As Regan Gurung pointed out in his May 2020 article, teaching during the pandemic merits analysis. The fast transition to online instruction was terribly challenging and not to be repeated (we can only hope). And although learning how to respond during a pandemic is important, what may be more enduring is discovering what happens to education when online courses are the norm.
I will grant that looking back at the spring semester with any sort of objectivity is tough. For many of us (both teachers and students), it’s not a view that showcases teaching and learning at their best. And for that we should feel no guilt; we did the best we could during an extremely difficult time. Furthermore, the pandemic itself brought uncertainty, fear, and a plethora of problems. Without doubt, those influenced what happened in our courses, and their effects can’t easily be sorted out.
Even so, it’s worth taking a look with whatever objectivity we can muster. And I’m seeing any number of articles in the pedagogical periodicals that are doing just that. Here are highlights from three published in October that, in addition to providing insights on remote instruction, can help us put some perspective on our individual experiences.
Besser and colleagues (2020) wanted to better understand how students responded to the abrupt transition to online learning. Most of us will not be surprised that when asked to compare learning experiences in the course before and after the change, the 1,217 students surveyed reported “pervasive negative reactions to the online condition,” including signiﬁcantly lower levels of positive mood, relatedness, concentration and focus, motivation, and performance. Garris and Fleck (2020) asked 482 undergraduates to each evaluate a course that transitioned online, and students rated those courses as less enjoyable, less interesting, lower in learning value and levels of attention, and having less cultural content than face-to-face courses.
Gurung and Stone (2020) tried to fine-tune these typical student responses. They surveyed 649 students in 11 sections of introductory psychology, and they explored how students’ preferences for online or face-to-face learning affected ratings of their learning in the online portion of the course, the study behaviors they reported using, and their achievement in the course. “Students who believed they did not perform well in online classes scored lower on final exams, on all measures of perceived learning in the class, and also reported the biggest changes in their learning behaviors during the pandemic.”
Not all the findings in these three studies were bleak. Bresser et al. used a modified adaptability scale developed in previous research and found that students who scored high on adaptability reported higher positive mood scores and lower loneliness scores. “The apparent advantages of adaptability extended to higher reported levels of attention and focus, greater depth of learning, and indices reﬂecting greater motivation to learn.” Being able to adapt is an important skill, and it’s one that can be taught.
Gurung and Stone measured students’ “modality based self-efficacy” or their beliefs about their ability to succeed in face-to-face and online courses. Students’ levels of self-efficacy predicted final exam scores and their ratings of the skills learned. In the Garris and Fleck study, self-efficacy predicted higher course evaluations. Here, too, teachers can be instrumental in helping students develop beliefs about their capabilities.
So far I’ve yet to see any descriptive analyses of teachers’ experiences and assessments of the switch. There are lots of promising accounts of technology-reluctant teachers confronting and conquering the technology needed to teach online. Garris and Fleck report that “instructor confidence with transitions online impacted students’ evaluation of course quality.” If the instructor communicated confidence, that predicted “favorable evaluations of each of the dimensions of course quality.” Their student cohort also reported that they experienced greater flexibility in the transitioned courses. Teachers worked harder to accommodate special needs and institutions revised policies, making pass-fail options available, for example.
Widespread use of online learning modalities did once again raise questions about the continuing use of these courses. The power of student preferences shown in the Gurung and Stone study raises the ongoing and largely unanswered question of who should take online courses—Only those students who choose to? Are some kinds of content better suited for online delivery? If so, what kinds? Who should be teaching online—only those teachers who choose to? Our recent experiences make this a particularly good time to talk about online instruction.
Besser, A., Flett, G. L., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2020). Adaptability to a sudden transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic: Understanding the challenges for students. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000198 [open access]
Garris, C. P. & Fleck, B. (2020). Student evaluations of transitioned-online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000229 [open access]
Gurung, R. A. R., & Stone, A. M. (2020). You can’t always get what you want and it hurts: Learning during the pandemic. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000236