Educators See Drop in Student Motivation at High School and College Levels


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National math and reading scores show marked declines in student abilities at grade level during the pandemic, but in high school and in the early years of college, teachers and professors are seeing negative changes in student behavior and motivation that reflect deeper issues. 

Students are struggling to understand what they read and their attention span has shortened substantially, said Steven Tatum, a ninth-grade English teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. But beyond academic skills, Tatum said the effects of the pandemic are visible in other ways, including students’ increased doubt about the importance of education in determining their futures. 

“Many students just don’t have a sense that what they’re doing in school is that connected to their life paths. I think there’s an increased amount of feeling like ‘what I do at school is irrelevant for my future goals,’” said Tatum. 

Tatum said that he believes that, for a long time, society and the school systems have operated on the assumption that a college degree would automatically lead to economic success. But he says the fear of student debt has changed the calculus on whether students are willing to pursue a college degree. 

“I don’t know a single high school student who is not seriously questioning whether it makes sense to go to college, given how expensive it is and how much debt they would have to go into, or making their decisions about post-secondary school very much with the financial sense of doing that or not in mind,” said Tatum. 

Shakira Perez, an English teacher at Classical Magnet School in Hartford, said she’s also seen her students’ abilities affected by the pandemic. Perez, who teaches 8th and 12th grade English, said that her students struggle with reading comprehension and no longer have the type of stamina to do their school that she saw pre-pandemic. 

“In order for them to understand, they have to have the vocabulary, and if they’re not getting the vocabulary instruction, for example, then the comprehension is going to be a little lacking,” said Perez. 

Perez said that she’s also seen more signs of anxiety and depression in her students, including speaking up less than before. As for her seniors — like Tatum, she has also seen a lack of motivation to consider college, but also a fear of going away. 

“A lot of them are scared … They’re like, ‘I don’t want to go to college. Or if I go, I don’t want to go out of state. I don’t want to leave my home,’” said Perez. “So I’m pretty sure there’s some secondary fear there that … should something like [the pandemic] happen again, they want to be closer to home.” 

For JD Ospina, a 10th grade geometry teacher at Westhill High School in Stamford, the changes in his students have required different teaching methods. Lecturing, he realized, will just leave his students bored and tapping away on their phones. Instead, he acts more as a “facilitator,” splitting his students into small groups where they collaborate on projects and teach one another. 

“It’s really this almost existential threat to mathematics, and really any content that we learn in school. Like, what are we going to use this for in real life? That’s a question that we’ve always been asked, but I think that question has been challenged even greater with COVID,” said Ospina. 

Ospina said it’s necessary to review basic skills with his students, but he emphasizes the usefulness of the skills – not just if students are going to college, but also in the workforce.

“When they graduate, no matter what they do, if they go straight into the workforce, they’re going to be solving problems. And the better problems they solve, the more problems they solve, the higher quality of life they will have,” said Ospina. 

“You have to want to be here” 

The declines in student goals and motivation have rippled across community colleges as more graduating high school students enroll in classes.

Angelo Glaviano and Elle Van Dermark, both faculty members at the Connecticut State Community Colleges, told CT Examiner that the composition of their classes has changed. Both said many more recent high school graduates are enrolling compared to the pre-pandemic mix of young people and those who had already spent time in the workforce. 

Glaviano, who teaches Romance Language at Middlesex Community College, said he doesn’t have the same expectations of his students as he did in years past – exams might be fewer pages, with easier types of questions, like multiple-choice.

He said he’s also noticed behavioral changes in his students — now he can only keep their attention for about 30 minutes at a time, and they don’t respond as they did in the past. 

“You have to play, in a sense, at being a psychologist, even if you’re not, and try to imagine the causes for this difference,” said Glaviano.

Van Dermark, who teaches history at Naugatuck Community College, said she’s refused to “lower her standards” for her students, with the result that her students are scoring lower on her exams. She said that her students can’t understand and analyze the texts the way students could pre-pandemic, which makes engaging in classroom discussions difficult..  

“I’m fully in the camp that they have made the effort. But without being able to understand what the readings say, it really dilutes our ability to have meaningful conversations in the classroom,” said Van Dermark.

Along with the lack of understanding, Van Dermark said, her students don’t participate in class as much and are hesitant to voice their opinions. She’s also seen a general lack of motivation.  

“Why are you here and what do you want to do with it? Does this have value and meaning for you?” she said. “When you take a lack of comprehension or underdeveloped analysis and writing skills and you amplify that through a lack of commitment, we really start to see a problem.”

