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Classroom Disengagement Strategies

Photo of Students

Today, we all live in a more anxious, fast-paced, and connected world than ever before. Unsurprisingly, increased anxiety in students can affect performance in courses and, at times, lead to disengagement in the classroom – a trend we saw increase during the pandemic and linger into the post-pandemic period 

No matter its cause, addressing classroom disengagement can be a challenge. When students disengage, how can instructors encourage students to reengage and complete the course? How can instructors support students who are experiencing personal and academic challenges? To what degree should instructors be flexible with disengaged students, and how can they do so? How can instructors take care of their own well-being while attending to the needs of students? 

As an institution and community driven by the Jesuit spirit of cura personalis, we are called to approach this topic and our students’ experiences in humane ways that recognize a need to balance academic achievement with compassion towards students’ lived experiences outside the classroom. Below, we have provided some information regarding the most pressing questions around this topic, hoping to give instructors a toolkit for reaching students with waning class engagement. 

What are some of the signs of student disengagement and struggle in the classroom?

Common signs of disengagement in the classroom include:

  • Less frequent or decreasing classroom attendance
  • Less frequent or decreasing contributions during class
  • Excessive tardiness
  • Not submitting assignments, or submitting assignments late after submitting other assignments on time
  • A significant drop in class or test performance
  • Group members report the student has stopped responding to their messages
  • Non-responsiveness to outreach

While we know that some teaching approaches can better engage students overall (see "How can instructors support student success and help prevent disengagement?" below), disengagement very often stems not from the classroom, but something in students’ lives outside of class. In addition to the academic behaviors listed above, then, instructors may encounter other behaviors that signal disengagement and/or distress. Behaviors often reflecting distress include:

  • Loss of academic efficiency, serious grade problems; excessive absences; marked change in previous level of performance
  • Withdrawal, significant relational/social isolation; not leaving residence hall room for sustained periods
  • Anxiety, pacing, muscle tension, sweating, etc. and impaired thinking: worrying, ruminating, easily distracted, etc.
  • Depression, excessive crying, fatigue, change of appetite, disturbed or excessive sleeping, change in hygiene, negative thinking along themes of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Dramatic increase in alcohol or drug use
  • Bizarre or out of the ordinary behavior, acting out, emotional outburst, loss of rationality, venting, screaming, swearing, high energy output (Psychological/Behavioral Emergency)
  • Intimidation, individual is verbally or nonverbally threatening (Psychological/Behavioral Emergency)

Instructors should note that all members of the University community are expected to act towards one another with sensitivity, consideration, understanding, appreciation, tolerance, civility, and an active concern for one another. The University is particularly concerned that its members show respect for others regardless of race, creed, religion, gender identity, age, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, and other characteristics protected by law, and refrain from all forms of harassing or offensive behaviors that demean the inherent dignity of others (see Community Standards 2018-19).

All Loyola University Chicago students are expected to adhere to these principles. Instructors who are confronted with a student who does not adhere to the principles of the university's Community Standards, all University policies as outlined in the Student Handbook, and all local, state and federal laws may refer the student directly to the Dean of Students (ext. 8-8840) for adjudication. Be prepared to give the student's name and the type and frequency of the behavior you have observed. Please also refer to the section below titled "What is the CURA Network and what types of referrals can instructors submit through it?" for more about referring students based on observed behaviors.

What are some general ways instructors can support student success and help prevent disengagement?

Research about best practices for student engagement can give us insight into better engaging and re-engaging students in classes. Below, we outline some of these practices, which hold true for before, during, and after the pandemic.  

