Combating "senioritis" – in the classroom and in the workplace

As I prepared to write my December blog post on another communication issue – and trust me, there are plenty – I watched my students struggle with motivation and engagement in the classroom. They want to do anything but classwork; they are seniors. I’ve learned to incorporate a great deal of active learning, such as field trips, guest speakers, and fun projects (like designing amusement park rides). It works, but it takes a great deal of faculty energy and student engagement.

Why is this the case? Most, if not all, of us have heard of senioritis. This thing is alive and well in the university setting. I asked my students to write up one page or less on what senioritis is to them and then how it affected them. Many “checked out” when they signed their contract with their future employer. Because of the competition for the best and the brightest, contract signing starts earlier and earlier in the student’s senior year. I have one student with whom I’ve been working with who signed a contract in October for a June start date. That poor student has been struggling to keep up with schoolwork. And it's far from an isolated issue: From my experience, I’d say at least 20% of seniors share that struggle. I had one tell me he didn’t know what to do with himself. He was a former dean’s-list student who resorted to drinking every night, Others don’t like to get out of bed – why go to class? (That former dean's-list student did finish school, if you're interested, and was pleased to be going out with a position in hand.) But students get frustrated, and basically I have to be prepared for nearly anything. I began to think about other instances I've encountered of senioritis-like symptoms.

I've been through a layoff – everyone with less than two years on the job at that site was affected. Another company I worked for went through a round of layoffs, and I left voluntarily (the company had not previously had a layoff and was proud of its dividend payment record). I took both departures as opportunities to move up and out and to grow. Fortunately, that was what happened; however, others did not fare as well as I did. The companies were in a state that required them to provide employees 90 days' warning of a layoff or separation. During that time, affected employees were depressed, combative, and generally unmotivated, all of which caused serious workplace disruption. There was some slowdown of work, as well as negative feelings and inability to function. Some of my fellow affected co-workers were, much like I was, looking for the next opportunity and moving on. It was so like what I’m seeing with students today and their experiences dealing with senioritis.

How do we deal with these issues? I’ve learned from my industrial experience and incorporated it in my class to bring my students to a different place, encouraging them to do things that are interesting and motivating. Throughout my courses, students are encouraged to do one large personal project that interests them. The students go on tours, attend lectures given by others in various areas of technical practice, and ultimately give reports and complete interactive assignments in tube-bending, assembly-fitting, and the like to practice what they are learning. I teach them how to use the tools; then they practice on their own; and industry reps come in to reinforce the lessons a third time and incorporate even more problems to solve. It uses what educators call scaffolded learning to build skills and problem-solving building on one another. This approach acknowledges and further cultivates curiosity about the basic topics that encouraged students to study the areas they chose – those that are fundamental to their interest in engineering and engineering technology. Most students share that this is interesting to them and engaging in ways they did not expect.

Do I solve “senioritis”? No, but I do encourage learning throughout this period that is so difficult for all of us to overcome. I usually share with the students my reasoning for saving all of these fun activities to the end of the semester. Many confirm that it worked for them. How can we do the same in the corporate setting?