How the pandemic has affected student engagement

According to the findings of the study 2021 National Student Engagement Surveypublished on Tuesday.

The survey of more than 230,000 freshmen and seniors at 337 colleges and universities unsurprisingly found that more students were taking courses online in 2021 than in previous years. The majority of freshmen, 65%, took mostly distance learning courses, 16% took mostly blended courses, and only 7% took most of their courses in person. Similarly, 66% of seniors took most of their courses remotely, 13% took mostly blended courses, and only 11% took mostly on-campus courses.

A “dramatic rise” in online learning during the pandemic was not “very surprising,” said Alexander McCormick, director of the National Student Engagement Survey. However, the impact of the pandemic on the mental well-being of students, especially women, was of “great concern”.

The annual NSSE survey is a popular tool for college and university administrators to track undergraduate student experiences, although some higher education leaders have criticized the survey in the past and, more recently, have proposed alternative survey designs.

A subset of respondents — 7,413 freshmen and 9,229 seniors from 47 four-year colleges and universities — specifically answered questions about how they responded to pandemic challenges.

Female students were found to be more likely than males to experience mental health issues during the pandemic. For example, among freshmen, 56% of women reported feeling increased anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning, compared to 36% of men. Female students also suffered from increased depression, hopelessness, mental and emotional exhaustion, and sleep disturbances at higher rates than their male peers.

Female students often report having mental health issues at higher rates than their male counterparts, said Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a mental health organization. young people.

In general, “I think there was this level of mental exhaustion, having to navigate between remote learning and home life responsibilities,” she said. “Many students were sharing their homes with families and trying to deal with some of that stress. I think the communication chaos of the past few years – following protocols, the stress around news – I think was overwhelming both for the students in the classrooms and for the faculty and staff trying to navigate uncertainty and be afraid of infection and kind of this collective trauma. ”

Students new to college also struggled more than seniors with a distance course load. Freshmen who primarily took distance learning courses were more likely to say the pandemic interfered with their college plans and preferred living situation. Students, mostly in distance and hybrid courses, also had mental health issues, such as trouble concentrating, at higher rates. In contrast, first-year students who primarily took on-campus courses were more likely to believe that their professors responded to student needs in a meaningful way.

Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the survey “reinforces the value of the face-to-face student experience.”

“One of the things we’ve learned over the past couple of years is how much time students spend interacting with each other, whether it’s informally during a late-night interaction in a residence or of a job on campus or a student. some kind of activity, that they are not frivolous, that they are really related very directly to the well-being of the students, but also to their academic success,” he said.

The survey also found gaps between non-traditional age students — freshmen 21 and older and seniors 25 and older — and traditional-age students in terms of pandemic perceptions. . Older students were less likely to feel the pandemic was interfering with their college plans or their ability to succeed as students, and they had mental health problems at lower rates. However, older first-year students were more likely to worry about their ability to pay their bills, their health and safety, and whether they had access to adequate medical care. In general, older students reported caring for family members and other people at higher rates than their traditional-aged peers.

“Traditional-aged students are the ones who anticipated or kind of spent most of their lives expecting a regular college experience, and they’ve been conditioned for it, and all of a sudden they’re faced with all of these adjustments and adaptations,” McCormick said. “Older students are already having to make adjustments in their lives to pursue higher education or return to higher education. In some ways, they might be more resilient and better prepared for challenges .

The report also looked at how different measures of student engagement changed on average across institutions in 2021, compared to before the pandemic, based on results from 296 colleges and universities. Some forms of student engagement have declined significantly at most institutions, more so among freshmen than among seniors, particularly modes of engagement that typically involve a face-to-face component, such as learning collaboration and interactions between professors and students.

For collaborative learning in particular, “the modality really makes a difference,” McCormick said.

However, other measures of student engagement did not decline significantly on average at most institutions.

Even with all the challenges associated with online classes, colleges have continued to engage students and “sort of weathered the disruption,” he said. “It’s actually, to me, really reassuring.”