Proven Strategies for STEM Faculty and Administrators
Student disengagement has been a source of frustration and dismay for STEM faculty and administrators since before the pandemic, and the trend continues. Check out our guide to boosting student engagement.
Student disengagement has been a source of frustration and dismay for STEM faculty and administrators since before the pandemic, and the trend continues. Listen to these STEM educators from Labster’s Community Campus:
- “This semester has been the MOST challenging to get students motivated. I see so many students miss exams (mostly for no valid reason) and then expecting to make up these exams without any penalty. It is mind-boggling.”
- “I send out numerous reminders for due dates and exam reservations, but these go unread or ignored by a large population of my students.”
- “I have a stark dichotomy of students: some who stay engaged, consistently come to class, and earn A’s and B’s, and others who completely check out, stop attending lecture/completing assignments/communicating with me in any form, and earn D’s and F’s.”
- “For that population of students that are ‘MIA’, I am just at a loss as to what I can do these days.”
- “I have talked with them, and the common denominator is they have no life goal, no career goal, they do not study, and do not pay attention to any lectures.”
If their words sound familiar, you can be assured that you are not alone in having disengaged students.
Their concerns are well-founded - it’s no secret that disengaged students receive lower grades, and students with lower grades are at greater risk of changing majors or leaving college without earning a degree (Tinto, 2022; Mayhew, 2016).
At stake is students’ academic, financial, and personal well-being - and as a consequence, the well-being of their instructors and their institutions.
What Does [Dis] Engagement Say About a University?
If it’s true that “an engaged university is a quality university” (Trowler, 2010), what does it say about a university that sees an increase in distracted, underachieving, apathetic, and absent students?
Leading student engagement researcher Vincent Tinto (2022) believes that engagement is an indicator of overall student well-being.
“It is not engagement per se that matters. It is students’ perceptions of their engagement and the meanings they draw from them as to their self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and the relevance of their studies.”
Disengagement may be a warning sign that the higher education industry is having difficulty satisfying its students’ needs for academic and personal growth - but there are proven strategies to overcome this challenge.
Increasing engagement will require each campus to evaluate and make strategic decisions to invest in faculty development, program development, and active support for the well-being of students and faculty alike. Those that put in the work will gain a valuable reputation for excellence.
How Engaged Are Your Students?
Phillip Schlechty (2001) suggests thinking of student engagement as a continuum. Take a moment to think about how your students respond to course assignments. Then consider how you might group them into one of these five zones of engagement:
- Authentic Engagement: Students who participate in activities because they see them as enjoyable, interesting, and personally relevant
- Ritual Engagement: Students who participate in activities because they see them as a means to an end such as a degree or career goal
- Passive Compliance: Students who are only willing to do what is necessary to avoid negative outcomes, regardless of whether they see the activities as valuable
- Disengagement: Students who spend little time or effort on activities
- Rebelliousness: Students who refuse to participate in activities, disrupt others, or try to substitute other activities for the assigned task
Many, if not most, students likely fall somewhere between authentic and ritual engagement. But, you may observe that a significant number can be described as disengaged or passively compliant. Here’s how Kerri-Lee Krause (2005, p. 12) described these students:
Some students show signs of inertia, finding it difficult to get motivated, just biding their time at university, and perhaps thinking seriously of dropping out. Others see university simply as an engagement – one of a number of appointments in their daily schedule. They are otherwise occupied in paid work and juggling multiple commitments.
In a December 2022 episode of the EdSurge Podcast devoted to student disengagement, here’s how one student described the behavior of her peers (Young, 2022):
From my own observations, I’d say maybe half of them don’t seem like they’re paying attention. They're on their phone or on their laptops doing other things. Some people are just straight-up watching videos—like doing stuff that you can tell they're not working on any type of different school thing. Like they're just basically sitting there doing nothing.
Why Aren’t Your Students Engaged?
The term student engagement generally refers to the impact of “positive experiences and activities which attract, bind and hold fast the students enrolled in universities” (Krause, 2005). Sadly, Generation Z students (born between 1997 and 2012) grew up during a time of economic, technological, political, and social uncertainty which has affected their mental health the length of their attention span, and consequently, their engagement in the classroom.
The question is: what can we do about it?
How Can Faculty Engage STEM Students?
Is there anything instructors can do to help their students engage? Yes! While there’s no doubt that students are responsible for their own learning, studies show that faculty can influence their level of engagement.
