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5 Reasons Students Aren’t Engaging in Distance Learning

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Whether you call it remote learning, online learning, or distance learning, school looks different during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some students are thriving with this way of learning, many students don’t seem to be engaging in it. Some students may not be present at all. Others may be in attendance, but they aren’t turning in work or doing more than the bare minimum. So, what’s holding your students back from engaging?

Research shows that students who are genuinely engaged persevere despite challenges. Engaged students are attentive and curious. They find meaning in what they’re learning, whether their classroom is brick-and-mortar or virtual. Here are five possible barriers to student engagement during distance learning—and ways you can help.

1. Students’ life circumstances have changed. 

In the midst of a pandemic, economic recession, and social unrest, your students’ lives may have changed drastically since the day your school shut down. Many families are grappling with financial worries, illness, loss, homelessness, and/or food insecurity. Or they may be vulnerable in other ways.

Students may no longer have an internet connection, a device to use, or a space to learn in. Some students may not be available to meet at specific times. Others may have a lot going on in the background that they’re trying to block out or even hide from the rest of the class. 

In the classroom, when you work with your students in person every day, you can get a sense of who may be going through something difficult at home. You can privately check in to see how things are going. During distance learning, it’s harder to have those one-on-one conversations, especially with students who aren’t engaged.

One thing to try: If you have a student whose behavior has changed significantly, check in with them or their family with a phone call. You may also want to help families understand how social workers can help with their child’s challenges.

2. Students are dealing with stress and trauma. 

Stress and trauma can interrupt cognitive processing, reduce students’ executive functioning skills, and disrupt emotional regulation. All of that makes it difficult to learn, think, and engage meaningfully.  

Between anxiety around the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide uproar over racial injustice, many students are facing unprecedented emotional challenges. And they may not have the support system or coping skills to manage them.

One thing to try: Incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into your distance learning plans. It can help your students—and you—manage emotions without disengaging. You may also want to help families understand which types of emotional help are available for their child.

3. The content isn’t accessible. 

Making sure materials are accessible can be a major challenge, whether students are going online or picking up paper packets. If students aren’t comfortable with the system you’re using, they might avoid it. It takes time to establish norms and practices with a new system—especially when it involves technology. It’s hard to measure engagement when you’re all still learning how the new system works.

In some cases, content being presented in a new way keeps kids from accessing it. For instance, students who struggle to process auditory information may have trouble with video lessons. Students who need more visual support may struggle with text-heavy directions and materials. English language learners may have difficulty accessing content without the support they’d typically have in your physical classroom.

Also, many students may be struggling because the content doesn’t feel relevant to them right now. It may feel like it has nothing to do with what’s happening in the world around them. 

One thing to try: Explore best practices for online learning and assignments to make sure your lessons are accessible and relevant to as many students as possible.

4. Students need more structure and support. 

Many students rely on the structure and support of in-person school to help them stay on track with assignments. Distance learning means students need to be more independent and responsible for their own learning. Families may be trying to help, but many are also trying to juggle work while their kids are learning at home.

Once students get off track and miss a few assignments, it can feel daunting to try to catch up. They may just disengage instead. 

One thing to try: Be up front about grading and missed work policies. But look for ways to relieve stress about deadlines and the amount of work left to do. Show students strategies for making the work more manageable, like breaking assignments into chunks. Read how one teacher used video messages to reach out to students who “disappeared” and how she helped them reengage after they missed weeks of schoolwork.

5. Your expectations for engagement haven’t changed. 

It’s still important to set and reinforce explicit expectations around behavior and participation. But with distance learning, engagement may look different—and not just because your classroom looks different. It’s likely to look different from student to student, too.

For instance, live video classes may pose unique challenges for students who learn and think differently. Students who have difficulty with focus and distractibility, trouble managing sensory input, or increased anxiety about being “on display” may behave in ways that challenge your definition of engagement. Behaviors like fidgeting, turning off the camera, or moving around during class meetings can look like a lack of engagement. But for some students, it’s what they need to do to be able to participate in learning. 

It’s important to recognize that students engage in a variety of ways. Don’t expect engagement to look the same as before—or the same for each student. 

Engaging students during distance learning may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Ready to dive deeper? Get firsthand accounts from teachers like you on how they’ve been navigating distance learning:

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About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom