Digital Learning Blog

A Return to “Normal”: Teaching, Engagement & Mental Health

by | Jul 29, 2022 | Digital Learning Blog, Jennifer Foung

Spring Quarter 2022 was the first “return to normal” in-person classroom teaching for many of our faculty. However, between the COVID swings and uncertainty in what a “new normal” entails, we continue to face the challenge of student disengagement, feelings of stress and being overwhelmed, and anxiety and exhaustion amongst ourselves and our colleagues. In an article titled “It Feels Like I’m Pouring Energy Into a Void” by Beth McMurtrie for The Chronicle of Higher Education, faculty were asked to share their experiences with student disengagement in their classes. A large majority of faculty reported a drop in student attendance, lack of motivation to participate, nonexistent social skills, less creativity in their work, and attitudes that range from disrespectful and arrogant to outright confrontational. Faculty were also asked if they have tried harder to motivate and engage their students. Despite efforts to be more flexible, continuously asking students about their mental health and well-being, and being much more encouraging and compassionate, faculty have reported that they feel like they are “pouring energy into a void.” While students appreciate the efforts, they also report that feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, constant health issues, and overall feelings of hopelessness affect their motivation, engagement, and emotions which impact their schoolwork.    So what more can we do for our students? Is this the “new normal” that we will continue to face or is this just an adjustment period that we need to make it through? Conversations frequently gravitate around how we can help our students when we ourselves are overwhelmed, exhausted, and facing low morale. In a recent survey that I sent out to our own UCI faculty, I  asked the same questions that the The Chronicle asked its readers. The results revealed similar sentiments on our campus. Here are some of the responses that we received:    Q: Have you seen decreased engagement among your students this past quarter?

  • It’s been more like a bimodal distribution. Some students have been more engaged than ever, which has been absolutely fantastic. However, there are also more students on the other extreme who have just disappeared after a few weeks of class, and I never heard from or saw them again. I would describe it as more extremes in both directions.


  • Yes and No. I taught a large course of 330 for which I did not provide recordings of the lectures. Many students attend lecture, and those who did asked questions and engaged with the active learning activities. However, for assignments I would send out reminders on the due date through Canvas to those who had not submitted yet. The one time I forgot to send the number of students who didn’t submit the work was 3-5x the other assignments. Also the number of students who failed the course at the end of the term because they just stopped participating during the term has grown from 1 or 2 pre-pandemic to 5-10.

Q: Have you had to try harder this past quarter to motivate and engage students? If so, which approaches are working?

  • It depended on the type of assignment. For regular weekly homework sets, I definitely had less engagement. I had to keep reminding the students over and over that the homework sets were very important for their learning. However, for data analysis projects, the students were very engaged. They attended my office hours to work through challenges. They showed up to class for “consultation sessions” I organized to discuss their projects. Many of them took real ownership over their analysis projects. I also had quite a few students engage with me more regularly by implementing a class Slack. I actually had to set some firm boundaries for myself on Slack because students would direct message me late into the night asking questions.


  • I take a few minutes at the start of lecture to talk about what’s happening in the course and reminders. But I have also been telling the students that I know things are hard and that I’m tired and struggling too. I want them to know that they are not alone and that we are doing it together. The only problem with this is I am only reaching the students who are THERE. The ones who really need it are not attending.

Q: If you have spoken to students about these issues, what reasons have they given for not being engaged?

  • The students who didn’t engage would never get back to me. I emailed them repeatedly and just never received a response. It was very worrying.
  • Students convey that they are tired and that each course is structured so differently. The lack of consistency and organization makes it difficult for them to remember what they need to do and when. Some even say they need courses in study skills, organization, and time management. I find myself talking to students in office hours about ways to get organized, to set reminders. I share techniques that have worked for me and suggest that they try them.

Q: Have you discussed any challenges with your colleagues or anyone else on campus? What else should we know to understand what’s happening with students?

  • My colleagues have shared that they also had more students just completely drop off the radar after a few weeks of class. I have not heard about any workable solutions to this problem. It is quite concerning.


  • We do share sob stories together. We all see similar challenges, but don’t know exactly how to address them

The ongoing physical, emotional, and mental stress continues to be felt by instructors and students alike. While there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution as we continue to navigate this precarious time in our lives, know that we are all in the same boat together. To help support our students’ mental health and well-being, we need to take some time to focus on our own wellness as well. Here are some campus resources that we can take advantage of to help our students and ourselves:   Student Health and Wellness Resources at UCI:

Faculty Health and Wellness Resources at UCI: