New research from Pearson and Wonkhe suggests that though students have found learning during Covid-19 painful, improving online learning will have the most direct impact on students’ future wellbeing, engagement and motivation.

Stressful events – like coping with a global pandemic – tend to prompt extreme responses. As universities scrambled to put courses online at the start of lockdown, most were justly proud of the speed of their response.

In the relative calm that accompanied the early weeks of lockdown many allowed their thoughts to turn to how profoundly life, and learning, might change in the wake of the pandemic, with the idea taking hold that as the country emerges from the crisis it should be possible to “build back better.”

And as the country began to edge out of lockdown and higher education began to confront the grim realities of the financial implications of Covid-19 and the challenges of delivery for the new academic year, the practical realities have become clear.

Universities are trapped between the expectations of the regulator and government that whatever is delivered in September must be of an “equivalent quality” to what was intended, and the prospect of student deferrals.

As a result, most are working round the clock to reconfigure courses, and update plans against a very uncertain future. From this perspective, “building back better” feels over-ambitious for many universities.

From where students sit

As much as universities have found the new learning landscape painful, so have students. What awaits students in September will simply not look and feel similar to what was previously on offer.

This is a generation of young people whose lives have been lived in the shadow of the financial crash of 2008. They entered higher education during a time of industrial unrest, and now their learning has been significantly disrupted and their future prospects look bleak. Students whose lives are in disarray need signals that they are valued, and that they are of concern to the institutions that support them.

In the medium or long term, we may be able to see a host of positive changes that can be traced back to this historical moment – such as a new attention to inclusive pedagogies, enhanced digital literacy among students and university staff, and more focused support for transitions into and through higher education.

But the higher education sector will only get there by deep and sustained engagement with students – by understanding where they are coming from, and acknowledging their expectations, even – perhaps especially – when they can’t be met.

For all that prospective students have been relentlessly surveyed as to their intentions during the Covid-19 pandemic, without drawing conclusions about how individual universities have engaged their students, we have seen far fewer examples of national research that explores how students have experienced learning during Covid-19 and what their hopes and fears are for the future.

Our research with Wonkhe aims to address that deficit and surveys nearly 3,500 current students, a convenience sample generated through promotion via Wonkhe SU subscribing students’ unions in 13 universities in England and Wales.

The things we lost in the fire

Our findings suggest that the sector should continue to focus and invest in student wellbeing. 41 per cent said they had struggled to manage their wellbeing in the absence of face to face engagement with friends, peers, and lecturing staff. 34 per cent of respondents said that learning in a new way and format had been challenging, and 34 per cent said they were struggling with managing their own time and schedule in the absence of a campus taught timetable. 29 per cent said they found isolation difficult.

Students are also facing practical challenges. 34 per cent said that it was difficult to find quiet and space to study in their current living environment – suggesting that the scale of this issue may be greater than previously thought. For example, a Sutton Trust/YouthSight sample of 895 students found 23 per cent reporting this issue. It’s worth noting that 24 per cent of survey respondents were living at home while studying before Covid-19, and will continue to do so afterwards, so you could argue that the ability to create flexible ways to study is critical regardless.

The students’ unions we worked with warned of the impact of the combination of emotional and practical challenges on students’ confidence and motivation. 49 per cent of respondents said that as a result of Covid-19 they feel less confident that they are ready to progress to the next step in their education or career.

Some of the drivers for this loss of confidence, cited by 13 per cent of those with less confidence, are outside universities’ control, such as general uncertainty about the economy, jobs and research funding. But issues cited by the remainder include things like loss of industry-relevant experience, loss of practical skills development, loss of academic contact time, and a sense that because the quality of their learning experience this term has been lower they themselves are less prepared to progress. There will be a long road to travel to rebuild students’ confidence.

One-fifth of respondents said they had, or were considering, changing plans for the next academic year. Of these, 43 per cent said they planned to defer, either to take a year out or to look for work experience, and a further 20 per cent said they planned to leave education entirely. When asked why they are changing or considering changing plans, the most popular answer, cited by 28 per cent, was simply that they did not want another semester or year of online learning. Others cited general uncertainty about the whole experience – including teaching, travel and accommodation, while some said that the loss of practical experience reduced the value of their entire degree.

We asked about specific learning experiences students had missed such as lab- or studio-based practical work, research in archives, work placements, study abroad and group projects, and found that four fifths of respondents had missed out on a specific learning experience this term.