  • Use active learning: Decades of research has shown that when students are actively participating in the classroom, they learn more and are more engaged (Deslauriers et al., 2019). Where possible, instructors should incorporate active learning practices into daily classes. Post-pandemic, students have responded most to being able to actively voice their own thoughts and concerns in the classroom, for which active learning allows space. 
  • Have students engage with each other: When students engage with each other in the classroom, they build networks of community and support and feel more motivated; this is especially true in online courses (Croxton, 2014). Student-to-student engagement can consist of formal group work and projects, but even informal activities, peer review, and other low-stakes, team-based work can reap benefits. Activities that help build community and create deliberate opportunities for students to interact with each other in a thoughtful way have also been shown to help enhance students’ sense of belonging (Ahn & Davis, 2019). 
  • Be a present and encouraging instructor: Positive messages of encouragement and support go a long way – research shows that encouraging messages, delivered at key moments, can increase student motivation and persistence (Kim & Keller, 2007). In online courses especially, regular communication from and with the instructor is central to student success.  
  • Encourage students to use academic supports on campus: Include in your syllabus information about available support for academic work, such as the Tutoring Center, the Writing Center, and any course-specific supports, such as study or review groups. Periodically remind students of these supports, especially at points in the semester when they are more likely to need them. See the section “What academic supports are available to students?” below for more information. 
  • Prioritize conversations and information about wellness: In your syllabus, add information about wellness supports on campus, especially the Wellness Center and the Office of the Dean of Students. Make sure to highlight and verbalize these supports with students in class or through announcements and remind students of them periodically. Having general conversations about how students are doing can also help to destigmatize the topic and open more people up to seeking assistance. 
  • Create space for diverse viewpoints: Students sometimes hold back in classes if they are unsure of how their particular viewpoint will be received. Encourage diverse viewpoints through language in your syllabus, verbal statements and announcements that guide assignments and activities, and adding a range of resources that include authors of diverse backgrounds (Faloughi et al., 2021). 

To learn more about engaging students and increasing active learning in your course, reach out to one of the teaching and learning centers on campus: 

What academic supports are available to students?

For students whom you know to be struggling academically, there are a number of resources available. The Resource Rundown is a collection of all of the various resources available to students in general and can be searched by categories such as academic advising, academic services and support, career and experiential learning, technology, wellness, student development and community building and other student support services. 

In terms of academic support, Instructors can add the Academic Success @ LUC module for Sakai, an online guide to provide students with direct referrals to programs, services, and strategies to support your academic goals. Instructors can add this module as a tab to their Sakai site. Select this link to read instructions for adding the module to your Sakai site. 

Navigate Student is an undergraduate student-centered mobile app that provides the best way for Loyola undergraduates to interact with their advisors and other academic support offices. They can schedule advising appointments, tutoring sessions, and create study groups through the Study Buddies module. 

Other student success resources that you may want to highlight with your students include: 

How can I raise academic concerns with the university to provide students with support?

Both Academic Concerns Referrals and Academic Alerts are programs to alert members of the Student Academic Services team, specifically Learning & Student Success and academic advisors, that a student needs additional academic support.  

All Academic Concerns Referrals, which are used to report concerns about academic performance, class attendance, or academic engagement, are routed through Learning & Student Success, who then work with various offices to re-engage students.  

 The Learning & Student Success Team works to connect the student with their academic advisor, tutoring services, Success Coaches, The Writing Center, libraries, etc. as well as the Dean of Students Office and the Wellness Center if more support is needed. 

Instructors wanting to provide an academic alert or early alert should enter grades into the Mid-Term Grade Roster in LOCUS, which serves as an academic alert system; graduate students and teaching assistants may need to contact the instructor of record for this. These grades can be entered from the first day of the semester through one week prior to the deadline for students to withdraw with a “W” each semester. At a minimum, instructors must enter midterm grades for students who are earning grades of C-, D, D+, or F. When you enter grades of C- and below for any student, an academic alert letter is sent via email and allows the Student Academic Services team and academic advisors across the schools and colleges to conduct outreach to students needing assistance and support. The sooner a mid-term grade can be entered on the Mid-Term Grade Roster as an alert, the sooner an intervention can be developed to support the student. 

We strongly encourage instructors to enter a midterm grade for all students on their roster to provide all students with as much information about their academic performance as possible, which allows them to take corrective action if necessary; this also allows academic advisors have a wider view of a student’s academic performance across their classes. 

