Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Disengaged Student

In the further and higher education sectors we often come across the phenomenon of the disengaged student.

Typically a small number of students who register for a course seem to drift away - they are characterised by poor levels of engagement in class, infrequent attendance and lack of compliance with assignment deadlines. This is very frustrating for all concerned and inevitably it leads to trouble - failed assessments, repeats, appeals, reviews, etc..

All this seems to happen like a car crash in slow motion; we can see the inevitable outcome from a long way out and there seems nothing we can do about it.

By treating students are adults we recognise that they need to take responsibility for their own learning. Higher education is not compulsory and parental influence on learning should be much less than in school. This presents a dilemma educators and parents; on the one hand we want students to succeed but we also need them to succeed 'on their own'. Too much interference and students never learn to take control; on the other hand, too little support and they drift into dissengagement.

I think part of solution could involve a new component called 'Learning to Learn' that would be regarded as essential for all incoming students. The intended outcome is quite straight forward - the student will become self-directed in their approach to learning.

How can this be taught? It is surely not easy! Well it may be more straightforward than we expect. I suspect that the strategies would involve some combination of the following:

  • Start from where student's are at now. If they have just left school then they are used to being told what to do and what is expected of them. They will not find it easy to suddenly be told that 'everything is left up to you' in college. Yes self-derecteness is the desirable attribute for the college graduate but we have to recognise that incoming students have not had an opportunity to learn this skill.
  • Assess early, assess frequently and make it count. From the onset every student needs to be able to receive valuable feedback on how they are doing and most importantly, feedback needs to be accompanied by clear advice on how to improve.
  • Encourage active discussion on 'engagement' - don't develop or convey a sense of 'it's none of my business if you don't show up'. When a student misses a class ask where they have been and is everything ok.
  • Get students to do peer assessment. Yes get student's to correct each others work. This may need to be formative only (i.e. not counting for grades) but it provides an opportunity for student's to understand assessment criteria and structures.
  • Get student's to teach each other and to study together. This will not happen spontaneously so groups may need to be formed and guidelines proposed.
  • Give student's goal-oriented targets stating explicitly what they need to achieve rather than time-oriented targets such as how many hours they need to study.
  • Get student's to contribute to the design of assessments.
We will always have some percentage of students who become disengaged but using the strategies outlined above we may be able to keep that number to a minimum.

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