The student experience with COVID-19

This blog post is based on preliminary results from our survey. These results over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. We are currently conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample and will be reporting results here soon. In this series of blog posts, we are highlighting results that are valuable even though they are not collected from a representative sample.

As an unusual summer comes to an end, colleges and universities around the United States are preparing for their fall semesters to begin. This year, a number of unprecedented concerns will need to be addressed by schools, including handling the potential spike in cases brought on by returning students, formatting classes safely and effectively, and balancing services expected by students with long-term financial health. One of the best tools we have as guide for how to format the upcoming semester is a look back to spring, when colleges and universities made their first, understandably unplanned, attempt at operating during the pandemic.

Lessons from the spring 2020 semester

The student experience from March 2019 through the end of the spring semester was overall a negative one. Most universities responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by transitioning to online classes. Students answering our survey (n=262) largely reported that their classes were partially or fully online when our survey was deployed in March and April of 2020 (note that 10% were already online students before the pandemic). This change to remote learning was received poorly by students who were asked to evaluate changes in their learning (n=173). A majority reported that their learning had worsened, while only 6% stated improvement. This dissatisfaction was particularly prominent among those who had never taken online classes before (n=52). Among these respondents, nearly 60% had experienced worsened learning and not a single student reported overall improvements to their studies.

Students also provided reasons for the changes in their quality of learning. Most students whose learning experience had worsened cited difficulties communicating with professors and other students, at-home distractions, and boredom with the monotonous format of their classes. Those who reported improved learning during the pandemic reported that the lack of a commute and the ability to work in a comfortable environment were largely responsible for this positive change.

Improving the future of online learning

Universities will need to be flexible this semester, as many either intend to teach remotely or are now hastily reversing decisions to teach in person after COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. Students are reporting a wide variety of pandemic experiences, and universities should do their best to meet the needs of particularly hard-hit groups, such as international students who have to attend classes outside of their time zone and students without access to laptops. A second attempt at designing effective structures and curricula that are suitable for remote learning has the potential to be successful in the long term, if feedback from students is appropriately integrated into university policy.

Luckily, many of the complaints that students have about online learning can be remedied by professors and administrators. The pandemic has made us more aware of the powerful technology we have access to, and instructors can make use of more creative formats in order to break up the monotony associated with online classes. Setting up clear channels of communication between students and professors also has a powerful impact on the student experience, so care should be taken to ensure that this is established.

The more positive learning experience enjoyed by those who had previously taken online classes implies that it was partially the sudden change to an unfamiliar format, rather than the online format itself, that caused dissatisfaction among students. This means that students’ experiences are likely to improve as online classes become more familiar to them. In short, a high-quality and remote version of a university education is possible—and increasingly necessary, as COVID-19 is likely to be a medium- to long-term threat.

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