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Engaging the Disengaged College Student: Whether Learning is Online or In-Person

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, it is vital for educators to recognize the trauma their students have experienced. Prioritizing engagement, connection and emotional regulation is a good strategy to improve students’ learning experiences in trying times.

What Students Have Experienced

College educators should be worried about their students both during and after the pandemic—there is no shortage of reasons. By identifying and deconstructing at least some of the reasons for their distress, we can help students move away from being disengaged (which many of them are).

Start with this reality: many students (who previously were campus based) have been learning online; others have been learning in person; and still others have engaged in hybrid learning (combining limited in-person and online presences). Some forms of learning have been synchronous while others have been asynchronous, which has engendered feelings of disconnectedness.

But it is not just the form of educational delivery that is affecting student learning. The pandemic has changed how we engage with others; we have been masked and socially distanced. The usual forms of social interaction among peers and between students and their educators have been and still remain truncated.  

In addition, the pandemic has generated issues that directly impact educational outcomes. Students may be living with family for an extended period rather than in a residential hall or an apartment. Some students have lost their part- or full-time employment, and others have family members who have lost their sources of income. There have been evictions and, in some instances, food scarcity. There has been a rise in addictive behavior, alcohol consumption and abusive behavior within families. Some families have experienced illness and death among both relatives and friends.  

Data show there is increased mental distress, trauma and suicidality among us. And we can add to this reality the fact that access to therapeutic intervention has moved from in-person to online, assuming resources can even be accessed. Far too many individuals are simply struggling along, feeling fatigued, angry, confused. They may be finding it hard to concentrate and have memory lapses. In short, this all impairs learning.  

And we need to recognize non-pandemic events that impact us. We have been living in times fraught with disaster and conflict.  We have witnessed a challenged election, an invasion of our Capital, racial tensions and health (as well as educational) disparities. We have had floods and fires, shootings, changes in routines and altered or missed customs and traditions keyed to holidays and mourning the dead.  

What Does this Mean for Student Learning?

The described trauma has changed our brains and impaired our ability to learn. Neural pathways have been destroyed. Even students who want to learn, and for whom learning has been a relief from family tension, are struggling.

What this means is that we, as educators, have to meet our students where they are. Once we identify what they have experienced and are experiencing (naming), then we can turn to taming—namely developing strategies that will help students engage more fully in learning. The optimal strategies are two-fold: trauma-responsive pedagogy (micro strategies) and trauma-responsive educational institutions (macro strategies).  

To be clear, trauma responsiveness does not eradicate trauma; once traumatized, a person can never erase that. Neither does trauma responsiveness mean there will be immediate linear engagement between educator and student. And if there are subsequent traumas, these can retrigger earlier ones, resulting in the need yet again for recalibration.  

That said, if we introduce trauma responsiveness into our educational system (from early childhood through adulthood), we will help our students succeed in the near and longer term.  And in recognizing the importance and value of these efforts, we are “framing”—identifying the power of trauma and the need to build trauma responsiveness into our teaching.  

If we name, tame and frame, as described here, we can help disengaged students become more engaged. What follows are several strategies educators can start to deploy.  And the very existence of these strategies gives me hope that there is a way forward.

Trauma Responsive Strategies for Use in College Classes

Strategy One

We assume that when students arrive in class (whether in person or online), they are ready, willing and able to learn. We tend to equate presence (even just being viewed on the screen) with learning readiness. We assume that when students are missing (literally not on screen or not logged in), they are not ready, willing or able to learn. We equate absence with lack of interest.  

Both assumptions are flawed.  

We need to take steps to get students on the same page with their educators, which can be accomplished in the near term by helping students get their autonomic nervous systems under control. In other words, if students come to class with lots on their mind other than learning, then it is hard to find the mental space and open neural pathways through which to learn.

The most efficient (but surely not only) way to calm the autonomic nervous system is to engage with students in an activity that uses their senses (the traditional five plus balance and intuition), which allows them to settle into learning and leave what they have brought with them behind, at least for a period of time. 

Think about it this way: trauma is like an invisible backpack that students bring to class. Rather than just launching into substantive content, educators need to help students put their backpacks under the desk or to the side. Once that happens, new neural pathways open up.

Consider these two exercises:  

Have students answer a question that allows them to identify what they are feeling, but make sure the question is neither threatening nor judgmental. Here’s a good question: if you were a potato, how would you want to be cooked today? (I have asked and answered this a lot recently. I say mashed.)   

Here’s another one: write down, with your non-dominant hand, one positive and one negative feeling you are experiencing. Through the use of the non-dominant hand, this exercise forces us to concentrate on the task at hand (unless one is ambidextrous). It is also important to recognize that we have both positive and negative emotions, and those can change within a day or even an hour. A variation on this exercise is to have students trace their dominant hand with their non-dominant hand and fill in the outline (still using the non-dominant hand) with words or images conveying feelings.

Strategy Two

Strategy Two is designed to move the locus of control from an externality (like the pandemic) to an internality (within one’s own being). Part of the reason we are struggling is that we feel—not wrongly—as if things are happening to us and around us, and we have no influence on their outcomes. 

Consider these exercises that empower students to feel more in control, even if only in small ways. Encourage students to place a red, yellow or green box or cube on their desk or near their screen as an expression of whether they want to engage (green), might want to engage (yellow) or have no interest in engaging right now (red). If a student shows the red cube for several days in a row, that is a reason for an educator to reach out. This activity allows students to make their own judgment about whether they are in the learning mode.

A similar activity intended to make students feel more in control is to ask true/false questions. They can even be funny or content-related. Then, students who think the answer is true, turn off their computer monitor (video) and those who think it is false, turn on their monitor. One can do this several times and then go over the questions and answers. Just deciding whether they want the screen on or off is empowering. 

Strategy Three

In all the literature surrounding trauma and its healing, there is one consistent theme that keeps emerging:  connection. Our brains are wired for connection, and trauma truncates that connection both literally and figuratively, and it is only exacerbated by masks and social distancing. So, strategies that establish connection and reciprocity are more important now than ever before.  

To that end, educators need to connect with their students. Using their name, complimenting them on their work, sharing their successes, emailing them with things that might be useful for them to consider to further an idea they have, snail mailing a greeting to all students for a holiday or sending an ecard to each student for a birthday are all good attempts at connection.  

Sometimes it is useful to give students a chance to literally connect items together. Ask them to get a box of paperclips. Then, when they are fading off, ask them to link the paperclips together, and they can fidget with the paperclips while listening. This is useful since auditory skills are not the favored or strongest skill set for many students.

Students also benefit from connecting with each other or with outsiders. Consider an exercise that involves students interviewing each other or someone else. In a recent college course that I taught online on trauma, the interview assignment was particularly well received because it involved choice. Participants chose whom to interview, which questions to ask and identified themes. It was an assignment that put students in the driver’s seat so to speak.


There are two things worth our remembering in these trying times: trauma is what happened to someone, not something that someone causes. We did not pick our parents; we did not choose to have a pandemic, nor did we opt to have schools change how they deliver education. 

Next, this aphorism is worth repeating: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Addressing trauma is not like a flipping a light switch—it is a process, and it takes time and effort. That said, it is worth the effort as well as the pause to appreciate the many milestones we encounter along the educational path forward.

Karen’s dives further into this topic in her latest book Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door  (Teachers College Press 2020). To learn more, visit

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