Here we are in the Spring 2023 semester. Three years have passed since a deadly virus has caused our lives to stand still, then change, pivot again, and eventually left us in a confusing sphere of “what was” and “how things should be”. In-person classes are back, the seating and mask restrictions have been lifted (though this is up to the comfort of the classroom participants), and everything should be back to normal. Should. If you follow any academic journals related to teaching and learning you will have observed a heightened frequency in discussion topics such as lacking student attention, reduced attention span, less interaction, and flaky attendance. Maybe, you have noticed similar trends in your own classes. Now, we are not saying that there was always perfect attendance, interaction, and attention in every classroom prior to 2020, but negative changes cannot be ignored and the reasons are multifold.
Many students have experienced COVID era trauma, including losing loved ones, being sick themselves, long COVID repercussions, uncertainty, lack of structure and security, and missing out on educational and social experiences. During the most lonely times, social media, think TikTok videos in particular, came in handy by providing much needed connection and laughter. Yet, these short videos also influenced how people concentrate and comprehend information. As instructors, how do we teach and facilitate the learning of students who are suffering from the after effects of the pandemic and may have shorter attention spans and decreased engagement with learning? We want to highlight a few strategies to support your students and their attendance, interaction, and attention that have been published in recent articles.
Be realistic and don’t assume – Many of your students will have had a much different educational experience than previous cohorts and yourself. Crucial years of learning how to make friends, have discussions, and how to be an in-person student had been altered or taken away. Some students may have even found that they are thriving in online learning and going back into an in-person classroom is actually not the long- -waited- for solution. It can be easy to get stuck in the “what was” cycle. “Things used to be better!” The truth is though, that there have always been changes between cohorts of students, and we must be realistic about where our students are right now and where they came from. Lisa Lawmaster Hess says in a recent Faculty Focus article, So Over COVID! “Our job has always been to meet our students where they are and take them as far as we can. We may be meeting them at a different place, but our responsibilities remain the same.” Do you find that your students lack reading comprehension skills? How about adding a short reading workshop or online module to your class, offering tips and tricks, and sharing university resources?
In the Resilient Educator, Caitrin Blake writes, “timing is everything” when it comes to student understanding, attention, and comprehension. The first ten minutes of a class are crucial to attain attention but it does not stop there. Making meaningful transitions between content, activities, and prior sessions are important. Here are some tips to consider:
- Start with thought-provoking questions about the topic that help students get into the right learning head-space and create learning goals for the session.
- Activate prior knowledge by reviewing previous course content and asking students to share and connect their own experiences.
- Incorporate short writing activities and reflections to break up class discussion.
- Get to know your students and keep their learning trends in mind. If you observe that your students are most attentive in the beginning of class, front load lectures and information acquisition to the first 25 minutes and spend the rest of the class engaging students in meaningful activities and hands-on learning.
- Close with a purpose by leaving students with thought provoking questions, connections to their future careers and goals, and a preview of the upcoming content.
- Choose incentives that encourage student engagement, for example, you may announce that class participation is a part of their grade. Other forms of incentives may be extra credit or the option to drop the lowest grade (if that is not already a part of your grading policy).
None of these tips might strike you as especially innovative and you probably heard of them before. However, not only were students’ routines and best practices interrupted over the past three years, they have returned to in-person classrooms physically and emotionally tired and have often forgotten what it means to be a learner. We as instructors need to remind ourselves of what it means to be working in an in-person environment. James M. Lang, English professor and author of “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning,” is a wonderful resource, to remind ourselves of the little but important things in teaching. If you are interested in learning more about what you can try to improve your classroom experience, consider signing up for a consultation with one of our CTL consultants.
Written by: Sarah Lausch & Devshikha Bose