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One way to sum up the recent learning lives of students is this: they had a lot more to worry about than course content.

“I was handling more referrals to emergency services and mental health services than expected,” says Catherine Shaw, a first-time adjunct who taught a microeconomics course at Georgia State University this past fall. “I wasn’t prepared for the volume and sensitive nature of it all.”

One student confided about an inability to concentrate because her uncle was battling COVID-19. Two football players shared the pressure they felt as pandemic-era athletes with virus worries and having to meet academic requirements. Others couldn’t afford the digital textbook and tried to jam all coursework into the two-week free access period.


Clearly students felt lost, and there was no community of peers sitting nearby for support.

Now a director in the strategy consulting practice of Tyton Partners, Shaw wonders what happened to several of her struggling students after her course.

As for what happened more generally with students during their year-plus of pandemic disruptions, a new Student Voice survey of 2,000 college students from 108 institutions provides answers. Conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse from May 24 to 27, and presented by Kaplan, the survey found that:

  • Nearly half of students (47 percent) would rate the value of their education this year as fair or poor.
  • More than half (52 percent) say they learned less this year compared to pre-COVID years.
  • About one-quarter (23 percent) of freshmen report having felt very unprepared for college; an additional 35 percent felt somewhat unprepared.
  • Regarding cheating, 47 percent say it is at least somewhat common in online courses.
  • Only about one in five students recalls receiving nudging reminders from their college about both course activity and college business deadlines.

Several respondents chastised their institutions for charging full tuition for an online-only experience and for not ensuring professors were teaching and using technology adequately. One student at a private New York City university wrote, “Don’t provide online courses when your professors can not teach online courses. The quality of education has been abysmal as professors flop over themselves trying to understand how to use basic technology … This semester has been inexcusably awful.”

On the flip side, the vast majority (88 percent) of the 1,462 nonsenior students surveyed say they plan to return in the fall. And even those who think of the year as a disaster are still likely to have learned quite a few lessons -- about their learning realities and academic habits, that is. Following are five such lessons.

1. Virtual courses often take more time.

When asked about completing course assignments this year compared to pre-COVID, 46 percent reported spending more time on them. Four-year college students were more likely than two-year students (250 of the survey sample) to take longer.

“I heard repeatedly, ‘I’ve had to work so much harder,’” says Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “I tried to get to the bottom of what that meant.” Pre-COVID, class time might be spent preparing students for required activities outside of class, compared to this past year, when preparation was likely also a solitary pursuit. “My guess is that many of them felt like they didn’t learn as much,” she adds.

As noted, the majority of Student Voice respondents feel they learned less this past year. In their self-assessments, two-year students fared best. While 55 percent of four-year students say they learned less, just 34 percent of two-year students say the same.

“We see real differences when talking to instructors at two-year schools; there tends to be more of a focus on teaching and learning because it’s their primary role,” says Kristen Fox, a managing director at Tyton Partners, which along with the organizations Digital Promise and Every Learner Everywhere released a July 2020 report based on a survey of undergrads about in-person courses that moved to online when the pandemic hit. Two-year students were more likely to feel supported in their learning.

Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, adds that community college students are likely to “be accustomed to things not going as planned, and to disruption.”

Student Watch research from the National Association of College Stores found students over age 35 were more satisfied with online course structures than younger students. “This is a flip from what we usually see,” says Brittany Conley, a research analyst with NACS’s OnCampus Research division. Because the team controlled for having a full-time job and having dependents, Conley believes the finding is probably due to those with higher perceived health risks appreciating the virtual setting. Students over all preferred in-person and hybrid formats to fully online ones.

Results of a NACS faculty survey fielded in fall 2020 show educators weren’t thrilled with the pandemic educational experience, either; 65 percent reported negative impacts of the pandemic on the quality of education. Why? The top two responses were the format/learning materials and that classes were less rigorous.

Isabella Draskovic, a Student Voice advisory board member and recent graduate of Santa Clara University in California, would be among the 15 percent of Inside Higher Ed survey respondents who say coursework completion took less time during COVID. That’s mainly because her professors tended to replace exams with projects, resulting in the need to study less.

But in the virtual setting from her home in Los Angeles, she felt less motivated and probably learned less. “It was harder for professors to get students engaged in the virtual setting. Getting people to participate took time away from time we could have learned new topics,” says Draskovic, who took a heavier course load during the pandemic so that she could graduate one quarter early.

Plowman attributes some of students’ feelings about learning less to the fact that learning takes place in other campus settings as much as it does in class. Her institution put up tents and hammock stands around campus so that students might spend more time together outdoors. Of the stands, she says, “we’ll never put those away.”

2. It’s easy to lose focus during remote lectures.

Eight in 10 students found it difficult to concentrate during remote lectures -- which also affects how much is learned. Two-year students were less likely to say concentrating was difficult than four-year students were (61 percent compared to 84 percent). But students who spent more time in paid employment during COVID compared to prior indicated the greatest difficulty concentrating during remote lectures (86 percent).

The Tyton Partners, Every Learner Everywhere and Digital Promise survey probed students about lecture length during a single online course (self-selected for the survey). The majority of courses referenced “still had lectures that were the whole class period, even though that’s not a good practice for online instruction,” says Barbara Means, executive director of Digital Promise.

Although Draskovic had some professors attempt five-minute breakout rooms to break up lectures, the format didn’t work well in her experience. Peers didn’t always have their cameras on and the discussion would rarely relate to the course material, says Draskovic, who earned a business management degree and now works as an administrative business partner at Google (initially fully remote).

