SAN MARCOS, Texas — Live lecture classes are back at most colleges after COVID-19 disruptions, but student engagement often hasn’t returned to normal.
In the past year, colleges have seen a rise in students skipping lectures, and some reports indicate that students are more prone to staring at TikTok or other distractions on their smartphones and laptops during lecture class.
To see what teaching is like on campus these days, I visited Texas State University in October and sat in on three large lecture classes in different subjects.
In our first installment of this podcast series last month, I shared the scene from a digital media course where I saw students watching sports highlights on YouTube during a lecture, shopping for beds on Facebook marketplace and playing video games on their iPhones as the professor did his thing on stage.
My next class was in the psychology department, on the topic of lifespan development. The class covers how humans change over different points in their lives, and it’s taught by Amy Meeks, a senior lecturer who has been teaching for 20 years.
In this class, I mostly saw students following along closely, and taking notes. Most had the lecture slides up on their laptops or iPads, or were using paper notebooks and pens. There was one woman in the fifth row who sat hunched over her phone watching TikTok videos the entire class (when asked about this later, she said she is also taking a different course that covered similar material the day before). But it was just one student, and most seemed to be paying attention.
Still, Meeks is the first to admit that something big has changed in recent months.
“Because I think that during COVID, we gave them everything,” she said. “We were told on our end, ‘Give them everything. They’re having to figure out how to take classes online, you’re having to figure out how to teach online.’ So they wanted us to be gracious. And of course that’s easy—I don’t have a problem with that.”
Administrators at Texas State asked instructors to go back to teaching as they did before COVID-19, Meeks said.
“I gladly did that because I love being in the classroom. But it has not worked out the same as I thought it would,” she said. “And I think that’s because the past two years the students have had a different experience.”
The biggest change this professor notices is in attendance. Or more specifically, a lack of attendance.
The day of my visit, I counted 23 students in the room. The roster shows there are 125 students enrolled. The result felt like a small class spaced out in an oversized room.
Does she have a sense of why so many students don’t show up?
“I wish that I did,” she said. “I even had a conversation a few weeks ago with each of my classes at the beginning of the class … asking, ‘OK, you guys, I appreciate you guys being here. How can I get the other guys to come fill these seats? What’s happened to them? How do I entice them to come back?”
Some suggested offering extra credit for attendance. But others asked her not to do that because that policy is tilted against those who get sick or have a good excuse to miss class.
“Really the bottom line in all my classes was, ‘There’s nothing you can do and don’t worry about it. It’s not you. They just choose not to come and it’s their loss,’” Meeks said.
What Students Say
And because of the experience students had during COVID-19 lockdowns, when most teaching was online, many students feel they learned how to teach themselves by just Googling.
I wanted to talk to a few students myself. So I caught up with some right after class.
“After the past two years, I kind of got this feeling that people don’t necessarily want to make friends,” said Tyler Harrel, a student in the class. “And I think that’s because we got used to standing six feet apart everywhere we went. And then now we come back here and we’re just not used to it again.”
And he said the period of taking most classes online gave students the sense they didn’t need to show up anymore.
“Those optional online classes, it gave so many people an easy way out,” he added. “The option to say, ‘I can go home and do this. I don’t need to go to class. I don’t need to pay for parking. I don’t need to take the time to take the bus.’”
Another student in the class, Sara Ford, echoed that sentiment.
“A lot of people don’t come to class because the notes are online, you can just do it online,” she said. “I have been tired one day and just was like, ‘OK, the notes are online. I’ll skip that class. It’s fine.’”
Now, I know from reading comments on social media about the first episode we did in this series that some people argue that students have always done this. They say that student disengagement is nothing new, and that many look for ways to get away with doing less. But experts who watch trends in teaching say that something is different now.
And surveys back that up. One published in June in the U.K. found that 76 percent of the professors surveyed reported lower attendance since courses went back to in-person after pandemic lockdowns.
Many students have begun to realize that they can get good enough grades, and therefore a degree in the end, without having to go to class.
“I’ll talk to the person beside me about the grade and they haven’t shown up for weeks, and they say ‘I got like a 90,’ and I got like a similar grade,” said Ford. “And I was like, ‘But I’ve been here the whole time, and I’ve actively paid attention and done it.’ Probably some people look the questions up online because it’s an online test a lot of the time. And those are becoming more frequent after COVID, in my experience.”
For Meeks, the longtime instructor, this means students are missing out on the whole point of college.
“I say to them, ‘Look, you left your hometown. You decided you wanted to go to the university and become educated. I applaud you for that. I’m glad you’re here,’”she said. “And basically when you left your hometown, you were willing to take off your blinders to say ‘what else is out there?’ … And I applaud that. But I do feel like there are so many people, they don’t come for an education. They come for a degree. And that makes me sad because getting a degree is supposed to be all about becoming educated.”
This is an insight that professors around the country are starting to come to. That they can’t just resume teaching just as they did it before the pandemic and expect the same result. That was one key piece of advice from a national expert on college teaching I talked to, Josh Eyler, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi, who has written a book on effective college teaching.