Both professors said they felt students were choosing community college mainly because of financial circumstances.  

Glaviano also said that his students often work multiple jobs, but that employers do not seem as willing to accommodate student schedules. 

“The students seem to choose work,” he said. “School is always there — work, no.”

Van Dermark said that her students told her they chose community college “because it’s free” – which, she said, could mean they were in Connecticut’s PACT program, which waives college fees for low-income students.

But her students also seem to struggle with the idea that in college, simply showing up for class isn’t enough to earn a passing grade.

“They talked about, in high school, all they had to do was show up. If they showed up, they would get moved along,” she said. “We have continued to talk about that difference between high school and college. That college is a choice … you’re investing your time and your energy. You have to want to be here, because this is work.”  

“Closing the gaps” 

In some classrooms, student motivation is high but academic achievement has fallen. 

Drew Denbaum, an English teacher at Westhill High School who teaches honors and college-prep classes, said that his students were so eager to return to in-person learning that they are as engaged as they were before the pandemic, if not more so. 

“Every year students have been asking me to look at their college essays and letters of recommendation and things like that,” he said. “Your heart goes out to students who just feel in a state of disconnection or despair, and I have not seen a general increase in that among my students.” 

But Denbaum said that he has seen declines in his students’ abilities to express “higher order thinking” in their writing. After grading their most recent essays, he said in an email, he was “dismayed” by their “general lack of college readiness.” 

Denbaum told CT Examiner that some of his students enter with very low reading levels and the best way to address the gaps is to catch them as early as possible.

“The best way to help struggling students across the board is to offer them all of the individual help they need at the beginning of the year, as soon as they start falling behind,” said Denbaum. 

Perez, who worked as a Reading Interventionist, agreed that targeted tutoring in reading and literacy can move students forward quickly. One of her students, she said, improved her reading by four grade levels in a single year.

“It was definitely working. The students go at their own pace,” she said. “So whether it was one grade level, two, three, even up to four grade levels, there was progress made.” 

But Tatum disagreed with the concept of jamming multiple years of missed learning into a short period of time. He said that a rushed approach can lead teachers to drag their students through the material rather than stepping back and thinking about the purpose of what is being taught. 

“There’s so much talk about accelerating. Close the gaps. And I find that approach counterproductive. I think that creates tremendous pressure on teachers and students in ways that don’t actually help,” said Tatum. “I think what’s called for is slowing down, reestablishing the connection between students and school, getting that buy in. And if we slow the learning curve at the beginning, my belief is that it’ll be much steeper coming out than if we hit the gas pedal now.” 

Ospina said that he emphasizes in class the “three C’s” : collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Geometry, he said, has a lot of applications to the real world, and he emphasizes those in class. As more and more schools become test-optional, he said, memorizing formulas isn’t an effective strategy anymore. 

“Old school, traditional methods are going out the window, especially after the pandemic,” said Ospina. 

Ospina said he recommends tutoring for his students, and that Westhill High School offers many programs, but parental engagement is a key component. He said he’s been disappointed by how few parents have shown up to open houses. 

“The turnout rate for the parents is very low. And that makes me wonder how vested the parents are in their children’s education. I really think it starts at home,” he said. 

Denbaum said that when he works with high school seniors who come in with elementary or middle school reading levels, his goal is not to cram them full of the material they should have learned at a younger age, but to teach them the most essential part of a subject so that they can advance to the next level of learning.

“I have to understand that what I’m really, fundamentally grading is their ability to think about the material and communicate those thoughts to me,” said Denbaum. 

Tatum said that what teachers most need is to be trusted to know what is best for their students. 

“We’ve never, on the whole, felt worse at our jobs collectively,” he said. “And the impact that that has makes me worried on the state of our profession.” 

He also said there needs to be a broader conversation at the state and federal level about the goals of the public school system, and whether they align with today’s realities. He said that the shifts in the economy — particularly the “massive hiccup” caused by the pandemic and questions about what jobs are going to be available — is making it difficult to prepare students for specific pathways the way teachers may have done earlier. 

For Van Dermark, college is about obtaining skills that will serve students in a wide range of areas, and provide a pathway to multiple careers — especially when a student reaches an age when they may no longer be able to perform a trade that is physically grueling.

“I wonder if parents and students alike are hearing that message that workforce development is why you go to college,” said Van Dermark. “And that would be tragic. Because lifelong learning, having the ability to read and write and communicate well, prepares you for life, for any range of careers and professions. Not a job. Because a job —- that’s going to get you through a few years. That’s not going to get you through life.” 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.