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Wellbeing: engaging with students on their experience of moving online

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 July 2020

Nadine Zwiener-Collins, Lisa Fridkin, Neus Bover-Fonts.

In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, universities worldwide have experienced rapid changes to the way they teach, especially the move to online teaching. These changes and their consequences are widely discussed within the Higher Education sector; however, because the changes are so new, systematic evidence on how students are coping is just emerging and so far, we know little about students’ own perceptions of the impacts on their learning experience and wellbeing.

These impacts are likely to be complex and multidimensional, and shaped not only by the students’ own diverse backgrounds and individual circumstances but equally by the specific responses of universities and individual programmes to the crisis.

We asked one cohort of students about the effects of the crisis on their wellbeing and learning just after the end of Spring Term and shortly after lockdown was introduced in England. Although their experiences are not necessarily representative, they may provide some insights into how university students are coping.

 Covid-19 and student wellbeing

We asked students about the direct impact of the crisis on their levels of anxiety and motivation to study. Students’ mental health is a concern even in ‘normal’ times. Ample research has documented that pressures of university life take a toll on students’ wellbeing. It would be surprising if the crisis had no effect, given the disruptions and uncertainties it created. Indeed, in our small sample, almost all students (n=36; 98%) say their anxiety has increased, more than half of those students (n=21; 57%) report a ‘strong’ increase.

We also asked students about the impact on their motivation to study. When there are more pressing concerns, studying may not be students’ highest priority. Indeed, a large majority of students (n=31; 84%) report lower levels of motivation than before the crisis and almost half (n=16; 43%) of the students say their motivation is ‘much lower’.

And those students who did respond to our survey are perhaps not the worst affected: the 31% of the students we approached who did not respond probably include people who were still travelling back to their home countries, who were in quarantine or who had limited access to the internet. We suspect the effect on such students’ wellbeing might be even stronger. Although unsurprising, these findings emphasise that as practitioners we should be aware of the profound impact the crisis has had on our students, and that we need to revaluate our expectations about their levels of commitment and motivation going forward.

Changes to teaching and learning

In addition to the effects of the pandemic itself, we were also interested in the consequences of the adjustments that universities across the UK had to make in response to the crisis: this includes the sudden pivot to entirely online teaching, as well as adjustments to assessments and organisational changes. In UCL as for many other universities, face-to-face exams were replaced by various other forms of assessment. In the module in which the data was collected, the exam component was cancelled and the coursework, which previously counted for only half of the marks, now counts as the whole final grade. The students reported mixed feelings about this change: around 46% (n=17) think it affects their learning positively, while 32% (n=12) think it has a negative effect. We speculate that these evaluations reflect that some students have strong preferences for coursework over exams, while others might be more affected by the disruption and unpredictability associated with the change or prefer exams.

Perhaps the most interesting finding with regards to planning over the long term is students’ evaluation of the switch to online teaching. It is worth highlighting here that the ‘emergency online delivery’ is different from the carefully planned and specifically designed online teaching now being put into place for the new term – not to mention the shock of the sudden change from the collegiality of the classroom into an unknown new world at the start of lockdown. Keeping this in mind, it is hardly surprising that students thought the overnight switch to online teaching affected their learning experience negatively: the majority of the 37 students (n=32; 86%) reported a ‘somewhat’ (49%; n=18) or ‘extremely’ (22%; n=8) negative effect.

Although it is not clear how far these results can be generalised to other modules and institutions, where teaching may be organised differently and adjustments might be different, these findings do highlight the profound impact the crisis has had on our student community. They can also help to sharpen our focus moving forward. It is clear that we have to do more than simply ‘move teaching online’. The sector will need the time and the training to be able to make careful adjustments to deliver high-quality online courses that safeguard student wellbeing and learning opportunities.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

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