Remote teaching that utilizes new technologies is typically seen as a best practice, but few Student Voice respondents report having virtual or augmented reality in courses (12 percent). While eye-tracking software to monitor individuals’ engagement with course material is an emerging trend, only 14 percent of respondents’ institutions are using it.

Research from Digital Promise and its partners found that students whose online courses used recommended teaching practices had the highest student satisfaction levels. Such practices include requiring students to express what they had learned and still needed to learn, and personal messages from the instructor about progress.

Some institutions created teaching and learning portals to help faculty members shift their courses to a virtual format. For example, Ohio State University’s Keep Teaching site offers a large repository of resources and guidance, including how-to videos and bulleted lists of ideas for supporting students.

3. Most professors want to help.

A common COVID leadership action involved asking professors to be flexible as students requested deadline extensions or other accommodations -- and 59 percent of Student Voice survey respondents experienced that. A few demographic groups seeing even greater faculty flexibility are seniors, students at private institutions and Latinx or biracial students (the Digital Promise and partners report noted that Hispanic students experienced the greatest number of challenges to continued course participation, so it's possible they may have asked professors more for flexibility than their peers.

David Graham, assistant vice provost in Ohio State’s Office of Student Academic Success Transition and Academic Growth, says he told his team of 45 to have empathy and be innovative. As the institution plans to reopen 75 percent of courses for in-person learning this fall, he and his team encourage faculty to “understand that we’re just continuing to navigate through a pandemic; we’re not out of a pandemic.”

At Santa Clara, Draskovic noticed professors expressing that they would be accommodating with requests. Had university leaders likely encouraged that? She isn't sure, but it seemed “they weren’t just saying it to check a box,” she says.

Means says there’s a downside to too much flexibility. “Students may tend to put things off too long and get themselves too far behind. Balancing flexibility with fairness and rigor was something many faculty were struggling with.”

At Tennessee, Plowman prioritized creativity, compassion and flexibility. Like a lot of other institutions, Tennessee instituted a pass-fail grading option to help students succeed during COVID, especially initially.

Complete College America, however, discouraged pass-fail policies because of unintended negative consequences, particularly financial aid eligibility repercussions, says Watson Spiva.

She advocates for more flexibility at the institutional level to help students succeed. For example, mini semesters or summer terms can help with credit catch-ups, and partnerships with other colleges can allow students to take needed courses from there virtually.

4. Ethical violations and missteps are trackable.

One in five students says cheating in online courses is extremely common. That’s especially the case at four-year institutions compared to community colleges, and men were more likely to say cheating is common.

Cheating seems to be happening now more than pre-COVID, say 38 percent of students (an additional 38 percent aren’t sure).

Watson Spiva had expected to see lower numbers of students admitting the pervasiveness of cheating. Regarding why cheating is happening, she says it’s about having more opportunity and feeling as if you need to “cheat for survival.” Students want to feel capable and keep their GPAs up.

More broadly, technology is helping by tracking online course interactions and institutional business activity and then nudging students to engage more or on time. However, one-third of Student Voice survey respondents don’t know if they ever received such reminders about classes or college business -- even though it’s been a trend in higher ed for several years and this is the year students likely needed the help most. Community college students were more likely than four-year institution students to recall getting both types of reminders (38 percent compared to 20 percent).

“We nudge to the point where it might desensitize students to the word ‘nudge,’ because it becomes normalized,” says Graham. Ohio State uses data analytics to determine the best groups for outreach, including first-generation students, transfers and those with financial need. Of students who entered the university in autumn 2019, 93 percent returned for autumn 2020, he adds (the average is 1 or 2 percent higher).

Fox and Shaw from Tyton Partners note that nudging can be automatic through tools such as the LMS or manual at the professor level. “We were told there were widgets we could use, such as, ‘Hey, the exam is going to close in one hour. Start now,’” says Shaw of her adjunct experience. “You have to be smart about the instances in which you set this outreach.”

5. Freshmen may need special attention.

Nearly six in 10 fall 2020 first-years felt at least somewhat unprepared for postsecondary education because of COVID shutdowns as they wrapped up high school. Students at four-year institutions were twice as likely to feel very unprepared (26 percent, compared to 13 percent of new two-year students).

Administrators “really wanted to make sure those first-year students would want to come back,” says Watson Spiva.

Amber Williams, vice provost for student success at UT Knoxville, realizes that students enroll without a clear understanding of how success differs in high school and college -- such as how to study and how to engage with peers in class. “We don’t want to assume they know what’s expected of them,” she says. Plus, the virtual engagement everyone just experienced looks different.

Beginning last fall, UT assigned each student a Vol Success Team, including an academic adviser, academic coach and “one-stop” counselor for college business (this fall, that team will also include a peer mentor). “These are your people, your squad,” students are told during summer onboarding as they begin meeting their team, which helps develop a personalized academic plan based on Gallup strengths assessments.

Last fall, 75 percent of freshmen engaged with their success team, Williams says. Those who did reported less stress, a greater sense of belonging and higher perceptions of academic success.

One aspect of the program involves framing tutoring as something successful students do, rather than a deficit. “Because I’m an engaged scholar on this campus, I’m going to use these resources,” students begin to believe. Such conversations, Williams says, “flip what success looks like.”

Read part two of this article, with more results from the Student Voice survey and ideas for supporting students this fall.

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