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New research draws connections between faculty attitudes and how well they took to online instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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With little time to prepare or plan, many instructors found last year’s COVID-19-induced transition to remote learning difficult. But some managed to weather the storm with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn new skills, according to a recent study.

These optimistic instructors were the ones who were better able to avoid burnout and ended up receiving stronger evaluations from their students.

The longitudinal study, conducted by researchers at the University of Augsburg and the University of Mannheim in Germany, was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. It examined the goals and attitudes of 80 faculty members in the semesters before and after the transition to remote instruction. The researchers also reviewed 703 student ratings of these faculty members’ teaching quality.

Authors of the study were planning to look at faculty members’ attitudes toward teaching prior to COVID-19, they said via email. But when the pandemic hit, “the context of the higher education landscape along with that of our study changed completely," said one of the study's authors, Raven Rinas. Rinas responded to questions in an email with replies put together with the study's other authors, Martin Daumiller, Julia Hein, Stefan Janke, Oliver Dickhӓuser and Markus Dresel.

The study continued to explore the motivation of faculty members but added exploring how they responded to the pandemic.

“We felt that gaining insights into how faculty members’ motivations impacted their perceptions of and experiences during the pandemic could be a catalyst for further research, with the ultimate goal of identifying those who are struggling and better supporting them,” Rinas said.

Much like in the U.S., universities in Germany transferred from face-to-face to remote teaching in March 2020. For many faculty members, it was their first time teaching online, and there was little time to prepare for this new modality and learn how to approach it effectively. Though administrators did their best to support faculty members, many found the experience stressful, the study authors said. German universities are still primarily teaching remotely, and it is expected this will continue into the upcoming summer semester, though things are “still relatively uncertain at this point,” Rinas said.

Survey results showed that faculty attitudes toward the change from face-to-face to online teaching were generally more favorable than unfavorable, but responses varied widely. The study found that instructors who indicated a lack of willingness to learn new skills, embrace new technology or improve their teaching before the COVID-19 outbreak reported a higher perceived threat from the shift to remote learning. These instructors also experienced higher burnout levels and more negative student evaluations.

The authors were pleased with the responses from 80 faculty members, especially considering how busy they were. But they would have liked input from a larger sample.

“We are also aware that faculty members who were more distressed may have been less likely to respond to our survey in the first place, meaning that the results in our study likely depict more conservative estimates,” Rinas said.

“A key takeaway message from our research is that also personal, especially motivational factors of faculty members are important to consider (particularly their goals and attitudes towards unexpected challenges),” Rinas said. “Dealing with unexpected challenges is and will continue to be an issue that has important implications for university faculty members’ well-being, professional learning and teaching quality.”

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