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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Re-engaging the disengaged

Research shows that student disengagement can actually be due to a range of overlapping factors that create barriers to engagement.

Re-engaging the Disengaged

Research shows that student disengagement can actually be due to a range of overlapping factors that create barriers to engagement. Some of these are internal to the student and some are external. Given this, it is important not to make assumptions about the causes of student behaviour without evidence. Among the factors which can lead to disengagement are 

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  • An apparent lack of motivation may actually be a sign of anxiety leading to avoidance. If students fear an academic assignment (because they fear the outcome) they may avoid beginning or completing work (1). Anxiety is a form of emotional pain and by avoiding the associated trigger (the assignment) the student can avoid the painful feeling – for now. Students who experience perfectionism may even complete academic work to a good standard but fail to submit because they fear the possibility of failure, in their perfectionist terms (2). 
  • Students may also fear the classroom environment if they feel they do not belong, or it seems overly hostile, or they believe being there risks humiliation or embarrassment (3). Students in our research for this project reported that some students stopped going to class because the lecturer called on students for answers and this made them anxious. Students from non-traditional backgrounds describe finding the classroom environment difficult if it requires them to adopt a different persona or hide their identity (4). 
  • At the beginning of the first year, some students do make errors of judgement in balancing their social and academic lives. New students do not yet know how to be successful students and in a new environment, people are generally driven to create social connections first (5). This does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in academic work, rather it is a process of developing self-management and skill development. However, once students have made this error, they can find it difficult to re-engage because it is difficult to shift habits or because they fear being chastised or punished or because they fear finding out just how far behind they now are (6). Alternatively, if they feel they have been unable to make social connections, learning environments may become sources of social anxiety, leading students to avoid them. 
  • There are now more students in the HE sector, who would previously have been considered ‘non-traditional’ than there are students who would have been considered traditional students. Many students cannot devote as much time to their studies as they or we might wish, because of other commitments such as paid work or caring responsibilities (7).  
  • Illness or life events which impact on wellbeing can draw a student’s attention away from their academic studies or reduce their ability to engage. Physical or mental illness, the impact of medication, bereavement, financial difficulties and social isolation have all been shown to reduce cognitive capacity, stamina, concentration and, thereby, academic performance. 

The path back to engagement is likely to be different for each student. However, a student is more likely to re-engage if they can clearly see a path back to engagement, that they believe will work and they do not fear being chastised or punished for their disengagement. Early identification of potential problems and effective communication can help return students to better levels of engagement – there is some evidence that learning technology platforms and dashboards can help in identifying student behaviour which may indicate disengagement. The following guidance for academics may support them to re-engage students. 

  1. Be clear about why their behaviour is causing concern and what the potential consequences will be – it is better to be honest about this so the student can properly understand the situation. 
  1. Provide reassurance that all is not lost and that there is a workable route back. Demonstrate your own desire to see them re-engage and your belief that they can still be successful. 
  1. Explain that you understand there are many reasons students fall behind or disengage, that it can happen to any student and other students who have disengaged in the past have been able to return to successful study. 
  1. Describe a clear pathway back to being engaged – break this down into steps if possible, so the student can visualise what they need to do and when they need to take each step. 
  1. Provide the student with an easy first step – this may simply be contacting you or an advisor for a conversation. 
  1. Signpost the student to other relevant support (student services, study skills teams, etc.) and encourage them to use it to get back on track. Students may not want to tell you what the real problem is, so it is important to provide other options. 

Key lessons 

  • There are many reasons why students disengage – these reasons may be internal or external to the student. It is important not to make assumptions about the causes of student behaviour without evidence. 
  • Students can be encouraged to re-engage by providing a clear route back that they can visualise and believe will work. 
  • Students will avoid re-engaging if they believe they will be chastised, punished or humiliated. 
  • Some students will need additional support from colleagues in Student Services and should be signposted effectively

Top Tips 

  • Use appropriate Learning Technology to identify when students begin to disengage and send early communications that are supportive and understanding, encouraging them to take steps to re-engage. 
  • Provide students with a clear path back to re-engagement, setting out achievable steps they can visualise and take. 
  • Tell students that you believe that they can re-engage and be successful (within the limits of what is possible). 
  • Be clear about the potential consequences if they do not re-engage. 
  • Signpost students to Student Services (they may not want to tell you the real reason they have dis-engaged).  
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  1. Dweck CS, Leggett EL. A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review. 1988 Apr;95(2):256-73. Available from: doi: 
  2. Çapan BE. Relationship among perfectionism, academic procrastination and life satisfaction of university students. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2010 Jan 1;5:1665-71. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.07.342
  3. Jones CS, Nangah Z. Higher education students: barriers to engagement; psychological alienation theory, trauma and trust: a systematic review. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education. 2021 Apr 3;25(2):62-71. Available from: doi: 10.1080/13603108.2020.1792572 
  4. Hughes G, Spanner L. The university mental health charter. Leeds: Student Minds. 2019.
  5. Hughes G, Smail O. Which aspects of university life are most and least helpful in the transition to HE? A qualitative snapshot of student perceptions. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 2015 Jul 4;39(4):466-80. Available from: doi: 10.1080/0309877X.2014.971109 
  6. Klaiber P, Whillans AV, Chen FS. Long‐term health implications of students’ friendship formation during the transition to university. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being. 2018 Jul;10(2):290-308. Available from: doi: 10.1111/aphw.12131 
  7. McGregor I. How does Term-time Paid Work Affect Higher Education Students’ Studies, and What can be Done to Minimise any Negative Effects? Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. 2015 Sep;3(2):3–14.