The Teaching Workshop: Preventing and Coping with Student Disengagement

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Question: I work at a medium-sized, regional university. Sometimes, I have students who just drop out of the class, stop showing up, don’t take exams, and so on. I email them several times (4-ish), but they don’t respond. They also don’t drop the class. Does anyone have advice for either preventing this or coping with it?


Wendy Turgeon

Remember when you were eighteen and could not care less what the adults around you thought? Well, students today are pretty much the same as we were. And I do not mean that disrespectfully. Some just shrug and say, “I can’t be bothered with class!,” and vanish. Ah, the vagaries and brashness of youth!

But clearly you want to do your best to engage and nurture your students, so when they disappear, it can be helpful to do a couple of things:

First, you want to keep careful attendance records, since students receiving financial aid are monitored, and the college could get in trouble with state and federal authorities if they have dropouts who received aid.

Second, if your college has a “Student Success Office” (the new euphemism for the dean in charge of failing/flailing students), let them know. A call from a neutral person from the dean’s or registrar’s office may be more likely to elicit a response than one from the professor whom they may fear will get mad at them.

Third, students can experience terrible life events—the death of a loved one, loss of a job, mental stress—and a faculty person who reaches out can be appreciated, even if the students do not respond immediately to your query. You want to express concern and not reprimand: “I hope you are okay? We have missed you in class for the past two weeks,” rather than, “You have missed two weeks and are now failing.” But one note should suffice; otherwise we start to look like stalkers.

Finally, this is college, not high school, and perhaps we should avoid continuing the micro-managing of students as their helicopter parents have too often done. If you have tried to contact them once and reported their excessive absences, then I believe you have done your duty. Don’t take it too personally, in any case. They have their reasons, but most likely it is not because they hate you. If they come back and want to “catch up,” this can be problematic. But that might be a topic for another blog!


Michelle Saint

There are, of course, two distinct questions here. First, there’s a question of reaction: once a student has fallen off the radar, what should you do? Second, there’s a question of preventative measures: how can you work to keep students from falling off the radar in the first place?

I’d like to focus on that second question. This is because the sorts of measures that can help you prevent this issue are the sorts of measures that can help strengthen your relationship with your students in general. The stronger the bond between you and a particular student, the smaller likelihood that that student will give up. The question is, what can you do to help your students recognize that you are there to support and encourage them, that you care about their success in the class, and that they can work with you when troubles arise?

That’s, of course, a huge question, and no general answer is available. The work you do to craft your relationship with your students will be different from the work I do—it’s a matter of personality, pedagogical style, and the specifics of the classes you teach. So, there isn’t too much specific, personal advice I can give. But here’s the general approach that works well for me:

Usually, I find, there is something you can do on the first day of class that can help you avoid (or minimize) behavioral problems that show up sometime later in the term. So, the question I suggest considering is this: what can you do, on the first day of class, to help prevent students from disengaging later on in the term?

Maybe what can help is spending more time going over your late policy on that first day, so students better understand that messing up at one point in the term doesn’t mean they’re doomed to fail. Or maybe you could work with the students to develop a flow-chart decision procedure (call it something like “What To Do When Everything’s Going Wrong”) that shows them how to contact you and what to say when they confront a particular sort of challenge. Maybe have the first assignment require students to send you an email, so that it will be all the easier for them to reach out to you at a later point. Maybe you can end class on that first day by having them line up, on their way out the door, so you can look each student in the eye individually and shake hands. Maybe all it takes is a clear and precise statement, such as, “I care about you and your education. I won’t be angry if you start doing poorly for any reason. I’ll want to work with you. I want you to work with me.”

These are just some possibilities. The main goal is to find some way of establishing the sort of relationship that will help them reach out to you, when circumstances leave them in need of your help. To help prevent students from disappearing later in the term, work on that first day to get each student to feel as though you recognize them as individuals, that you care about them as individuals, and that you are there to help them flourish as individuals. The more your students recognize that you are invested in them and their well-being, the easier it will be for them to be invested in the class.

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