The Remote Impact on Students: Engagement This Year: by Eve Brown-Ryder

In the previous article of this mini-series, the change in engagement levels of 207 Memorial students was examined from the first quarter of the 2019-2020 school year to the last quarter. This time around, the same questions were considered, but this time they compared September 2020, the start of the most recent quarter, to November 2020. Also, this section of the survey opened the floor up to student comments about their engagement, connection to teachers, or connection to classes.

Just like the previous article, students were first asked how engaged they felt in their classes. This time though, the focus was on engagement during September of the new school year. The survey defined “engagement” as the action of actually participating. On a scale of one to five with one being “very low” and five being “very high,” 8.2% of students answered one, 16.9% answered two, 27.1% answered three, 31.4% answered four, and 16.4% answered five. Most of the students answered two or three, indicating they felt moderately engaged during September of this school year. Now, compare that to November where 10.6% answered one, 20.8% answered two, 25.6% answered three, 29.5% answered four, and 13.5% answered five. It seems as though overall student engagement decreased from September to November. There were larger percentages of participants who selected one and two for November and fewer people who answered three through five. Perhaps the longer remote learning is in effect the less students are able to focus or participate in class. Maybe they started the school year off strong, but began losing steam as time passed. Either way, months on end of staring at a computer screen may not be good for anyone. 

The second set of questions compared student engagement in individual classes. As was true with the last article, this category was a little tricky because it was set up as a checklist. If students felt engaged in a class, they checked it off. If they did not feel engaged, they left it blank. However, subjects like business and family and consumer science reported very low numbers because not many students were taking those classes to begin with. For that reason, rather than examining the percentages of engagement from the first quarter and last quarter, only the difference in percentages will be looked at. In the survey, the subjects were listed in alphabetical order. For clarity in this article, though, they will be in order from most positively affected to most negatively affected. There was a 2% raise in engagement for English language learning, a 0.9% raise for technology education classes, no change for family and consumer sciences, no change for special education classes, a 1% drop for art classes, a 1% drop for business classes, a 2.5% drop for music classes, a 2.9% drop for physical education/health classes, a 2.9% drop for social studies classes, a 3.3% drop for world languages, a 3.9% drop for math classes, a 5.3% drop for science classes, and a 6.8% drop for English classes. Compared to the prior survey results, where engaged suffered a dramatic drop between the face-to-face and remote quarters in all subjects, student engagement did not suffer in all subjects during this fully remote quarter. In fact, there were two subjects whose engagement did not change and two subjects that actually had an increase in engagement. On top of that, most of the drops in engagement were much smaller numbers than they were last year. Many classes still suffered drops in engagement, though, so it is possible that students are just burning out the longer they have to participate in remote learning.

Third, students were asked to select statements that applied to their teachers. These statements were the same as those from the section about last year and all started with “I felt like most of my teachers…” They then branched off into “tried to build positive relationships with me,” “cared about more than just my grades,” “were understanding of the outside factors that could impact my learning,” and “made assumptions about things outside of school that might impact my learning.” Students had the ability to select one or more of these statements that they felt applied to their teachers during the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year. For September, 57% of students said their teachers tried to build positive relationships with them, 42.5% said teachers cared about more than just their grades, 60.9% said teachers were understanding of the outside factors that could impact their learning, and 22.2% said teachers made assumptions about things outside of school that could impact their learning. As for the November results, the first category held steady at 57%, the second category raised to 46.4%, the third category dropped to 58.5%, and the fourth category raised to 26.1%. Unlike the section about last year, there was no decrease in teachers building positive relationships with their students. It is always great to see teachers caring about more than just students’ grades, so an increase in that category is certainly positive. Unfortunately, there was a drop in teachers’ understanding of outside factors that may impact students’ learning.  As far as the last category goes, hopefully teachers made assumptions about school being more challenging due to COVID and remote issues. Just as was the case with the previous survey, some anonymous survey-takers pointed out that the question did not have a “none of the above” option and that they would have selected that if there was one. However, as long as these students selected the same option(s) for both the beginning and end of the quarter, it should not have dramatically skewed the data.

This section of the survey was different from the section about last year because it had an area for student comments. There were 71 responses to this open-ended question and while not all of them will be included in this article, all of the feedback was very informative and useful. Many of the comments boiled down to four main categories: teachers, mental health, work ethic, and workload. For the first two categories, the responses were often contradicting.

For example, one of the comments pertaining to teachers was, “I feel like some teachers expect way too much out of us, we are in the middle of a pandemic and teachers expect us to learn the same as we would at in-person school.” This is a completely valid and understandable stance, but it does not express what the majority of students are thinking because there were plenty of other comments like, “I think the teachers this year are doing excellent work. They put tons of time and effort to make sure their students get the most education possible considering the circumstances we’re in. The teachers should continue their amazing work. Thank you, Memorial High School staff!”

This polarizing effect is also true of the comments regarding mental health. There were many comments along the lines of, “[Teachers] are dealing with this all too wrong. Kids are becoming way more depressed and unmotivated with the amount of work and stress that is being put on them. My mental health can’t compete with this way of learning.” However, there were also an overwhelming amount of comments like, “As a student who participates in sports and a CTE program at MST, most of my teachers have done a phenomenal job at accommodating any absences or adjustments due to outside life. It is hard to balance everything in high school while in-person, so remote learning is a whole new ballfield. I appreciate all of the work that the teachers put into engagement and showing that they care for our mental health just as much as our academics.”

As for the other two types of comments, work ethic and workload, the answers were less scattered. There were still plenty of different opinions circulating, but there seemed to be more clear cut leanings, both of which were in the negative direction. 

An overall decline in work ethic was evident from comments like, “School has been very difficult for me this year. I’m struggling to stay ahead in my classes. Things come up regularly in day to day life [to] stop me from completing my school work. I try my best, but can’t always get [assignments] in on time. Whenever I pass in work and see the points taken off for it being late, I feel hopeless and like, though I’m doing my best, it’s not enough. Remote learning on top of everything else going on in the world is difficult.” along similar lines was the comment, “It has been a tough year, not from the complexity of the work, but the weakened ability to produce work ethic. Never before have the students of Memorial High been so detached from their everyday assignments… It is only through the work of the teachers and the district that we may hope to attain a more efficient system of online learning.”

The final general category of comments, centering on workload, also had different types of responses. The majority of students, however, indicated they felt that teachers were assigning too much work. Many of those comments went something like this, “Every time I come back from a relaxing weekend, I find that most of my teachers have already assigned at least [two], sometimes even more assignments. I understand that the workload isn’t supposed to be easy like middle school, but the fact that I’m on my computer from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. for school assignments alone is ridiculous.” Other responses sounded more like this, “Teachers tell us to do our work after the class but they don’t realize that most of us have classes right after that. We don’t get ‘breaks’ because teachers still assign us work. However, every teacher thinks that they are the only one assigning work. They say ‘oh well this is just one assignment over [the] break you’ll be okay.’ Then another teacher says ‘you can do this one project over break,’ and so on and so forth.”

In the end, there is no way to make everyone happy. Teachers are trying their best, students are trying their best, but the world is still in a state of chaos and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Hopefully, remote learning will not last too much longer, but if it does maybe everyone can find a way to deal with it more gracefully. Make sure to read the final article of the mini-series, “The Remote Impact on Students: Quarter One Feedback.”

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