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Seventy-three percent of students said faculty and staff at their institution did “a good job” helping them adapt to remote instruction.

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Students had positive perceptions of faculty teaching during the pandemic and of how professors adapted their courses despite online and hybrid teaching challenges. Those are the findings released Tuesday by the National Survey of Student Engagement.

The results were part two of its annual report, “Engagement Insights—Survey Findings on the Quality of Undergraduate Education,” which said 73 percent of students believed that faculty and staff at their institution did “a good job” helping students adapt to remote instruction. Faculty members largely agreed with that conclusion; 86 percent of them said they believed they “substantially” did a good job helping students adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic.

The survey, which was conducted in spring 2021, received responses from 7,413 first-year students and 9,229 seniors from 47 bachelor’s degree–granting institutions in the U.S. Jillian Kinzie, interim co-director of NSSE, said the survey results reflect how faculty and students worked together to teach and learn during an unprecedented time.

“The fact that those stats are high across the board, and pretty close, suggests that there’s been a lot of grace afforded to each other and appreciation for what faculty and staff did to help students adapt, and that faculty were really intentional about their efforts,” Kinzie said.

The survey found that 65 percent of first-year students took mostly remote courses in 2021, while 16 percent took mostly hybrid and 12 percent took a “balanced” mix of both hybrid and remote learning, according to part one of the report. Just 7 percent of first-year students said their courses were mostly in person. Sixty-six percent of courses taken by seniors were mostly remote, 13 percent were hybrid, 10 percent were a mix of mostly remote or hybrid, and 11 percent were mostly in person, the report said.

The survey also found that faculty members changed how they taught courses because of the challenges they experienced teaching classes online or in hybrid formats, according to the newly released information in the report. Eighty-eight percent of faculty members significantly adjusted the nature of course assignments, and 89 percent were more flexible about assignment due dates. Sixty-four percent of faculty members said they adjusted their reading assignments, and 69 percent said they changed their approach to grading. The report found faculty members of color were more likely to make adjustments for students.

Kate Drezek McConnell, vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at the American Association of Colleges & Universities, said the pandemic made faculty members think more strategically to identify the core ideas in a course and to design courses more thoughtfully.

“I think that, if nothing else, what faculty and institutions were able to achieve in pivoting to an all-virtual environment is a concrete repudiation of the old trope that higher education cannot change or innovate quickly, and I am sure that the majority of faculty worked diligently to help students adapt,” McConnell said. “The pivot, however, also illustrated the limited effectiveness of some traditional approaches to college teaching, like the stand-and-deliver lecture, and raised challenges to some of our traditional means for assessment, like tests.”

And faculty members believe their institutions also helped students cope. Eighty percent of faculty members said they believe their institutions substantially did a good job helping students adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic.

Seventy-nine percent of students said their instructors enabled them to demonstrate their own learning through quizzes, assignments and other activities; 74 percent said their instructors reviewed and summarized key ideas and concepts; and 73 percent said their instructors explained in advanced the criteria for successfully completing assignments.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see the accommodations and the flexibility that faculty introduced to their classes,” Kinzie said. “They read the context well, and they understood where their students were struggling. And they also understand what’s educationally effective.”

Students at doctorate-granting universities were more likely to take most courses online, whereas students at baccalaureate-level institutions were more likely to take most courses in person or in a hybrid format, according to the first part of the report, released earlier this month. And nontraditional students, first-year students age 21 and older, and seniors age 25 and older were much more likely to take mostly remote courses. The report also noted that while students who lived on campus were more likely to have in-person courses, it is noteworthy that 47 percent of first-years and 44 percent of seniors who lived on campus took mostly remote courses.

Students had increased mental health problems in 2021, the earlier report found. Female students were more likely to experience increased mental health issues, with 74 percent of first-year students and 72 percent of seniors reporting increases in mental or emotional exhaustion because of the pandemic. Among male students, 57 percent of first-year students and 56 percent of seniors reported increased mental or emotional exhaustion because of the pandemic.

McConnell said she’s heard from other educators about the pandemic’s emotional and mental health toll on students and said the last two years have exacerbated existing challenges facing both individual students and institutions, and even some sectors in higher education, that have an impact on learning and academic success.

“The last two years have further amplified the need to address structural challenges that go beyond higher education, like questions of digital equity, an issue that also reared its head in K-12 education,” McConnell said. “That is why doubling down on our commitment as educators to both quality and equity as hallmarks of excellence is so critical.”

Kinzie said many students faced challenges such as caring for dependents or siblings, or having to work more to make ends meet, which could have created even more mental health challenges for students. She said even though online learning wasn’t ideal, faculty members acted as a “lifeline” for students.

“Instruction became the lifeline for students,” Kinzie said. “A lot of what happened that was effective for students happened through their courses, because that was the one consistent experience they had, even during the pandemic.”

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