Why Are There Disengaged Students in Higher Ed?

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Disengaged students are best identified by their apathetic attitude. This can involve indifference, hostility or a simple lack of interest towards engaging socially and academically.

How to Recognize Disengaged Students:

A disengaged student will often be:

  • unprepared for class
  • frequently absent
  • unwilling to attend non-mandatory events or lectures
  • avoids or refuses to participate in class discussions
  • uninterested in anything to do with intellectual life
  • averse to participating in student organizations

What Causes a Student to be Disengaged?

There are several theories as to why students are disengaged:

  • The perception of the purpose of higher education has changed,
  • The K-12 “success model” makes students unfit for the rigors of higher education,
  • Education has become commodified.

Education as Exchange

There is a popular idea in academic literature and other discourses that students see higher education as an exchange. In return for their enrollment in university or college, they will receive passing grades, a degree and subsequently, a job. They expect good grades just for showing up. Even if their work quality is sub par and they don’t engage in the classroom. Some professors report that students feel that class attendance shouldn’t be mandatory if they receive good grades. They also report that students expect high grades just for making an effort. Many students have expressed that academic engagement isn’t necessary to acquire the skills to be successful in life. They see their classroom and campus experience as a means to an end—namely, a degree.

A Student’s Self-Esteem Must Be Protected at All Costs

In many schools across North America, there is a “success model” ascribed to K-12 learning. This model emphasizes the need for all students to feel that they’ve succeeded. As a result, teachers lower their expectations and assessments to cater to the lowest-common denominator. This helps ensure that students are able to achieve success. Or, rather, a passing grade. However, this creates boredom for many students and results in students becoming disengaged. These students learn to associate academics with boredom. They aren’t challenged and, therefore, aren’t encouraged to engage. This attitude stays with them as they progress to the higher education level.

Students See Themselves as Consumers

Attending a higher ed institution is a costly endeavor. Many institutions have experienced a loss in funding which has resulted in a desperate need for students’ money. Students know this. Many now see their degree as an economic exchange: in return for their money, the school gives them good grades and a degree. As a result, schools are being viewed as service providers. Students see themselves as customers and demand a satisfactory customer experience. The degree and the degree title are all that matters in the consumer view. The degree is the commodity they’re paying for. The educational process and one’s intellectual development are secondary to the product. Therefore, one does not relate to the other. Students feel that they have paid for the degree and their academic or campus engagement shouldn’t factor into this commodities exchange.

Why Does this Matter?

The obvious answer is you should want all students to enjoy their time at your institution. However, you may also realize that this is an impossible goal—some kids just don’t like school, there’s not much you can do. If a student doesn’t want to participate and doesn’t like going to class, that’s their problem. Right? Wrong. A disengaged student poses a big problem for higher education institutions. Disengaged students are more likely to drop-out, meaning your school loses their money and they will likely spread a negative opinion of your institution. If enough disengaged students voice their negativity this could seriously hurt your institution’s reputation. Additionally, disengaged students can harm the experience of your engaged students. Unprepared, distracted or frequently absent students affect the quality of class discussions. They might slow down course progression by asking professors to repeat things. They could even cause other students to become distracted or disengaged—affecting the quality of their experience. Not only is this unfair to students who are making an effort to be engaged but it can sour a student’s experience of the institution. They may become disengaged themselves, see their grades affected, or decide to go to another institution. How would you address these issues? Please add your ideas or the solutions you’ve already implemented, in the comments below.  

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