Given the scale at which students feel they have missed out, it’s perhaps less surprising that of those who have missed out on a specific learning experience, 47 per cent think they should receive a fee reduction or refund to compensate. One quarter of respondents were willing to receive the experience at a later date, once it is safe, and 15 per cent said they would be satisfied with an online experience of equivalent value. Ten per cent said they didn’t feel it was their university’s responsibility to handle the loss of the experience.

Great expectations

One key message from the survey is that while students are clear that their wellbeing is suffering, the action they want universities to take is in the teaching and learning domain, rather than the welfare domain. Responses throughout the survey suggest that wellbeing issues are not simply the result of students being at home and the concerns over Covid-19, but that the way that universities have managed interactions and online learning has increased their anxiety, and had a negative impact on their wellbeing. It’s not simply about putting support mechanisms in place to help students with their wellbeing; it’s about stopping the causes.

When presented with a scenario of limited face to face teaching, 71 per cent said that in such a scenario they would struggle with motivation to learn and keeping up interest, 65 per cent said they would struggle to stay connected with peers and the university, and 63 per cent said they would feel less prepared to undertake course assignments and activities. Half said they would have difficulty managing their time and keeping track of everything.

These figures make frustrating reading as we know that when online learning is done well, it’s just as effective (sometimes more effective) as face to face learning in these areas. Unfortunately, that’s not the experience that many students have had and now the sector as a whole needs to work hard to change their perception.

When asked what they were most concerned about in a scenario of limited face to face teaching, restricted access to feedback and support from lecturers came top of the list, with 27 per cent of respondents making it their first choice, followed by access to course materials. Again, we know that online tools can be a highly effective way of giving feedback to large cohorts, but most students (and many academics for that matter) have never experienced how that could work first hand. Automatically graded tests, quizzes and assignments are widely available, and more recently personalised feedback tools powered by AI have been developed in some subject areas.

When asked what universities need to do to meet expectations for next term, 59 per cent chose “high quality online teaching” as their most important thing, well above interventions like social interaction, wellbeing support and even access to learning resources. Though in one sense it’s not surprising that teaching is the core of the university experience, this does suggest that Covid-19 has thrown teaching quality into sharp relief, in the absence of all the other activities that would otherwise be filling up students’ days.

Put it this way, if you were on campus and you went to a not particularly engaging lecture,  then caught up with classmates afterwards, and went to the library to do some reading, the chances are you wouldn’t critique whether that lecture was good or bad or how engaged you felt. Yet now, studying alone at home, listening to a recording of the same lecture, that could become the focus of a students’ day. Without other distractions that lecture goes under the microscope.

When we invited respondents to tell us how they think online learning could be improved and, separately, what else their university could do to meet their expectations and deliver value for money, the answers were startlingly similar: students want more interactive learning, with fewer pre-recorded lectures and slide decks, and more opportunity to ask questions. They want more personal attention from lecturers and tutors, with more one to one support. They want help with accessing technologies and learning resources, and they want their universities to be clear in communications both about what the corporate university is planning and what’s happening on their course.

The students’ unions we worked with told us they were nervous about the year ahead. They were concerned about the prospect of large numbers of dissatisfied students seeking redress, and anxious about how to continue to offer students opportunities for social interaction, extra-curricular activities and representation. In some cases, the students’ union felt that their university was being far too sanguine about what would be on offer to students in the coming year.

Though many of the findings are challenging for universities, they do offer some sense of where universities might focus their attention, given limited resources and time. Though students are clearly struggling with accessibility of technology and learning resources, facilitating online interaction, developing connections between students and lecturers, and delivering consistent and friendly communications seem to be their biggest priority.

It is eminently possible to create an inclusive connected community online if the right learning design and lecturer training is put in place. The survey findings suggest that if universities can do that successfully, there would be improvements to student engagement, motivation and wellbeing.

This article is published in association with Pearson. You can view and download the full findings of the Pearson/Wonkhe survey here.

One response to “The expectation gap: students’ experience of learning during Covid-19 and their expectations for next year

  1. Interesting and much needed research/ analysis. I think one headline not drawn out is the hugely variable experience of students. Also perhaps this is the right up but I note some odd question design which seems to avoid asking students if the difficulties directly relate to lack of online teaching provision though this comes out in the qual responses anyway.

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