninterrupted year since the start of the pandemic. But as we prepared, we didn’t know if we would be forced into another lockdown or how students would feel about being on campus. An email from our vice-chancellor before the start of the academic year said we could trial carrying out 30 per cent of our classes online and the rest face to face. This led to many of the larger lectures and sessions being held online and smaller seminar groups in person.  

The first semester got off to a good start. Although everyone was initially cautious, new students seemed excited to be at university, interacting with people and learning without distractions. After all, many students enrol at university to engage not only academically but also socially – something last year’s students hadn’t been able to do and which this cohort clearly yearned for.

Where have the students gone?

I wish I could say my students had kept up their enthusiasm and motivation for face-to-face learning in the second semester, but I can’t. Attendance across the university has been noticeably lower when compared with previous years. Students aren’t engaging as much. Having asked why, I’ve been occasionally surprised by the responses: “I’ve been away travelling”, “I’ve spent the past few weeks in my home country”, “I recently got a job” and “I had a cold”. Understandably, health issues arise, Covid is always in the back of our minds and some students need to work to maintain themselves financially, but is going travelling during the semester taking independence a step too far?

Attendance in the second semester is often lower compared with the first. In semester one, students are motivated, as they are starting something new. In semester two, as they find their feet, they realise what they can and can’t do, they begin to socialise more and some start working to earn much-needed money. It doesn’t come as a surprise that attendance is lower, but this year has been worse than ever. Not all students are the same, but if you are experiencing the same phenomenon, then we need to respond to this situation.

How can we bring the students back?  

Of course, it could be that this year’s cohort is unique, and next year’s will behave differently. It’s not hugely surprising that after months of lockdown and online learning, students are enjoying their newfound independence. Nonetheless, here are some practical suggestions for lecturers who find themselves battling this situation:

Before the start of the module

  1. Create a space on your VLE that highlights the importance of first-year study for future academic success and offers useful tips. This could include specific research data on how students that show disinterest generally underperform or show the results of one student who did and one who didn’t engage. If possible, include a video of past students talking about their first year, the challenges they faced, how they overcame them and the importance of engaging both socially and academically. Direct students to this page and show them the video during the first session.
  2. Create a forum on the VLE and ask each student to write a short, 150-word paragraph about themselves before the first session, including their strengths, weaknesses and what they want to gain from the module. To create a community of practice, which will help give the students a sense of belonging, you could put students into groups during the first session and ask them to respond to each other’s posts and offer practical suggestions as to how they could improve their weaknesses. You could then open a classroom discussion and offer further suggestions.

In the first session    

  1. Set ground rules. This should include your expectations of the students, when and how to contact you, and which seminars are going to be online and which ones are going to be face to face.
  2. Ask a student to create a class WhatsApp group (avoid joining it yourself) and encourage students to use it to socialise, find out homework tasks and assignment details, and let the class know if they are absent or running late. By adding this extra layer, the students will start to feel part of a community and a sense of belonging, which should help them become socially and academically engaged.

During the module  

  1. If you are running a face-to-face session, avoid putting the video you created of that session last year on your VLE. If a slightly disengaged student sees it as an opportunity not to attend, they might take the easier option and watch it at home, which can negatively impact the community you have tried so hard to create. Those videos can be used, however, by students who are ill or unable to attend to help prevent them from falling behind.

Dealing with absence       

  1. If a student is absent, ask the rest of the class if they have received any communication on WhatsApp. A class member could send a quick message to see if the student is OK and check in with them. This will show the student that the class cares. 
  2. Contact students when they have missed two consecutive classes. Find out if everything is OK and if there is anything you can support them with. Some first-year students will experience anxiety and motivational issues, and it’s important that we listen to and encourage them. Direct students to the VLE space you created that highlights the importance of first-year study.
  3. If the student doesn’t respond after a week, contact their personal tutor and express your concern. 

At the end of the module    

  1. In the last session, ask students to revisit their forum posts to see if they achieved their goals. If they haven’t, offer practical suggestions to support them.

Katherine Mansfield is a lecturer in academic English and works in the Centre for Education and Teaching Innovation at the University of Westminster, UK.

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