How should instructors approach wellness concerns in the classroom and what role can they play in promoting wellness?

In your role as an instructor member at Loyola, you may come in contact with students who are emotionally troubled or distressed. A student might directly confide their concerns to you, or you might infer that he or she is in distress by observing the student's behavior. 

Each member of the Loyola community has a responsibility to help students succeed. Often, instructors are in a position to offer the first helping hand to a student. This response guide and referral list will help you to offer assistance to students in a potentially difficult or uncomfortable situation. Each of us has our own comfort level. Remember, do the best you can. The most important thing is that you do something. 

Please note the link below that suggests possible language to include in your course syllabus letting students know about Wellness Center resources.  Drawing attention to this during the first week of class is one way you can encourage students to proactively seek the support they need to succeed academically. 

For more information, please visit the Wellness Center website and/or subscribe to the Wellness newsletter. 

What is the CURA Network and what types of referrals can instructors submit through it?

In the spirit of cura personalis, a hallmark of Ignatian spirituality that urges us to care for the entire person, the CURA Network, led by the Office of the Dean of Students (DOS), is a university-wide system that centralizes referrals, reports, and response for students who are in need of care. Together with staff and faculty partners, we provide support, case management, resource referrals, and critical incident and conflict intervention for students across all schools, colleges, and campuses within the university. In times of challenge and crisis, our goal is to provide resources and support to help students navigate emotional, behavioral, academic, or other issues that may affect their personal and academic success. 

Through the CURA network, instructors can submit referrals for: 

  • Equity and Title IX Concerns (Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct) 
  • Behavioral Concerns 
  • Academic Concerns 
  • Personal Concerns
  • Student Conflict & Conduct Concerns
  • General Student Concerns 

We encourage instructors to add the following syllabus statement to their syllabus to let students know about the CURA Network and how it can be used: 

Managing Life Crisis and Finding Support   

Should you encounter an unexpected crisis during the semester (i.e. securing food or housing, addressing mental health concerns, managing a financial crisis, and/or dealing with a family emergency, etc.), I strongly encourages you to contact the Office of the Dean of Students by submitting a referral (luc.edu/cura) for yourself or a peer in need of support. If you are uncomfortable doing so on your own, please know that I can submit a referral on your behalf--just email me or schedule a meeting with me during office hours. To learn more about the Office of the Dean of Students and the supports available through the CURA Network, please find their website here: https://luc.edu/cura.    

How do instructors utilize the CURA network and what happens when they do?

 In your role as an instructor, you may come into contact with students who are experiencing any number of issues ranging from academic concerns to severe distress. A student might share this information with you directly, or you might infer that a student is struggling based upon observed behavior. We encourage you to submit a report as part of your response to students of concern, regardless of the perceived severity of the situation or circumstances. It is better to offer resources to a student who does not need any than for a struggling student to remain unsupported. Each of us has our own level of comfort. Remember, do the best that you can. The most important thing is that you do something. 

To notify the CURA Network of a student in need of care or support, please visit the CURA Network homepage and select the corresponding section to learn more and submit a referral. 

Upon receiving a report, staff from the Office of the Dean of Students work with campus partners to provide intervention, situational stabilization, support, advocacy, case management, and resource referrals to students in need. 

Remember, Loyola is a community that cares. That means that we do something when we see a student in need. The best way to help a student is to report concerns as soon as possible. Referrals allow staff to explore the complete picture and respond with the appropriate support. Helping you respond with care and concern is a critical factor in supporting a healthy campus community. 

What is an accommodation and how does a student get one?

According the Americans with Disabilities Act, “reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to the tasks, environment or to the way things are usually done that enable individuals with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to participate in an academic program or a job(APA, 2012). The ADA requires that postsecondary institutions provide these reasonable accommodations to students who have disclosed disabilities.  

