Research takes a look at a semester like no other, including how college students feel they fared academically in the middle of the pandemic

How did college students actually perform during COVID?

Top 10 of 2021: Research takes a look at a semester like no other, including how college students feel they fared academically in the middle of the pandemic

Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on student support, retention, the post-pandemic campus, and online or hybrid teaching strategies. This year’s 3rd most-read story focuses on how college students actually performed during pandemic learning.

As the fall 2020 semester wraps up, we wanted to know more about the student experience of learning during COVID-19. We asked more than 14,000 college students from across the country about how pandemic-related changes to education affected their academic performance.

The overwhelming majority of students reported that it was a rough semester, and the coronavirus pandemic negatively affected academic performance.

How Did COVID-19 Affect the Fall 2020 College Semester?

Our survey found that college students struggled with classes during the Fall 2020 semester. The majority of students, 85.4 percent, saw a negative impact on their academic performance. Only 5.5 percent of students say that the learning changes this year benefitted their academic performance.

How did the pandemic affect your academic performance for the Fall 2020 semester?

Conditions negatively affected my performance: 85.4%
Conditions did not affect my performance: 9.1%
Conditions benefitted my performance: 5.5%
There were many changes to the learning environment and education methods this year. Only a small segment of college students reported they were unaffected by the changes or saw performance improvements.

Student responses were fairly consistent across surveyed freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. Slightly more sophomores reported negative outcomes at a rate that was about four percentage points higher than students in other years.

Who Was Included in This Survey?

OneClass polled 14,712 college students to ask about the Fall 2020 semester during the coronavirus pandemic. Students surveyed include current freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.

Survey participants attend 232 colleges and universities in the U.S. Included are both private and public schools across a wide geographic distribution.

How Did the Fall 2020 Semester Compare to Spring 2020?

The initial onset of COVID-19 was a shock. Students moved out of the dorms. Classes quickly pivoted to remote learning, and students did their best to survive final exams.

The experience of college students early in the pandemic was bleak. A survey from April found that 75 percent of college students were unhappy with the quality of eLearning during COVID-19.

The onset of the coronavirus outbreak in the spring caused an adrenaline-fueled rush of frustration and change.

In the fall semester, the student experience was different. Pandemic precautions became familiar, and social distancing is no longer a new word. However, learning challenges remain. With 85 percent of students reporting negative outcomes, the severity of the learning gap may be worsening.

There are two main factors affecting grades in the Fall 2020 semester:

Academic changes include online learning, asynchronous class formats, remote connectivity to teachers and classmates, and limited access to labs and facilities. Even something as simple as asking a question after class could mean back-and-forth email delays without ever gaining confidence in the class material.

Student mental health has also been strained from additional family responsibilities, health concerns, loneliness, and the loss of the typical college experience. Students are faced with the chronic stress and anxiety of trying to learn challenging coursework under suboptimal conditions. Even while students report increases in anxiety, grief, and depression, the problem has been compounded by a 29 percent decrease in students seeking mental health services.

What Did Students Say about the Fall 2020 Semester?

Survey participants also gave direct feedback that provides insight beyond the data.

One Cal Poly student explained, there are “definitely drawbacks to being all virtual, but professors afforded a lot more leeway in [grading] curves and assessment styles.”

A student at the University of Arizona commented in frustration that online resources were more helpful to his learning than his actual classwork. “I loved getting educated by Khan Academy even though I’m paying thousands of dollars to go to a university,” said the student.

For other students, remote learning was so bad that it’s impossible to imagine that anyone could have had a good semester. An Emerson College freshman responded to the survey: “Is anyone gonna say it positively affected them?? Like what??” A UNC-Chapel Hill student showed their frustration with the response, “Is this some kind of joke?”

Another student at Montclair State University expressed regret about the whole semester. “I wish it never happened,”‘ she said. “My grades suffered so badly because I do not learn well online.”

How Have Grades Changed During COVID-19?

Students are reporting on their negative performance and lower GPAs, but we don’t yet know the full picture of how much the grades of college students have dropped. After aggregate data is compiled by campuses, we will learn more about how much academic performance has slipped during this difficult time.

Initial data has been released about high school academic performance. Reports show that in some locations, student failure rates doubled.

An analysis of younger students by the Brookings Institute reveals that the learning impact also varies by subject. Among students in Grades 3 through 8, data shows that reading performance remained stable between fall 2019 and spring 2020. On the other hand, math performance dropped about five to 10 percentile points in the same one-year time frame. If this pattern persists among undergraduate students, we may see STEM majors having a bigger negative impact from online learning than non-STEM majors.

Should Grades Be Compared Between 2019 and 2020?

Grades are commonly used as a standardized metric of achievement. However, some higher education administrators are making the case that some metrics of student performance during the COVID-19 pandemic should not be compared to prior years.

In Spring 2020, the University of Colorado-Boulder announced that its end-of-semester student questionnaire will be changed. “Due to the unique nature of remote learning, it is important that results not be compared with other semesters. Using different questions guarantees that no comparisons can be made between spring/summer 2020 and other semesters,” said the school.

It’s easy to compare numerical grades between pre-pandemic learning and 2020 outcomes after the public health crisis. However, it may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, and analysis will need to proceed cautiously to isolate grading variables.

Grade changes during COVID-19 may sync more closely with school grading policies such as offering pass/fail classes, technological fluency and access, student learning needs, learning styles, personal circumstances, or regional virus intensity.

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