Stop Blaming Students: Toward a Post-Pandemic Pedagogy


In faculty meetings I attend, attitudes range from helpless bewilderment to roiling outrage over student inattention, unresponsiveness, absenteeism, and an overall disconnection from course work. Even more upsetting is amnesia-like lack of recall in the widely-known phenomenon known as “learning loss.”  While some faculty attribute this to pandemic trauma or economic stress,  others blame the students themselves.  “Maybe we coddled them” during the pandemic one colleague mused, while another grumbled about rising laziness, disrespect, or tendencies to cheat.  Still others suggested punitive grading to force students back in line. Such attitudes reflect a “teacher-centered” view of schooling premised on institutional infallibility, rather than the catastrophic failures of “Zoom School” and the whiplash of campus openings and closings – only to be followed the current mish-mash of hybrid, in-person, and recorded course formats. 

Of course students have stepped back. And who can blame them? Higher education largely dropped the ball when the crisis hit, even as many students had trouble paying tuition. Complicating matters has been the reality that student disconnection is not a one-size-fits-all matter. Privileged students familiar with the academic “hidden curriculum” of unspoken rules and behaviors  to do better than those living with challenges or unmet needs. Inequities in school admissions sometimes resurface in teaching practices that throw up barriers affecting certain groups. Under resourced students, first generation students, working students, English learners, and students with disabilities or learning differences are just some of those likely to become disadvantaged and discouraged with college.

Admittedly, faculty members can’t do much about many of these issues. But it’s surprising how far a few simple teaching techniques can go. One unexpected outcome of the COVID pandemic has been an intensification of research into teaching effectiveness, as well as strategies already available for making the classroom a more welcoming place. While some methods of helping are new, many of them have been around for decades in progressive or “student-centered” pedagogies. These practices emerged in the early 20th century as a way to break through the monotony of wrote memorization and rigidity of traditional schooling. Students always liked them, but not until recently has their efficacy been proven empirically.  Listed below are some common of issues emerging in the post-pandemic classroom, along with ideas about addressing them.

Worry. Grade pressure is more intense than ever for many students,  especially in the high stakes world of STEM courses, where “rigor” often is equated with harsh grading and success hinges on one or two high value exams. A growing body of research shows that test cramming and memorization attempts are stressful and ineffective ways to learn –– and that alternatives to testing work just as well –– or even better –– than pressurized study. The use of frequent low-value mastery exercises, quizzes, or opportunities to apply knowledge can help students grasp and retain material without anxiety and distress.[2]

Confusion. In the post-COVID return to school, many students find themselves overwhelmed by the many online, hybrid, and in-person options, formats, and requirements. I hear this often from students struggling with 4, 5, or even 6 courses organized in incomprehensively different ways. While some students can handle these adjustments, most report some level of hardship.    Educators can remove barriers to success by making course organization simple and straightforward. Here the concept of “universal design” sometimes is used in reference to practices that level the playing field for all students.[3]

Isolation. Even in the in-person classroom, some students still see themselves disconnected from their peers. These feelings are reinforced in a competitive culture premised on individual effort, assessment, and reward. Collaboration is more the exception than the rule in a system that vilifies knowledge-sharing as dishonesty or laziness. Recent studies show that group projects or teamwork can lessen isolation in classroom and online environments, while also modeling the interactive and shared aspects of a connected “learning society.”[4]

Disinterest: These days it is common for students to question the purpose of courses or even college itself. Pressures to begin earning and the increased viability of low skill jobs have resulted in declining enrollments. Even for those remaining in school there is a demand for knowledge with vocational applicability. Such perceptions can be answered by making clear connections between learning and its practical applications to real life. K-12 schools do this through programs like Everyday Math, which teach arithmetic using things like recipes or household budgets.[5] Why not do this in college?

Passivity: Learning science finds that students do better when they are actively participating or initiating rather than passively observing or receiving knowledge. Practices of engaged “learning-by-doing” have both cognitive and motivational dimensions. The application of knowlege encourages higher-order thinking. And the act of doing so often triggers the phenomenon of the student “agency” (or desire to to learn). Such agency can be enhanced when students are allowed to make choices about how, when, and in what ways they learn, as well as in peer-to-peer contexts where the teacher’s role is diminished and students learn from each other.[6]

Hopelessness: For many students the pandemic-induced loss of momentum created depression and anxiety, manifest in feelings of paralysis, and a general state of hopelessness. Educators can play a role in lessening these effects with frequent feedback and communication. Such interventions can help keep students attached to courses and build confidence that progress is occurring. This can be accomplished through increased messaging, smaller assignments, or giving credit for participation in other ways. A little encouragement goes a long way. 

Disconnection. College can seem a meaningless chore to some students, especially those alienated by the disconnection of the pandemic. Some faculty address this by connecting learning to the larger world, the needs of others, and the relationship of individuals to the broader society. Concepts like empathy, sharing, and caring for others can be modelled by educators and built into course content as way of instilling meaning into learning. In the classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire spoke of the necessity of collective engagement and living in dialogue with others.[7]

Theses practices aren’t only for students. Educators also need to continually remind themselves of the broader stakes in learning. All too often we can become mired in the routines of bureaucratic necessity or old habits based on what seems to work. A humanistic pedagogy is a living endeavor subject to continual revision in a changing world. Now more than ever attention needs to be paid to the struggles facing students and our responsibilities as educators to make teaching responsive to them.

[1] Beth McMurtrie, “A Stunning Level of Disconnection,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Apr. 5, 2022) https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection (accessed Apr. 22, 2022)

[2] See, Joshua R. Eyler,  How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching Morgantown: West Virginia, 2019)

[3] Sheryl Burgstahler, “Universal Design Education: Principles and Applications,” University of Washington (2021) https://www.washington.edu/doit/universal-design-education-principles-and-applications (accessed Apr. 22, 2022)

[4] Joseph Stieglitz, Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress (New York: Columbia, 2014).

[5] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916) Project Guttenberg (2015) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm (accessed Apr. 22, 2022).

[6] “Student-centered Teaching and Learning,” Coalition for Essential Schools (n.d.) http://essentialschools.org/benchmarks/student-centered-teaching-and-learning/  (accessed Apr. 22, 2022).

[7] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000).

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