Students must take two important steps to be granted an accommodation. First, they must request an accommodation by registering with SAC. All requests for accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis by an Accessibility Specialist. If approved, SAC will then send an accommodation notification to professors about the specific accommodations for their course. Second, students need to discuss with the professor the implementation of the accommodation in the class. Visit SAC’s site to learn more about the student registration process.

What are my responsibilities as an instructor if my student has an accommodation?

As an instructor, you have both responsibilities and rights with respect to accommodations 


  • Share information in your course syllabus about how students with disabilities can request an accommodation; select this link for a sample syllabus statement  
  • Provide or arrange for the implementation of reasonable accommodations, academic adjustments, and auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities as outlined in the accommodation notification letter 
  • Collaborate with SAC to develop reasonable modifications that do not interfere with essential course or program elements. Instructors should contact SAC in a timely manner if there are questions or concerns about requested accommodations or need assistance in implementing accommodations 
  • Maintain condientiality of all accomodation notifications and disability-related communications except where permitted or required by law or when the student requests that such information is shared 


  • Identify and make visible (e.g., on your syllabus) essential functions, abilities, skills, knowledge, requirements, and standards for courses and activities, and to evaluate students on this basis regardless of disability 
  • Request verification of a student's eligibility for any requested accommodations. The verification will be in the form of a letter written by a member of SAC’s staff and delivered electronically via Accommodate. SAC is the only office designated to review disability documentation and determine eligibility for appropriate accommodations
  • Receieve information regarding the need for an accommodation in a timely fashion
  •  Collaborate with SAC if an accommodation seems unreasonable or impose a fundamental alteration of the course, project, or activity

To learn more about accommodations and the instructor's role in implementing them, visit the following SAC pages: 

How can using flexibility in the classroom help with disengagement? What should instructors consider when weighing flexible policies?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, flexibility and adaptability were essential for continuing the academic experience and helping students succeed in extraordinary circumstances. While a more normal routine may call for a rollback of some of these adaptations, classroom flexibility can still have positive impacts on students facing adverse circumstances.

Below are a few considerations for being flexible in the classroom:

  • Cura personalis: Our calling to care for the whole person extends to the classroom as well. Disengagement with a course often stems from a struggle of some type, so approaching these issues with care and compassion should always be the starting point.

  • Get to know each student: Students who disengage in the same way are likely to have different reasons for doing so. If you notice a student disengaging, reach out to them privately and with compassion to let them know what you’re seeing and what might be done about it. If you can, offer some flexible solutions for reengaging with the coursework and provide specific details about your expectations for these arrangements.
  • Meet students where they are: By getting to know your students, you will learn where you need to meet them. Periods of mental or physical distress may warrant more flexibility than other situations.

  • Set boundaries, then make exceptions: Most students benefit from having a very clear course structure to follow, and a lack of one can sometimes induce disengagement. In your syllabus, outline clear coursework policies, including late work policies. Create a detailed schedule of all the coursework and due dates for the entire term. As the semester progresses, consider making exceptions to your structure as individual circumstances warrant.

  • Accommodations must be followed: Abiding by accommodations is not optional. If a student is deemed eligible for an accommodation by the Student Accessibility Center and a letter of accommodation is provided to the instructor, the directive in that accommodation supersedes any course policy, including policies about attendance and deadlines. If you are concerned about the effect an accommodation might have on course or program requirements, contact the SAC to discuss it.

  • Consider specific program requirements: Some programs may have specific requirements that would disallow the use of certain flexible policies and procedures. Check with your program chair to learn if this is the case.

What are some ways to be flexible in the classroom? How have other instructors incorporated flexibility into their courses?

Providing students with flexibility in a course can take many forms, from small tweaks in late work policies to significant choices in how coursework is completed. Instructors can choose flexible approaches based on their comfort level, course and program requirements, and the specific student group they work with. Below, we first outline some general ways flexibility can be applied to the classroom, then provide some specific examples from instructors across campus.  