In fact, researchers Paul Umbach and Matthew Wawrzynski discovered that faculty behaviors actually impact students’ outcomes more than any other aspect of their college experience. “Faculty members may play the single-most important role in student learning” they concluded (Umbach and Wawrzynski, 2005).
The Four Positive Practices of Faculty at Highly Engaged Campuses
In Success in College, Creating Conditions that Matter, Kuh, et al. (2010) unpacks the profiles of 20 institutions that met the criteria for higher-than-predicted student engagement and graduation, based on analysis of the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement). Although the institutions varied in size, geography, and student body, their student rankings show their faculty share these four practices in common:
- Students and faculty have robust course-related student interactions
At campuses where faculty frequently interact with students on matters related to their coursework and careers, students self-report greater gains in personal and social development, general education knowledge, and practical competencies (Umbach and Wawrzynski, 2005).
Students say they specifically value the following types of interactions (Kuh, et al., 2010):
- Discussing grades or assignments with an instructor
- Receiving prompt feedback from faculty on academic performance
- Discussing ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class
- Talking about career plans with a faculty member
- Working with a faculty member on a research project
Are these course-related interactions currently happening at your institution? Consider how the frequency of your faculty-student interactions compares to those shown in the chart. These aggregate data were provided by 7,805 faculty respondents to the 2022 Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) who teach at 90 bachelor’s-granting colleges and universities in the United States.
- Faculty use active learning and collaborative approaches in the classroom
Both first-year students and seniors report perceiving higher levels of support for their learning in contexts where faculty use active learning techniques and offer collaborative learning opportunities in their classroom instruction (Umbach and Wawrzynski, 2005). Popular active learning techniques range from simply pausing lectures and asking extra-credit questions using a quiz and polling app to arranging complex, longer-term projects that require students to synthesize and apply their knowledge to real-world problems.
It’s important to note that active learning plays a particularly significant role in STEM courses, where it has been found to significantly reduce the performance gap between students from well-resourced and under-resourced educational backgrounds (Ballen, et al., 2017). In addition to supporting improved learning outcomes among traditionally underrepresented minority (URM) students in introductory STEM courses, active learning strategies also support URM students in developing a feeling of social belonging, an essential precondition for student persistence and retention (Ballen, et al., 2017; Tinto, 2022).
Dr. Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer in biology at Texas State University, explained the connection between using active learning techniques and helping her biology students to engage in class to the EdSurge Podcast. “I have to just be so thoughtful about active learning strategies, about using real-world examples to really get them excited, help them see the relevance, like why this is important for them to learn,” she said. “Literally tell them explicitly, not just implicitly, but explicitly how excited I am that they're there and how cool I think this stuff is” (Young, 2023).
- Faculty communicate high expectations for academic achievement
Umbach and Wawrzynski found that student learning gains are positively related to the levels of challenge faculty introduce. For first-year students, higher levels of academic challenge are related to gains in general education knowledge and practical competencies. For seniors, higher levels of academic challenge are related to greater gains in personal/social development and general education knowledge (Umbach and Wawrzynski, 2005).
Faculty who set high expectations for academic achievement must also take care to convey confidence in their students, Kuh cautions. He recommends communicating encouragement through the message that “because you are a student here, you are capable of learning anything” (Kuh, et al., 2010).
- Faculty make it clear they value enriching academic experiences both inside and outside of the classroom
Students, especially seniors, have more positive perceptions of their environment at colleges where faculty members conveyed their belief that activities such as practicums, internships and study abroad experiences are important. The level of importance faculty placed on co-curricular activities was also positively related to students’ self-reported gains in learning and personal/social development (Kuh, et al., 2010).
Recommendation: If it feels overwhelming to adopt these practices all at once, just focus on meeting this generation of STEM students where they are with these tips for teaching STEM to Gen Z. And remember to put your own self-care as an educator first.
Why is Student Engagement Relevant for Administrators?
Engaged Students Earn Degrees
Just over 60% of first-time students at 4-year institutions earn a degree within six years. Increasing the graduation rate of the remaining 40% of students poses both a puzzling challenge and an attractive opportunity.
Increasing student engagement is a piece of the puzzle, according to research. Student engagement in educationally purposeful activities is linked to better grades, increased persistence, and higher graduation rates (Astin, 1993; Kuh, 2001, Trowler, 2010).
For institutions, increasing persistence and completion rates is a part of fulfilling their mission. It also brings the more tangible benefits of increasing tuition revenue by retaining more current students and reducing the need to spend on recruitment efforts to backfill the students who would otherwise be lost due to attrition.
