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“Shell Shocked” students reflect on 2 tough years

For their final project, he gave them the opportunity to reflect on their learning experiences during the pandemic, which resonated with the larger theme of his composition class, “Wrote My Way Out,” in which the students read essays by George Orwell and Joan Didion, the game hamiltonand Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass.

It turned out that this mission got a number of his students across the finish line. Nearly half of the class chose the option, including several who had planned to write their last article on something else. Most of the trials, he reported, “demonstrated significant thought, effort and research.”

Reading the essays, Weiss wrote, he was struck by how “shocked” the students were after two difficult years. He divides their difficulties into the following categories:

  • the depersonalizing effects of online learning
  • anxiety and other mental health issues
  • uncertainty about whether college is worth it
  • problems with teachers and curriculum
  • difficulty balancing school with the increasing demands of work

“Of all these difficulties, it is the negative effects of online learning that stand out the most to me,” he wrote. “There was an almost universal feeling that a year or more of online classes contributed significantly to frustration, poor study habits, impaired social skills and mental health issues. I personally conclude that online learning, as currently structured, is not a viable alternative to in-person instruction. It’s just too damaging for too many students.
Here are some of the student comments he shared:

I remember feeling a strong frustration at school that I had never felt before. I felt my anxiety surge every time I had to join a class via Zoom. I didn’t like how dead and quiet the classes were, and I didn’t like being called upon to answer a question. I felt like I was being punished for others’ lack of motivation. It was truly amazing how quickly students who normally spoke and participated became non-existent. Within days, I realized that maybe school was pointless. It was like school was draining what little energy I had.

I was too comfortable to do half the effort in school, I comfortable not having to physically go to class, I was too comfortable not being given so much work.

Students also wrote about their doubts about the value of the university:

If I were to illustrate how a college can try to bring its students back, I would say that it is highly necessary to give us a WHY.

A teacher just repeated what was in the textbook and available online. If I had known that, I wouldn’t be here.

Students are less and less dependent on teachers because they have access to many resources. The Internet makes teachers almost obsolete.

And they offered ideas about what helped them reconnect:

My teachers tried to find ways to re-engage us all. They tried to lighten the workload to reduce stress, shorten lectures, and have more engaging discussions and content. The support of most of my professors who want to see students re-engage has really helped.

Embedded in his students’ stories, Weiss says, is “a call to action”:

“We are exhausted by the same things as students, including frustration and disillusionment with online learning. But, as educators, it’s up to us to try to help them recover as quickly and effectively as possible.

Weiss is thinking about how to help his students better connect with course material in the coming semesters. He noticed, for example, that some students had trouble identifying with Frederick Douglass and plans to incorporate a documentary of the civil rights leader’s speeches earlier in the semester to help spark student interest and make reading more accessible. He also found that he needed to check in more frequently on students who begin to disengage during this part of the course.

“We must actively try to reach out in a meaningful way to bring them back,” he wrote, “to let them know we care and to address their concerns and interests in a very focused way.” .

And after?

You may have read “My students are not doing well” in The New York Times Last week. It has garnered a lot of attention, both for vividly describing the problems students face and for what the author, Jonathan Malesic, who teaches writing at Southern Methodist University, says he has to happen this fall. In short, no more flexible course structures. Pandemic accommodations, he concludes, have hurt many students:

“Higher education today is at a turning point. Pandemic accommodations can either end or become permanent. The task will not be easy, but universities must help students rebuild their ability to learn. And to do that, everyone involved—students, faculty, administrators, and the general public—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.

I know from the responses you sent when I reported my story that faculty members are intensely divided on this topic – and sometimes conflicted. What worked well for some students was a disaster for others.

Now that we are at the end of the year, tell me: do you think professors should return to the pre-pandemic expectations of their students? Is it time to get rid of optional attendance and participation, flexible deadlines, simplified content and recorded courses? Should there still be hybrid and online course options? Tell me why, or why not, and your answer may appear in a future newsletter. Write to me at [email protected].


  • In an essay in The conversationMichelle Samura writes about how to think about the concept of belonging so that it is more than just a buzzword in higher education.
  • Interested in socially just design, courses, advice and other systems? The Gardner Institute is launching a new Serie on the subject this month.
  • Every Learner Everywhere published a report on the impact of adaptive learning on student success in core courses from several members of the Achieving the Dream network.
  • Six experts look at student disengagement and how to address it in this the Chronicle advice forum.

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