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A group of disengaged, bored-looking students—one resting her head on her hand, and another with their head on the desk—in a university lecture hall.

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COVID-19 disrupted learning as schools and universities moved between online, in-person and hybrid learning modalities, impacting the lives of our students in ways that we are still trying to fully understand. As we move into a post-COVID world, many of us see students who are less engaged, and we are quick to blame the pandemic: in conversations with colleagues, we tell each other that our students are disengaged because they had negative experiences in high school due to COVID and so they are unprepared for college, or our students are struggling with mental health issues, which became more pronounced during COVID-19.

While I am not dismissing these arguments, and I am certainly not trivializing mental health, I believe we need to stop blaming COVID and reframe the narrative around student engagement by thinking about who and what today’s students are—knowledge workers. Through this lens, we can better cater to what does engage them.

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A knowledge worker is a professional who uses their expertise and skills to create, analyze or distribute information or knowledge. They rely heavily on their intellectual abilities, creativity and critical thinking skills to perform their tasks, and they typically work in fields such as technology, education, research and consulting.

By this definition, students are knowledge workers. They actively engage in acquiring knowledge, develop critical thinking skills, conduct research and analyze data to solve complex problems, and apply what they learn. Students go to college to learn and develop expertise in a field, they mostly seek knowledge-intensive jobs upon graduation and, through their research, they often advance the body of knowledge.

Our current students, part of Generation Z, are digital natives who have grown up in an “always on” technological environment. They are entrepreneurial, independent, resourceful and self-sufficient and willing to use technology to find solutions. In short, they are digitally evolved knowledge workers.

Members of Gen Z want to have a personalized experience and expect brands to know them well. They like to curate their own experience: in fact, some of our students ask why they cannot curate their own learning journey, and many are starting to question the value of the many subjects that comprise the core curriculum. Members of Gen Z also expect that their own unique learning style, preferences and interests will be taken into consideration—something my Farmer School of Business colleague Megan Gerhardt, who researches generational differences, notes in her recent piece for AACSB Insights.

Members of Gen Z are incessantly exposed to multimedia elements such as images, videos and audio, and they engage in interactive games and apps. As a consequence, they expect faculty to use technology so as to make the learning process more engaging and effective. In a recent study, more than half of the respondents said they learn best by doing, and a further 38 percent said they learn by seeing (e.g., videos). Gen Z expects content to be relevant and practical, as they did before COVID.

Students, like knowledge workers already in the workforce, are very outcome-focused. They tend to come to business schools with clear career goals in mind. While these goals do and should change as students are exposed to a variety of new career options, we find that students engage with activities they believe will help them to achieve their goals. If the activity is seen as not directly related to achieving a goal, then the student disengages.

Peter Drucker, who coined the term “knowledge work” back in 1959, identified six factors that fuel productivity for knowledge workers, including a need for autonomy—“that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves”—a commitment to continuous learning and teaching, and a focus on quality as being “at least as important” as quantity. “Knowledge-worker productivity demands that we ask the question: ‘What is the task?’” Drucker wrote.

At the Farmer School of Business, we’re seeking similar factors to help reset student engagement. We are at the start of a process, and I have asked faculty, students and staff to share their different perspectives. While I don’t know what the final decisions and outcomes will be, I do believe we need to go back to basics and apply Drucker’s six factors to the knowledge workers we are encountering in our classrooms, in the hopes this will enhance their levels of engagement, performance, feelings of well-being and overall growth as lifelong learners. This would mean we would:

  • Provide clear expectations as to the outcomes you expect of students but let students identify the tasks they believe are required of them to achieve those outcomes.
  • Provide timely and constructive feedback so that students can improve their performance and stay on track.
  • Recognize and celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge individual contributions.
  • Hold students accountable for their own work, the quality and quantity of their work, and the pace at which they work.
  • Empower students to create a learner-led, self-organized, independent learning environment.
  • Expect students to innovate and constantly improve both how they work and the quality of their output.
  • Encourage students to develop a thirst for learning such that upon graduation students are lifelong learners.
  • Encourage students to teach and share with others but at the same time encourage students to seek out and embrace different points of view.

The answer to declining student engagement is to not blame COVID and the impact it had on our students as learners but instead to recognize that today’s students engage differently—and did so before the pandemic. They expect to be recognized for the knowledge they have and their ability to self-direct as they learn and grow. As faculty members, we need to hold students accountable, allow them to self-direct, encourage them to innovate, meet them where they are digitally and provide relevant examples to help what we are teaching come to life. Ultimately, we have to trust the ability and capacity of the next generation of leaders.

Jenny Darroch is the dean of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio.

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