Policy Flexibility

  • Flexible deadlines 
    • Allow students to submit work a day or two late with no penalty 
    • Give students a "get out of jail free" card that allows one missed deadline/late submission without penalty.
    • Invite students to suggest how to handle deadlines.
  • Flexible attendance 
    • Allow students to miss a certain number of classes per semester without penalty and/or without providing a reason
    • Allow students to make up work in missed classes; posting class materials and assignments in Sakai can make these always available. 
  • Flexibility in a syllabus
    • Build some flexibility into the syllabus. Allow students to suggest readings or videos to use to learn course content.

Content Flexibility 

  • Record lectures and/or class sessions and post them to Sakai for students who cannot make it to class. Keep in mind the policies about recording students 
  • Invite students to select from a bank of resources or readings to complete an activity or assignment.

Assignment Flexibility

  • Allow students to select one out of several topics you provide or allow them to create/suggest their own topics.
  • For presentations, allow students to deliver the presentation in class or record the presentation. 
  • Allow students to choose to work individually or in groups to complete assignments.
  • Invite students to collaborate with you on creating rubrics.
  • If the goal of the assignment or activity is to demonstrate a skill or area of knowledge, offer students a variety of ways (e.g., create a video, create a podcast, write a short paper) to do so. 

Instructor examples

To allow students some breathing room when they need it, instructors across Loyola University Chicago have deliberately incorporated flexible practices and policies into their classes. Below, we overview just a few of these:

  • Carolyn Kmet, Business: In an online course, attending synchronous lectures is optional; students don’t incur a penalty for watching the recording later. Kmet seeks to reduce student stress in systematic ways, helping to grow their curiosity and engagement. 
  • Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, Anthropology: Creating work from home” materials and Sakai assessments that are open over longer periods have reduced student anxiety about missing class when sick. These and other approaches have help Gomberg-Munoz “develop a more holistic and justice-oriented approach to teaching that prioritizes empathy and generosity towards students while maintaining high academic standards.” 
  • Emily Chin, Nursing: Providing pre-recorded lectures (in addition to live lectures) has increased the number of students who do both. Chin also allows students to complete weekly quizzes and learning activities that contribute to a “pool” of points; students only need a certain percentage of those points to get full credit, so students end up having flexibility over deadlines week-to-week.
  • Marcella Linn, Philosophy: Linn has implemented policies that she and others describe as “flexibility with guardrails." In a video about her experience with this dynamic both during and after the pandemic, Lynn describes a number of policies she instituted and how students responded to each. (Visit this page about FCIP’s microgrant work for more resources related to Linn’s presentation.) 
  • Adam Hii, Political Science: Incorporating flexible deadlines enhanced learning outcomes and experiences for students. In this video about his flexible approach, Hii also highlights how he uses "response memos" as an exercise or assignment that is meant to increase student engagement with the course content. (Visit this page about FCIP’s microgrant work for more resources related to Hii’s presentation.) 


Where can instructors turn for personal and classroom support?

Just as students have a broad community of support, instructors have access to an array of resources and services to help navigate the challenges of teaching and other on-the-job stressors. Below, we highlight some of these supports and how to access them.  

Teaching Supports

Career Supports 

  • The Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE) is dedicated to assisting faculty at every level of their career - from junior faculty to full professor - at the lecturer, tenure, and clinical tracks. The CFE provides professional development support to all faculty in the form of seminars, workshops, presentations, funding opportunities, and online resources on a diverse set of topics focused on research, writing, publishing, and professional development. 
  • Human Resources provides a number training and development resources for Loyola faculty and staff. The EMERGE program is a series of training programs and resources, provided at no cost to participants, to enhance personal and professional development for all faculty and staff members. 

Mental Health Supports

  • First Stop Health is a virtual mental health resource that provides support for mental well-being anytime, anywhere. This resource offers Loyola benefits-eligible faculty and staff and their family members 24/7 access to short-term, solution-focused counseling via app, web, or phone. There is zero cost for faculty/staff and their family members to access this care.