A survey looks at what expectations college and university students have for instruction and educational value in the fall 2021 academic term and the learning experience.

Lessons from a year of pandemic learning

A survey looks at what expectations college and university students have for instruction and educational value in the fall 2021 academic term

A recent survey of more than 3,000 higher ed students, conducted partway through the Spring 2021 term, was designed to determine what student sentiments are about the learning experience a year into the COVID-19 pandemic: what has worked, what hasn’t, and how the past year has shaped student expectations for the learning experience once it is safe to return to campus.

The survey results report three key insights. First, 80 percent of students surveyed do not feel the learning experience has been worth the cost of tuition. Second, survey respondents have appreciated the flexibility of remote learning and while they are looking forward to a return to the physical classroom, most want to see elements of online learning continue. Third, when it comes to realizing the value of their investment, on-campus experiences and activities are not nearly as significant a factor as the role of instructors in the classroom.

The Top Hat Field Report: 3,052 College Students on the Good, the Bad and Learning Post-COVID survey was conducted by Top Hat, an active learning courseware platform for higher education. The report provides insights to help institutions and educators create the right conditions for more students to receive and perceive meaningful value from their college investment as they plan ahead for fall 2021.

The impact of financial, mental health, and access considerations

It has been a year since higher ed institutions pivoted to emergency remote learning. Many students continue to view it as worse than in-person instruction. This survey revealed that fewer than one in five (19 percent) students agree that the learning experience has been worth the cost of tuition, and less than half (45 percent) feel engaged and motivated in their coursework.

Financial and mental health considerations appear to have added to these sentiments. More than half (54 percent) of students are facing financial difficulties as the recession impacts part-time jobs and family finances. Top Hat’s research indicated an increase in mental challenges over the past year. In April 2020, 52 percent of students reported feeling anxious, while in March 2021, that figure rose to 84 percent. As the pandemic persists, the majority of responding students report feelings of loneliness and isolation (66 percent) and depression (58 percent), compounding concerns about their ability to pass the current term (51 percent).

Another urgent issue identified was the difficulty many students have experienced accessing the resources to support their education. In April 2020, 27 percent of students reported that the move to remote learning resulted in a loss of predictable access to the internet and computers, and 22 percent had difficulty accessing online learning materials. In April 2021, the situation has become worse. Roughly one in three (32 percent) students now report challenges accessing the technology and resources required to support learning.

The benefits of flexibility and community

On the upside, students see clear benefits of the shift to remote learning in terms of flexibility. While in-person learning is still the preferred option, many students indicated that once they are able to safely return to campus, they would prefer to retain some element of online learning. Specifically, 59 percent would like to maintain the flexibility to attend class in person or virtually, 43 percent would like to work with digital course materials, and 75 percent want to maintain the ability to view lecture recordings.

The survey results indicate that the impact of caring instructors who take steps to create a sense of community in the virtual classroom and get to know their students is significant. The majority of students identified faculty mentorship (76 percent), community and belonging in the classroom (71 percent), and receiving regular feedback to support academic success (85 percent) as important factors in realizing value from their higher ed investment. The survey found similar effects on student motivation and perceptions of value with respect to instructors who build community in the classroom; provide timely, helpful feedback to support their academic success; and who make learning active and engaging through activities that promote discussion and get students working together.

Students who agreed their instructors made regular use of activities during class time to promote discussion and interaction among students were more likely to see the value of their higher ed investment (65 percent), rate the quality of their overall online learning experience as good or excellent (67 percent), and be engaged and motivated in their coursework inside and outside of class (63 percent).

Students place enormous value on the ability to stay connected with instructors and peers. Even when it is safe to return to in-person learning, two-thirds (67 percent) of students say it is important to stay connected with instructors and classmates using messaging and collaboration apps.

Survey respondents see value in continuing to incorporate technology to address a number of different needs. As one example, a majority of students say it is important to be able to access learning materials, lecture presentations, and assignments in one place (84 percent); to use in-class engagement tools such as live chat, discussion, and polling tools (56 percent); and to work with interactive textbooks that allow them to read and assess their learning as they go (53 percent).

Planning for the next new normal and student success

With all the recent investments into enabling technology resources for higher ed students, the survey indicates that institutions can employ a range of tools and support to improve the learning experience. The challenge is to ensure that the lessons learned over the past pandemic year continue to inform course design and delivery. Suggested action plans include offering flexible options to attend classes in person or virtually, synchronously or asynchronously, opening up opportunities for both traditional and nontraditional students to participate in the higher education experience; enabling access to digital learning materials to overcome concerns related to the cost, relevance, and effectiveness of traditional print textbooks; working with instructors to build community in the classroom (virtual or in-person); and designing courses based on active learning pedagogy that enables students to apply their knowledge in meaningful ways.

Identifying participants in the Top Hat survey: responses were collected from 3,052 undergraduate students in the United States and Canada between March 1 and March 14, 2021. Respondents represents four-year public institutions (69 percent), four-year private institutions (17 percent), and two-year public institutions (14 percent). Forty-three percent were first-year students, 25 percent were second-year, 15 percent were third-year, 11 percent were fourth-year, and 6 percent were identified as other. Eighty-eight percent were enrolled in U.S. schools, 12 percent in Canadian schools.

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Shannon O'Connor, Editor at Large, eCampus News
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