For students, earning a college degree improves economic and social mobility. Students who persist through graduation will go on to earn an average of $900,000 more over their lifetimes, have better job prospects, and enjoy more financial and career stability than those without college degrees (Tinto, 2022).
Disengaged Students are More Likely to Drop Out
Students are particularly at risk of dropping out between the first and second years of college (Kuh, 2008). This sensitive time is of particular relevance to STEM faculty, since this is when their students enroll in the notoriously challenging “gateway” introductory courses that are prerequisites for higher-level coursework in STEM fields. Unfortunately, these courses are associated with high DFW rates, changes of major, and dropping out of college (Harris et al., 2020).
Research strongly indicates that institutions would do well to focus efforts on supporting first-year students to engage, since:
“These are the students for whom inertia and failure to act may ultimately result in failure to persist and succeed … (W)e should be concerned about the inertia apparent in some of the first year students in the national study … because it is closely aligned with student dissatisfaction and potential withdrawal from study” (Krause, 2005).
“Institutions would be advised to focus their early efforts to ensuring, as best [they] can, that students’ affective engagements are positive and that they lead students to believe they can succeed, see themselves as belonging, and perceive the relevance of the first-year curriculum” (Tinto, 2022).
How Can Administrators Help Engage STEM Students?
Give faculty the support they need
How can administrators ensure their campuses deliver on the promise of supporting students' sense of belonging and self-efficacy? By supporting faculty members.
“Because faculty play a critical component of the collegiate experience, colleges and universities need to find ways (perhaps new ways) to support and reward faculty in their teaching role” (Umbach and Wawrzynski, 2005).
Create an intentionally supportive campus environment
Each of the 20 institutions that met the criteria for higher-than-predicted student engagement and graduation profiled in George Kuh’s Success in College, Creating Conditions that Matter (Kuh, et al., 2010) maintain a comprehensive student support strategy.
“[The] ethic of care and belonging stitched into the institutional fabric is the glue that holds together the many different supportive mechanisms these institutions have developed” (Kuh, et al., 2010).
Students perceive a supportive campus when they find programs and initiatives such as the following (Tinto, 2022):
- Transition programs for first-year and transfer students (summer bridge programs and seminars)
- Advising networks that provide timely guidance to help students make wise choices about course sequencing (and a team of academic advisors who work well with department faculty)
- Peer support (belonging to clubs and organizations as well as giving or receiving peer academic support), multiple safety nets (early warning systems to identify and provide advising and counseling services to students who are struggling academically or socially)
- Special student support initiatives (academic programs designed to close learning gaps and build scientific capital among students who were not adequately prepared before they enrolled in college, e.g., historically underserved students)
- Educationally purposeful living environments (residence halls with programming that matches students’ interests)
STEM faculty believe there are helpful steps institutions can take to support student engagement, according to the FSSE. First among these institutional emphases are actions to provide more support for student well-being through counseling and health care, more help to get students to use learning support services such as tutoring, and more encouragement of relationships among peers with diverse social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.
A high-quality campus is an engaged campus. Students who feel supported, challenged, and encouraged to reach their highest potential are more likely to be successful, and faculty play a critical role in their success. Faculty at highly engaged campuses provide a roadmap of best practices: be intentional about interacting with students regarding their courses, use active learning and collaborative approaches in the classroom, communicate high expectations for student achievement, and encourage them to participate in valuable co-curricular experiences like internships and field experiences. Administrators can best support engagement by providing faculty with the time and resources they need and by taking steps to create a campus climate that supports students’ well-being.
Astin, A.W. (1993) What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar56.
Faculty Survey of Student Engagement. (n.d.) FSSE Interactive Data Visualizations. Retrieved from https://nsse.indiana.edu/fsse/
Harris, R. B., Mack, M. R., Bryant, J., Theobald, E. J., & Freeman, S. (2020). Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a “hyperpersistent zone”. Science Advances, 6(24), eaaz5687.
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Young, J. (Executive Producer). (2022, December 13). Student Disengagement Has Soared Since the Pandemic. Here’s What Lectures Look Like Now. [Audio podcast episode]. In The EdSurge Podcast. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2022-12-13-student-disengagement-has-soared-since-the-pandemic-here-s-what-lectures-look-like-now
Young, J. (Executive Producer). (2023, January 10). How Instructors Are Adapting to a Rise in Student Disengagement [Audio podcast episode]. In The EdSurge Podcast. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2023-01-10-how-instructors-are-adapting-to-a-rise-in-student-disengagement