“One of the things I advocate for really strongly is taking time at the beginning of the semester to provide what I call on-ramps back into in-person learning,” Eyler said. “So that means just to address the elephant in the room. We know that this is what was happening … with learning during the pandemic, but now we’re all back together again. And so what can we do when we are together in this way that we couldn’t do before? And how can we maximize that work that we can do together now that we’re back in person? And just having a really frank discussion with them.”
Active Learning Strategies
I still had one more class to go on my visit. And that class was taught by my host, Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer in biology at Texas State.
The class of her’s I visited was human physiology, which has 190 students, most of them juniors and seniors, many of them pre-med.
As class was about to start, the room felt pretty packed—I counted more than 100 people here—and there was a buzz of anticipation that I hadn’t seen in the other two classes I visited.
Literally everyone had a phone or a laptop out on their desk, in part because Davenport has a habit of putting up quiz questions every few minutes that students have to answer using a device. She uses a system called Top Hat, but there are a few competing systems like this for use in lectures to inject some interactivity. And just a few minutes in, she posed the first quiz of the day.
“A person used to living at elevation takes a vacation to the beach (at sea level). When they arrive, which of the following would happen?
A: increased production of erythrocytes.
B: increased respiration rate
C: Decreased tidal volume
D: Decreased diffusion of O2 across alveoli
E: Increased carbon monoxide
F: None of the above”
Many students took a picture of the screen so they could refer to it as they thought through the answer. The students were allowed to discuss with a neighbor as well, and in the end anyone who showed up will get credit if they answer during this time as a kind of class participation. So this is not high-stakes.
Because of this tech use, in this class I see the most devices out of any of the classes I visited. One student, Andrea Thomas, had three devices on her desk during class—a smartphone she used to take pictures of the Top Hat questions, an iPad she took notes with and a laptop to look up information if needed.
Yes, I did see some distraction here and there—a student checking a text or another who seemed to have a graphic novel open on a window in the background. But mostly that student was on task.
And Davenport did something that teaching experts recommend when lecturing, which is to vary the format so no one thing happens for very long at a time. She broke things up at one point with some student poetry, which students had been asked to submit at some point about the material.
After class, I asked this professor whether she has changed her teaching since classes have come back fully in person from the pandemic.
“I have to just be so thoughtful about active learning strategies, about using real world examples to really get them excited, help them see the relevance, like why this is important for them to learn,” she said. “Literally tell them explicitly, not just implicitly, but explicitly how excited I am that they’re there and how cool I think this stuff is.”
I also sat down with some students to hear their views on distraction and what’s changed since the pandemic, and they echoed many of the students I had talked to previously.
I asked them whether the lecture format still makes sense in this time where so much is online, and I was surprised how pro-lecture they all were.
“I just learn better in person,” said Zoe Channon, a senior who is a returning adult student getting a second bachelor’s degree. At 43 years old, she’s majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. “There is something about the act and the intention of coming to a class for the specific purpose of learning that helps me bring my whole self there. Whereas if I’m at home and I’m sitting in the living room, that’s where I eat dinner, that’s where I feed the cats. That’s where I talk to my partner. There are all these other things going on.”
Well, the students are pro-lectures when the professors make them interesting. But I also heard some horror stories.
“I did have the experience—I think it was last year—with a professor who got slides from a textbook,” said Channon. “The textbook [company] made the slides and she literally read off of the slides for the entire semester. And so probably a quarter way through the semester you saw the lecture hall go down to maybe 10 percent full because people realized that.”
Of course that kind of uninspiring lecture is not new. In fact there’s a concept I recently came across that was first talked about in 1991 called the “disengagement compact” at colleges. George Kuh, founding director at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, described the phenomenon as the unspoken agreement between students and professors at many research universities, where if teachers don’t ask too much of students and still give them decent grades, then the students will write favorable course reviews and leave the professors alone to do their research.
That definitely wasn’t the case for the professors I met while at Texas State, though. In fact, all of the instructors who let me sit in on their classes were working to improve their teaching and better connect with their students.
While I was talking to Amy Meeks, the psychology professor, in her office, I noticed a copy of the book “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning,” by James Lang.
As those who heard the first installment of this series may remember, It was during a podcast interview with Lang that I was first inspired to look into this issue of student distraction and engagement. So I thought it only fitting to see if he’d weigh in with some advice for professors trying to keep students engaged during lectures during this moment.
Lang hasn’t taught in over a year, but he’s been thinking about what he’ll do differently when he goes back to the classroom this fall.
“I’m gonna have to pay a bit more attention to structure,” he told me. “We need to give students a varied experience. It’s really important to think about not just what you’re teaching—the content of the material and what you’re doing—but what is it like to be in the seat in that room? What is it like to sit for 50 minutes or 75 minutes in a room in that one seat?” As the professor, he added, “you’re doing different things at the front of the room, but what I’m doing is just sitting here and listening. And so I’m gonna try to be a little bit more aware of that,” and try to increase variety for students.
I’ll share more of Lang’s advice, and stories of other professors who have contacted me with their stories of innovative ways to engage students in lecture, in the third and final installment of this series in two weeks.