On Learning How to Help Disengaged Students
by Gabriel Cohen
When I started teaching at Pratt nine years ago, one of the first things I discovered was that teaching was like doing stand-up comedy: a subtle but very perceptible atmosphere in the room immediately told me if my audience was engaged or not. I would take it personally whenever I felt a disconnection. Was I boring my students? Was I teaching wrong?
Of course, if I was boring my students, I needed to adjust my instruction, but over the years—thanks largely to the advice of more veteran professors—I have come to realize that student disengagement in a class may be due to a host of factors that are not about the professor at all. I have learned that it’s important to touch base with students individually, to see if other issues might be making it difficult for them to be fully present and able to participate. Sometimes the issue might be minor, such as low blood sugar during an evening class, but I have talked to students who had a gravely ill parent; were sleeping too much (or too little) because a psychiatrist had recently adjusted their medications; were anxious because their financial aid was jeopardized; had learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD; or were simply feeling isolated and lonely, away from home for the first time.
Professors are not necessarily trained therapists or financial aid counselors or learning disabilities experts, so we may not be in a good position to provide direct help with such issues, but fortunately Pratt employs a number of professionals who are trained in such fields, so we can guide students to various on-campus resource centers.
The Learning/Access Center, or L/AC (https://www.pratt.edu/student-life/student-affairs/learning-access-center/), provides counseling to students who are experiencing many kinds of difficulties in completing their academic work, from problems with time management to various disabilities. Since it’s crucial for professors to know if students have any special needs in the classroom, such as extra time to do homework or complete exams, once students sign on with the Center its counselors can send “accommodations letters” to faculty.
If students are experiencing psychological difficulties such as depression or anxiety—both increasingly prevalent on college campuses these days—the Counseling Services can provide sessions with trained therapists.
If students are struggling with writing assignments, the Writing and Tutorial Center can arrange for them to work one-on-one with tutors (a free service).
I often offer to help connect students directly to these resources, since they might be reluctant to take that initiative on their own. (I tell them that I’d be glad to email a help center and make the initial introduction, or even walk them directly over to make a first appointment.) In general, we can’t force students to get help, but I have found that they often feel very alone in their problems, and they’re relieved to learn that literally hundreds of their fellow students are going through similar difficulties and are using those resources at Pratt. It’s also a comfort to know that their professors care about them as people, and not just as students.
A nice plus to all this, from my perspective as a teacher, is that students who feel supported as human beings are likely to be more engaged in the classroom.
Now the Online Teaching Exchange would love to hear from you. Do you have any questions about how to help students with special needs, or tips to share with your faculty colleagues? Post your comments on the linked CTL Commons Group.
Gabriel Cohen is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Writing and Humanities & Media Studies programs, and he is the facilitator of In the Circle, a support initiative designed to help part-time (and full-time) faculty build a sense of community and share teaching questions and tips through informal lunch meetings. For more info, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .